34: Pather Panchali / 35: Aparajito / 36: The World of Apu (DVD)

Of course I tease. Of course I am being deliberately provocative. Satyajit Ray’s trilogy is nothing like the three cack handed George Lucas toy shilling adverts, these are lovely elegaic films, of coming of age, of town and country, of sweeping understated* tragedy. Of course there is a superficial similarity with the lead character Apu losing his family, growing up with an air of mysticism and then in anger rejecting his own child until a reconciliation. Of course Apu doesn’t strictly turn to the dark side in the intermediate sections, there are no clone troopers or incomprehensible battles beyond the stars. Just Benares, Calcutta, countryside and the growing pains of a difficult child.

As a set of “classics” I had never got round to I had always been a touch suspicious of Ray’s early trilogies. And not just when I realised that I was misreading Pather and Panther, and thus no sleek big cats would be in it. Indian film is something I know little about, but I am aware of the hugeness of Bollywood and that as a film industry it doesn’t have much room for arthouse small films. So My view of the Apu Trilogy was always that it was beloved of the critics so they could use it as a stick to beat Bollywood with. And having seen them, I can certainly see that being applicable. The trilogy sits in a interesting mix of traditions though, with a definite strand of Italian neo-realism sprinkled over its jungle locations which blossom into full on ne-realist cityscapes in Aparajito. And along with that comes the endless stream of tragedies that face poor little Apu, the mischievous scamp we see at the start of Pather Panchali loses everything to become the haunted loner at the end of The World Of Apu. Which does make it a slightly tougher watch fifty years later, as all the tricks in the trilogy have been endlessly trumped out again in cinema ever since. Put it like this, when everything is going well for Apu in the middle of the world of Apu, I could sniff tragedy just around the corner, to the extent that it made me quite angry when it turned up. How day Ray submit Apu to this final indignation.

The fact that an overly plotted but naturalistic 1950’s Indian film can stir such emotion in a view – albeit by being annoyed by its overly theatrical plotting – illustrates how well the films work. And while there are creaky filmic devices being used, the foreshadowing and the intentional echoing of the Apu of Pather Panchali in Kajal, they really work to make the whole thing satisfying. Or at least satisfying as a narrative within itself. The other frustrating thing about the trology is something it shares with the Star Wars prequels. As we follow Apu through his life, overcoming the death of his sister, father, mother and wife there is a sense that this is his story. That this will be instrumental to his hard fought but inevitable success. And yet we are left at the end of the trilogy with Apu finally taking responsibility for his son, a son who we have already associated with the Apu of Pather Panchali. There is a sense that the story of Kajal is the real story, his fathers difficulties will be distilled into what is left of his upbringing to create a truly heroic child. Perhaps that is what I get from watching too many films. We have seen the story of Apu, full of much disappointment. We have to believe that the story of Kajal will be a happier one, a better one, a more successful one, perhaps one where he destroys the Death Star too.

*OK, it gets a bit overstated by the World Of Apu where EVERYONE he has ever loved dies mainly for plot reasons. It could also be the Angela’s Ashes of Indian Cinema by that point.

Film 2Oh!! is an attempt to write about every film I have seen this year which I am not helping with by seeing lots of films all the time. This year I have seen 141 films, written about 36.