Saturday, June 13, 2015

Satyajit Ray's APU TRILOGY

Yeah, in case you are wondering, Spoilers.

It's rare to come upon one film that can stand as a masterpiece, possibly one of the landmarks of 20th century cinema.  But two?  Some might argue close to three?  Satyajit Ray wasn't even a filmmaker when he decided to tackle a book (actually two, as it turned out) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay about a family (and a key character) living in rural India, but he went for it anyway, starting off with his own funds, shooting on weekends, and eventually by the grace of the Gods of Cinema got a grant from the government.  I hasten to think what would've happened if he hadn't completed Pather Panchali - needless to say, we'd be left without one of those testaments to survival, the highs and lows of human nature and family that's ever been created. 

After seeing the Apu trilogy, I get why Kurosawa once said that not seeing one of this director's films is "like not seeing the sun or the moon."  Even as one of the films may be less than perfect, which I'll get to, this is a series much like a great novel - and consuming it all in one gulp over the course of 6/7 hours is like taking in such a book over a week.  You get so absorbed by these characters, the title one in particular of who we follow from birth to full adulthood and who, yes, they may be from India, but they are not really that so far removed from you or I.  Over the years I haven't seen many (or practically any) full-on Bollywood movies, so one could say my exposure to Indian cinema is limited.  But you don't need to get to Full-Cinema-Snob status or what have you to see or appreciate the work here.

And what's further remarkable to me is how the films are not all alike exactly; if one is to just watch Pather Panchali, one may think this is a series of neo-realist films.  Certainly Ray got his inspiration from De Sica and the Italians on that front, and Panchali is certainly that - but each film has its own goals and depicting of a time of life. 

In the first film, we're introduced to the Ray family (no relation to the filmmaker, I think anyway), who live on a farm and consist of the mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee, the heart of the film really), a father (who is off mostly trying to get work as a priest or would-be writer and scrapes barely by, if at all), and the kids - older sister Durga and the new son Apu (here played by Subir Banerjee, I don't think these actors were related either by the way). 

In very simple, direct, honest detail, the filmmaker is following how these people are trying to do the essentials: feed, clothe, house themselves.  There is food... usually.  Mostly in rice.  And sometimes there's clothes, but usually, at worst, it's in rags.  There's also an 'Auntie' character, who is the most distinctive-looking of the lot, with a crooked back and gnarly face.  And though the father is the one out and about in the world, trying to make ends meet, the mother is the one at home, having to really do the raising and, most often, watching of the children. 

How is this 'honest' filmmaking?  Is there such a thing as dishonest drama?  I'm sure there is, and we've seen it in many a Hollywood/TV movie over the years.  This is what should be a paradox in Pather Panchali: stripped down storytelling, tearing aside unnecessary dramatic bits, real locations, real rain, using non-professional actors (and at that time Ray was a non-professional as well), and dealing with drama that seems so basic - the main thrust at one point involves a supposedly stolen necklace by Durga from a local friend, as in 'did she or didn't she steal it'.  And there's the drama involving Auntie taking a piece of fruit.  Or, no, that was Durga, or Apu, one of them, taking from a nearby orchard.  And by that token having to deal with finicky, asshole neighbors.  It all comes down to what one saw in The Bicycle Thief: what do you have to do to survive?  What happens when kids are involved?  Hands may be raised at a kid once in a while, nerves may be frayed, but there's REAL love going on, real compassion. 

Real fruit!
And the paradox I mean is that it's this stripped down style on one hand, and on the other Ray's total love for the environment he's filming in, the wild of the jungle.  At one point he just points his camera to the water, showing the reflection of a few children characters walking around.  There's also a ravishing scene (yes, I'll use that word, ravishing, stunning, you take your pick) where the daughter Durga goes out into a field full of tall reeds, with Apu following behind and warning about mother.  But there's a reason she's there: she's discovered where you can see the train go by that they have heard for so long but been too far away to see.  Adding to this Ravi Shankar's music - and he thankfully is there through all three films with his magic sitar - you get a kind of englightened form of filmmaking: taking in the beauty of this world, while showing how goddamn hard it can be living in the thick of it.

