Finally watched all of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Filmspotting’s recent Satyajit Ray marathon compelled me to finally give them a go. The Criterion editions are, no surprise, beautifully rendered. I’d heard of the trilogy first from Image‘s Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list, which I’ve used along with Top 100 lists from AFI and Time magazine as a guide for films to seek out. (At this writing I’ve seen 92 of AFI’s list, 51 of Time, and 47 of Image; we could debate the merits of these lists all day, but they are undeniably handy guides for pursuing quality cinema.)
The movies do revolve around Apu, but his mother Karuna was as much the star of the first two as Apu was. I suspected this was the case after watching Pather Panchali, but her role in Aparajito confirmed it. She’s often exasperated or stressed in her role as a homemaker struggling to provide and care for her two children in rural 1920s Bengal, but moments of delight and grace sneak through as well. Then, as tragedies mount and modernity creeps in, her struggle intensifies just as Apu ages into a bright and aspirational teen. His visits home dwindle along with Karuna’s health; she doesn’t disclose her illness to Apu, nor her despair at his increasing distance.
This culminates in a crushing scene when Apu, on a rare visit home, fades to sleep as Karuna peppers him with questions. “When you earn money, will you arrange treatments for me?” she says. “Apu? Will you, Apu?” No answer. Whether she was expecting answers or just needed to voice her concerns, the look on her face takes a devastating turn through concern, fear, and desperation before arriving at resignation.
Apur Sansar brings the trilogy back under Apu’s domain, following his perambulations as a struggling writer and reluctant evolution as a bridegroom and father. Despite being closer in age to the Apu of Apur Sansar, I was less enveloped in this story than those of the first two movies, but still felt satisfied by the trilogy’s full-circle conclusion.
The lists from Time and Image group all three films together, but I favor the approach Sight & Sound takes on their Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, which separates Pather Panchali from the group (just as they rightfully split up The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Though the second two films fill out the rest of Apu’s story, Pather is the strongest self-contained film, and the story I could most envision returning to again.