Even if you live in the same city or town your whole life, the place you came from is always a distant country: Old trees are cut down to be replaced, one hopes, by new ones; shops and businesses change ownership or, worse, are torn down; landmarked buildings may stay approximately the same, but even then, new dust settles on them every day, to be swept or washed away and replaced by yet more dust. You begin saying goodbye to where you’re from the moment you’re born; you may come back for a visit, but you’re never coming back to
exactly the same place.
Maybe that’s why the experience of watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy — movies adapted from two works by Indian novelist Bibhutibhushan Banerjee and set in a country many of us will never even visit — can be both a source of great joy and the catalyst for a deep wistfulness that can take hours, maybe days, to shake. These three pictures, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and Apur Sansar (1959), follow a boy named Apu as he becomes a teenager, a promising student, and then a grown-up with a wife and son. The trilogy seems to be held dear by nearly everyone who sees the films, beginning with the first audiences for Pather Panchali, Ray’s debut, in Cannes in 1955 — it won a then-newly introduced prize there, for Best Human Document.
Ray, who drew inspiration from the Italian neorealists and Jean Renoir (the latter a friend and adviser), hadn’t even planned to make a sequel. He decided to follow Apu’s journey further only after Pather Panchali was so warmly received. But there’s even more to the story than that, a narrative that pits the permanence of great film artistry against the fragility of celluloid. The Apu Trilogy has survived against all odds.
In 1992, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was preparing to give the ailing Ray a lifetime achievement Oscar (he would die less than a month after receiving the award, at age 70), researchers gathering prints of Ray’s movies were alarmed at their poor condition. In 1993, as part of an initiative to restore the films, original negatives were shipped to a film lab in London — only to be severely damaged, seemingly beyond repair, in a fire at the lab later that year. Until now, most of us who have been lucky enough to see the Apu Trilogy have had to peer at its extraordinary and delicate black-and-white imagery through scratches and murky shadows. But the Criterion Collection — with the help of L’Immagine Ritrovata, a restoration facility in Bologna, Italy, which put in nearly 1,000 hours’ worth of hand labor — has almost miraculously returned the Apu Trilogy to its original, glorious state. The beauty of this restoration, particularly if you’ve seen the films in their earlier condition, may be enough to move you to tears.
Our protagonist is not yet born as Pather Panchali (its English title: Song of the Little Road) opens, and that gives us an advantage: We see what Apu’s world was like before there was an Apu. He has an older sister, Durga (played as a little girl by Shampa “Runki” Banerjee and as a young teenager by Uma Das Gupta), and a harried mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee, “little” Durga’s mother in real life), who is beginning to lose patience with her husband, the children’s father, Hari (Kanu Banerjee). Hari comes from a long line of writers and has failed to make a comfortable living for his little family. They live in rural Bengal, near an orchard they once owned, in better times; it has been sold off to a neighbor, but Durga keeps getting herself in trouble by sneaking in to steal guavas. She gives the fruit directly to her adored and aged live-in Auntie (Chunibala Devi, a revered Indian stage actress, appearing among a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors). She’s a mischievous, bent-over wraith with a toothless smile, who appears to be somewhere between 80 and 110.
That’s the setting into which Apu (Subir Banerjee) appears, an ordinary prince among men, and certainly a prince among his family, who adore him even when his impishness exasperates them. In Aparajito (The Unvanquished), Apu, now played by Smaran Ghosal, is a teenager — a tragedy has prompted the family to move to the city, Benares (modern Varanasi), but this small metropolis isn’t enough to hold Apu. An eager student, he goes off to school in Kolkata, leaving his mother to pine for him — for every son or daughter who doesn’t call home enough, Apu’s entwined thoughtlessness and ambition are like a universal pin-stab.
And in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Apu (now played by Soumitra Chatterjee) becomes a husband — a
surprise to everyone around him, including himself. He isn’t exactly what his young wife, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), expected, either, but their love grows at a steady, tender pace. We see that they’re going to be OK when Aparna, attempting to rise from bed one morning, needs to yank the tail of her sari free; it has been pinned beneath the heavy form of the sleeping Apu, who, it turns out, is not really sleeping at all. The glance of a joke that passes between them, telegraphed by Apu’s wicked, half-awake smile and Aparna’s mock annoyance, is one of the most wryly charming depictions of young married life on film, the kind of mild, private flirtation that speaks volumes about how a couple is really getting along.
There’s a great deal of joy in the Apu movies, balanced by the pendulum swing of loss. Yet even in these early films, Ray’s mastery is so fluid that you barely notice the segue. And as you watch, that thing we call artistry melts away in the service of something both greater and more fragile. Ray shows us the very young Durga pulling kittens out of a basket, one by one: They lose no time in scrambling toward the bigger world on wobbly legs, their tails waving like uncertain flags. We see young Apu and Durga light up with excitement when they see the “sweets seller” coming. They ask their mother for money, and though she has none to give, they follow the vendor along his route: We see their figures reflected in water — two kids, a rather rotund man, and a tag-along dog — as if it were a silhouette cut out of paper, graceful and precise. Wrinkled old Auntie, after squabbling with Apu’s mother, rolls up her little bed and heads off on surprisingly sturdy legs for who knows were, only to be welcomed back a few days later — her comings and goings are Pather Panchali’s great recurring joke.
Even when characters are staying put, they’re on the move. The young Apu and his sister, clearly happy growing up in the country, rush out into the fields when the train passes by. Whether they’re dreaming of being elsewhere, or simply acknowledging wonder at the idea that an “elsewhere” could exist, is never articulated. Like so many things in the Apu Trilogy, it doesn’t need to be.
I first saw the Apu Trilogy in Boston in 1995 — the films, in all their radiant scratchiness, happened to be making the rounds in arthouses in the weeks following my father’s death, at age 73. They were, for me, a solution to the listlessness of grief, a place to scatter the ashes of feelings I couldn’t articulate. My father had built a life, penny by penny, for me, my mother, and my four older sisters. Some ten years before I was born, he also built the house we grew up in, in upstate New York, buying the materials week by week as his railroad electrician’s paycheck allowed. Even in the early 1950s, almost no one did that. His practicality was a kind of artistry. I’m seeing this only just now. At the time, though, the Apu pictures meant even more to me than the sum of their parts. I had always felt connected to movies, and connected to life through movies. But the Apu Trilogy, so perfectly and intimately observed — and showing a family that was nothing like my own — was both calming and cathartic, to a degree I couldn’t have predicted and wouldn’t have hoped for. The family love I saw onscreen was instantly recognizable and comfortingly permanent, unaltered by death. For me, these were the right movies at just the right time.
Movies aren’t life. They’re a filmmaker’s conception, they’re art, they’re craft, they’re commerce. Yet for me, the Apu Trilogy is inseparable from life. If these aren’t the most beautiful movies ever made, they’re the most beautiful ones I know. They’re comedy and tragedy, joy and grief, old age and premature death. They’re hello and goodbye, so artfully conjoined that you can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins. You can go home again. Just not back to your own.