We refer to it as The Apu Trilogy, but that’s not an entirely honest moniker. The second film in the series, The Unvanquished, opens with a telling series of shots: First, it’s the waters of Benares in Bengal, seen from the seat of a moving train. Then it’s a man performing a religious ritual from a rooftop. From there we watch the nearby birds bounce from perch to perch in response to his perpetually ringing bell in a series of rapid shots. From one perch we pan up to see the boat, and then a woman gazing toward it. From there we reach the shore—where the camera seems to float—all while regarding the mass of people collected there to complete their duties and rituals. Only then do we focus on one specific individual, and his name is not Apu.
Instead, the man we see tentatively rising from the Ganges is Harihar Ray (Kanu Banerjee): a priest, an aspiring author, a husband to Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), and a father to the namesake of the trilogy. There’s a reason there’s no actor credit after the name Apu. He’s played by numerous actors during the three films—Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali, 1955), The Unvanquished (Aparajito, 1956), and The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959)—as they track the character from birth into the depths of middle age. But it’s, again, quite telling that director Satyajit Ray waits so long after the start (a few minutes in Unvanquished and much longer in Little Road) to bring him into the frame. The real interest here is the nature of the society that he finds himself—as we do, as viewers—inexplicably born into.
That birth occurs about twenty minutes into Little Road, with the preceding time dedicated to the documentation of the family that will raise him. Sister Durga is seen winding her way through the paths of the orchards that surround her dilapidated home, scooping up mangos and guavas and bringing them to her aunt Indir, much to Sarbajaya’s chagrin. We’ll eventually come to realize that Ray’s three films—all photographed by Subrata Mitra and scored by Ravi Shankar—have melded the different stages of life to varied Indian communities: in Little Road, infancy is rural; in Unvanquished, adolescence plays out in the villages; and in World, maturation occurs amidst travel between universities, workplaces, and cities. The character’s feet and the ground they walk on seem to become one.
There’s a reductive word that these movies have always been tagged with, and it’s easy to speculate why. Maybe because the narratives of all three films lead to tragedies that could have been prevented if not for the character’s poverty. Maybe it’s because so much care is paid to the documentation of daily rituals and the physical makeup of the land and its homes. Or maybe it’s simply because these films were the first introduction to Indian cinema for many Western audiences, who were seeing the visual nuances of these spaces for the first time. Whatever the reason, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find writing on The Apu Trilogy that doesn’t invoke the arguably meaningless label “realism.”
But that brings us back to Apu’s birth, and to the shot sequence that follows it. As Indir is rocking the infant boy, we fade to black under the sound of insects, signaling—as it will throughout the series—an unseen passage of time. Our eyes open to see Sarbajaya walking a bundle of branches to their home, calling in vain for her son to wake up. A noticeably older Durga is beside a tree, helping to milk a cow. At her mother’s behest, she walks in search of Apu, and Ray is careful to establish the geography and rhythms of the home: Cats dash through the frame, and Indir returns in a corner, their appearances timed with a meticulousness that would fit on a theater’s stage. And then Durga finds Apu. Peeling back a bedsheet, there’s a closed eye. And as Shankar’s sitar score rustles behind it, Apu’s face rushes up, leading directly into a dissolve to the next scene. He is conjured. And maybe that’s not fantasy, but it’s hardly the “realistic” life we’re living every day.
What it is, is cinema. If Ray’s trilogy is comparable to anything, it’s not to radically honest portraits of actual life, but to the melodramas of decades past—to William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives), the Hollywood filmmaker who often used deep focus to tell multiple stories within the same frame. Or to Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff), the Japanese director who dedicated himself to finding the elemental links between the plights of our lives and the natural world that surrounds them.
Part of Ray’s brilliance, likewise, is in the transitions—between shots, between spaces, between people: from a loud sigh into a crashing wave, from a movie screen into the back window of a carriage, from Sarbajaya alone in her village to Apu, now a studied academic, slowly readying himself for a post-graduate life in Calcutta. The relationship between Apu and his mother is the spine that connects the episodic protrusions of The Unvanquished, as his relationship with Durga did in Little Road. Apu never stands alone: Each of the three films, and nearly every scene within them, concern the way his life is decided and impacted by the society that surrounds him.
And in the final film, it is Apu’s young wife, Aparna, who shares the frame with him—quite literally, as Ray, true to the philosophy being laid out, is most often concerned with the way people exist in relation to one another. As Apu is trying to understand his new bride (the marriage came as a surprise to them both, for reasons best left unrevealed), she stares directly into the frame while he rests behind her, gazing at her back. And only when he begins to comprehend her emotion does Ray allow her to reveal her face to him. When those close-ups finally arrive—whether they’re looking at Apu or at the people who share and shape his life alongside him—they contain the power of any other narrative’s climax.
A postscript to this piece: More than 20 years ago, the original camera negatives for all three Apu films were irreparably burned in a fire. The rollout of these new digital prints playing at the Brattle—they’ll be released on disc by the Criterion Collection in November—was made possible by a full reconstruction of the movie, aided by a number of institutions. The negatives housed by the Academy Film Archives were combined with film elements collected from the British Film Institute, Janus Films, and Cambridge’s own Harvard Film Archive, whose holdings were crucial to the restoration. And how beautiful it is to see the salvation of these three movies about the irreplaceable importance of community, all thanks to a global one.