Ray’s powerful follow-up to ‘Pather Panchali’ has moments of exquisite emotional beauty and a deep sense of coming-to-terms with an ever-changing, sobering reality.
Dir. Satyajit Ray
1956 | India | Drama | 110 mins | 1.37:1 | Bengali
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Smaran Ghosal, Karuna Bannerjee
Plot: Apu and his parents now live in the holy city of Benares. As he grows up, he must come to terms with his complex relationship with his mother.
Awards: Won Golden Lion, FIPRESCI Prize & New Cinema Award (Venice). Nom. for 2 BAFTAs – Best Foreign Language Film, Best Foreign Actress
Source: National Film Development Corporation
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 31 Jan 2017
Pather Panchali (1955) remains to be one of the greatest first features by any director in the history of the medium. It was certainly difficult to top that, but Aparajito came close to being another masterpiece in Satyajit Ray’s then blooming career which saw such films as the astonishing The Music Room (1958)—my favourite of his—and the delicate Charulata (1964) being made.
Winning the Venice Golden Lion, Aparajito continues the story of Apu as he moves with his parents to the holy city of Benares, in an attempt to make a fresh start and forget the bittersweet memories of living in poverty in a rural Bengal village (pretty much their journey in Ray’s first film).
While I absolutely loved Pather Panchali, Aparajito features (in its early scenes) some of the most breathtaking cinematography and location shooting in the director’s body of work—the river where families wash up early in the morning, the steep steps by that river that the old and young alike have to conquer in their daily routine, and the myriad of people engaging in prayers, listening to priests, exercising, or just enjoying the scenic view of passing boats. It is a series of indelible images with rich diegetic environmental sounds, sometimes accompanied by Ravi Shankar’s rhythmic music.
“It’s called a globe. It’s the Earth. These lines are countries and the blue is the ocean. You know where Calcutta is?”
Aparajito centers mainly on Apu’s maturing relationship with his mother (played once again by the extraordinary Karuna Bannerjee). As Apu grows to become an inquisitive and academically-inclined teenager, excited to learn about the world through books, especially the sciences, he becomes torn by the dilemma of being a young priest in-training, or to seek intellectual development through a scholarship that would take him to another city, away from his mother.
Ray’s work is powerful with a deep sense of coming-to-terms with an ever-changing reality, both from the perspectives of Apu and his mother. It elevates itself into something more than just a coming-of-age film. The complicating relationship has moments of emotional beauty that are exquisitely produced by Ray, without resorting to melodramatic means.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about Aparajito is that despite being an unplanned sequel in what would later be known as the ‘Apu Trilogy’, there’s a sense of thematic continuity yet it is a film made with a different sensibility and style to Pather Panchali. Gone is the earlier film’s poetic beauty and innocence, replaced by a stoic portraiture of a sobering reality.