Last night, after watching this film, I made an off-hand remark to my wife that “Ray must have been a blast at parties.” This was, of course, a reference to the extremely bleak worldview which Ray seems to hold up in his films. Calling Pather Panchali and Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) “humanist” filmmaking, of the type made by Frank Capra or early-Akira Kurosawa, would not be correct. But if you watch an interview with Ray he always seems a witty, sharp, and humorous spirit. Yet his films seem eternally bleak, but this is missing a key point of Pather Panchali and Aparajito. At the end of both films, after devastating events take place, the characters trudge along and keep going. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so forgive me for that.
In Aparajito, we rejoin Apu, his mother, and father, who are now living in the bustling city of Benares (now Varanasi?). Apu’s father has taken up a job as a priest, giving rites and prayers to widows at the edge of the Ganges river. Apu’s mother, meanwhile, works cleaning the communal courtyard of a house shared by multiple families. The last time we saw Apu he was probably five or six, but now he’s ten. This would make him only slightly younger than his sister, Durga, was when she died.
Whether or not Apu remembers his sister is never addressed, and her death is never mentioned.
Just like in Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray is unconcerned with a typical dramatic structure and instead simply shows the audience snippets from this family’s life. This gives these movies a very simplistic narrative that is intuitively simple to follow, but also gives Ray room to move and wiggle with his thematic ideas. The story is simple, but what the film is about is not. The film is primarily concerned with Apu’s growth from a young boy into a young man. This is coupled with the death of his father in the first act of the film, as well as his eventual training as a priest, and his enrollment into a formal school later on.
We watch as young Apu grows from little more than a street kid, running and playing games with friends, into a young man whose mind is filled with wheels, formulas, and ideas. There is a scene early on during Apu’s education in which he reads a poem about the beauty of Bangladesh. The eyes of his teachers brighten and from that moment forward we know that Apu is pointed toward a great academic future. Yet his academic achievement must come at the cost of his family trade: the priesthood. Should Apu choose educating himself for the world ahead or maintaining tradition and following after his father? It is here that Ray’s main theme seems to become clear: this trilogy is about the struggle between contemporary culture and tradition. To be fair, Apu cannot win. No matter which choice he makes he will either be unhappy or hurt his family. Yet he clearly desires an education and his mother decides to support him toward that goal.
In this film, just as in Pather Panchali, the photography is lush and the camerawork is stunning. In this film Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra let the camera sit more than they did in the previous film. They are much more content to let the camera and audience look at things, usually in a wide-shot, than they were previously. But those beautiful close-ups, which display Mitra’s experience as a still photographer, are still on full display and still sell emotion through the actor’s eyes.
If I am to be honest, however, I like this film less than I do Pather Panchali. It’s a less beautiful film, and the dramatic tension surrounding Apu’s decision to attend college is less interesting than the constant bickering between mother and daughter in the first film. One issue I take with this film is how there seems to be little development in the area of Apu’s character. Some of this may be limited by the young and non-professional actors, but some of it is limited, I think, by the story. While Pather Panchali succeeds at being a film about life going on around a little boy, I feel that Aparajito fails a bit in making him the center of attention meanwhile only letting him stare into the camera.
The real star of the show is Apu’s mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee reprising her role from the first film). Her emotional journey is clearly painted, drawn, detailed, and on display, and yet she is not the focus: this film is clearly about Apu. I wish more time had been devoted to her time alone while Apu was away at school.