On Aparajito, Pather Panchali's successor and Satyajit Ray's commentary on new vs old
In Aparajito, Satyajit Ray explores the themes of 'new vs old' through the relationship shared by Apu, who is fascinated by the promise of urban life, and his mother, who is rooted in the village | #FirstCulture
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was in May 2017), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
After the unprecedented popularity of his debut film Pather Panchali, the idea of filming a sequel began to emerge in Satyajit Ray’s mind. The fact that Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel of the same name (based on which Ray had made his first film) had a sequel, and that it told the story of Apu in a new setting and explored the relationship between a widowed mother and her adolescent son, seemed to Ray as a lucrative subject for cinema. In 1956, one year after the release of the first installment, Ray made Aparajito.
A few years have passed after the death of Durga. Harihar has finally realised that there’s nothing left for him and his family in the village of Nishchindipur. The family has left their home in the village behind and moved to Kashi, where their situation is shown to have improved considerably. The shadows of the hand-to-mouth existence that Sarbajaya had become so used to living under has now been lifted. Harihar works as a priest in the ghats by the holy river and earns enough for the household. Apu has found new friends in Kashi. But tragedy strikes the family again with the untimely death of Harihar. As with any ordinary male-centric middle-class household in India during those days, the death of the bread-earner of the family thrusts Sarbajaya and her son into poverty once again. She takes up the job of a cook in a rich household, but decides to give it up when her uncle comes visiting and asks her to come with him to his village in Bengal.
In the village, young Apu decides to go to school. He is a keen learner and soon secures a scholarship which promises to pay for his college fees. Young, intelligent and ambitious – Apu soon leaves for Kolkata. Sarbajaya is left all alone in the village. As Apu relishes his new-found freedom and basks in the warmth of a new life with new friends and new joys, Sarbajaya keeps worrying about her son and pining for a glimpse of the boy – for he is all she is left with now. Her health deteriorates, and she begins to wither away. One day, when Apu comes home during the holidays, he learns that his mother has passed away. As Apu laments the death of his mother, he realises he is left all alone in the world now, having lost everyone – his old aunt, his sister and his parents.
The film deals with a subject that is universal in nature – the relationship between a parent and a child, at a tender time when the parent is aging and the child is growing up. Talking about the film, noted film critic Roger Ebert said – ‘The relationship between Apu and his mother observes truths that must exist in all cultures: how the parent makes sacrifices for years, only to see the child turn aside and move thoughtlessly away into adulthood.’
Among all of Ray’s commentaries on the new versus the old, Aparajito is the purest, the most timeless and the most important one. It crystalises the thoughts that goes through every parent’s mind as he or she watches, in mute acceptance, the child discovering new wings to fly away into a better world – a world in which the parent has no place. But what is even more important to note that the film also deals with the duelling emotions that run through the mind of the child as he passes through this difficult phase of metamorphosis – his ambitions and his desire for a better life perpetually at war with the very roots that prevent him from flying high. This is depicted beautifully in a scene from the movie. Apu has come home to visit his mother, but his heart lies in the city and its many attractions. He soon realises that the life he has left behind in the city is now his true life and he is hence in a hurry to return, refusing to stay for one more day. His mother is saddened to see this, but Apu doesn’t seem to care. It seems he has not even noticed his mother’s grief as he leaves to catch a train back to the city. At the station, after having purchased a ticket, as Apu is waiting for the train, we can see that his mind is not at rest. And we know then that we had been wrong about him all along, and that he is neither unaware of nor indifferent to his mother’s pain. The train pulls into the station, but in the very next shot, Apu is seen coming back home. As a shocked Sarbajaya hugs her son and asks her why he has returned, the smiling Apu simply says – ‘I missed the train.’
It is this unstated love and sacrifice for each other, blossoming amidst a simmering tension of breaking the old shackles to embrace a new world that makes Aparajito a great film and a timeless classic. Karuna Banerjee is perfect as Sarbajaya – the woman who has seen more deaths than days of happiness. Even when her household’s financial situation has improved briefly, her woes have hardly ceased to exist, as she keeps fighting off a debauch neighbour who lusts after her. Banerjee brings a certain amount of hopelessness to her character, as opposed to her husband’s undying optimism. When she loses everything, she is content with her son staying with her in the village and earning his bread through priesthood. But the mind of the son, played beautifully by Smaran Ghoshal, has already been ignited by the beckon of the new world. Priesthood is too archaic an idea for him now, as he learns about the amazing stories of the aurora borealis, the Eskimos, the adventures of Dr Livingstone and the lives of famous scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Faraday. He now wants to know more, explore further, and refuses to remain rooted to a place. Unwilling to make the same mistake he saw his father make, and haunted by the memories of the repercussions that followed, he promptly packs his bags and leaves for the city, almost in a hurry.
Technically speaking, Aparajito is nothing short of a marvel. It is now a widely known fact that cinematographer Subrata Mitra invented the concept of ‘bounce lighting’ for the film – and that the idea went on to be practised by filmmakers all over the world. To film the scenes of the inner courtyard of Harihar’s house in Kashi, art director Bansi Chandragupta had built the set of the entire courtyard in a studio in Kolkata. But no matter how much he tried, he could not get the diffused daylight that is often seen to pour in through the open top of such a courtyard during morning hours. Mitra solved this problem by covering the top of the set with a white painter’s cloth and then bouncing studio lights off the white cloth to give the impression of daylight seeping in from the top. If you watch the scenes on screen, there is no way you will be able to make out that the courtyard is, in fact, a set, or that there’s a fake sky above the actor’s heads!
Aparajito deserves a special mention for its haunting background score by Ravi Shankar. The film also marks the beginning of Ray’s fascination with recording ambient sounds and using them to highlight the mood of a scene – a practice he continued till his last film, made 36 years later. The train returns as a connecting motif. As Sarbajaya sits in her backyard and looks out over the fields, she can see the train chugging along against the horizon, much like Apu and Durga had seen it in a field full of white catkins in Pather Panchali.
Aparajito was not successful at the box-office, but was critically acclaimed all over the world. It won many awards and is now considered a timeless classic. It is a worthy successor of Pather Panchali and beautifully paves the way for Ray’s 1959 film Apur Sansar. Together, these three films constitute what is now known in film circles all over the world as The Apu Trilogy.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.
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