There is a lot of tragedy to this film, including two deaths - one is not very unexpected (the elder Auntie) but it still carries a level of sadness and a sobering moment for the kids, as they discover her (this also comes after a few scenes which portend she may be gone soon, she knows it herself, and we feel for her even as she's been so cantakerous at times - watch for a moment where her usual grin folds down into a serious profile). 

The other is far more devastating, and all from a fever during a thunderstorm for poor Durga.  Though Apu has been a dynamic character throughout the film, he's mostly been watching things, soaking in experiences like a fantastical play or people working in a field or his own family.  Durga, though, is older, a little more experienced in things, and had a relationship with her mother that wasn't always with her in a great light.  Needless to say, her mother takes it as good as she can - in a catatonic state until her husband, away finding work and momentarily reversing his fortunes for the better.  The scene where he comes home - and by the way, the home has been all but destroyed beyond repair during a thunderstorm - and finds out what happened is as sad as they get in the movies, and is going to haunt me for the rest of my conscious days.

Pather Panchali can't get enough platitudes, and is one of those timeless movie experiences - not unlike the Bicycle Thief or Bahrani's Chop Shop - and Satyajit Ray finds raw, wholly emotional performances from his players, especially with a knack for directing children.  It's so good and pure a film, which feels both the despair and, I must point out, the joy of living a life (there's a good bit of humor sprinkled throughout, even if it can be missed or chalked up to Auntie's platitudes), that I was worried the other films wouldn't stand a chance to follow up on it.  And while Aparajito is a very good film, close to being a masterpiece, it's not quite for me.  Perhaps it may in time, or I saw it too close to Panchali, I don't know.

With the second film, the farmlands and jungle and Indian boondocks are traded for the city life, first in Benares and later, in the second half, in Calcutta.  There's still more tragedy to come, more death by fever quite frankly, and sometimes some joy to take in as Apu - more of a central character this time, where before it was more of an ensemble with the family - learns more, goes to school (by his request, to do more than just be a priest like his father), and be there for his mother. 

The theme of survival continues from the last film, though here I felt some more melodrama than the natural, pained poetry of the first.  On its own this is what comes across as well, albeit the stakes this time are upped by the passing of Apu's father.  The moment he passes, I should note, is one of the moments you remember from here: as he goes, Ray cuts to the birds outside flying away.  It should be a cliche, but here it's totally earned, and heartbreaking, after all he and the family he's been with have gone through.

A flaw for me, frankly, was with the actor playing Apu as a teenager, Smaran Ghosal being the person.  He's certainly not bad, actually he may be quite good.  It may be that up against such a natural heavyweight like Bannerjee he comes up a little short - according to his IMDb this was his only film - and is mostly without any expression, or when he has to go there, like during the big, heartbreaking reveal as the climax (as with the father, his mother dies due to fever - and, one may assume, being alone without anyone), he can't quite get up to what Ray needs as a storyteller. 

And the only moment where I thought "Hmm, does this work" dramatically in the whole trilogy comes in a moment of doubt between mother and son regarding his going off to higher studies.  It's a credit to Bannerjee that she is believable and heart-rending throughout this moment, where she goes from one end to another as far as her attachment to her son, as in, "No, you can't go" to "Ok, you can go, here's some rupees".  And even here there's a sense of truth to the bout of melodrama: does Sarbojaya really know what's good for herself more than her son?  After all this time, having to be fully strong?  Maybe that's the conflict there.

But as a story of a mother and a son, with the exception of that scene, Aparajito is nevertheless a fascinating, simple/complex film about what it means to learn and grow as a person, to take in new experiences, and there's joy and humor amid the harrowing moments.  Ray is so confident with his characters that he knows he can throw in the midst of a learning-montage a silly thing like Apu made up as an African tribesman (!) 

 And the aspect of learning itself, expanding one's mind (and with science no less) is wonderful to see depicted here, in how it enriches a life - while at the same time still going about having to survive day to day, work for a living as a priest, and Mother Sarajaya's heartache for just wanting to see her son more often. It's a very, very good film, always artful, and if it's not up to the level of part 1 (or the final part), it's that the level of quality is just that friggin high.

If Panchali is neo-realist, showing a way of life that seems unlike what we know in America (well, some of us, maybe some of the less well-off folks in this country and elsewhere can relate), The World of Apu is the existential masterpiece.  By now, after making two Apu movies and a couple others, including The Music Room, Ray had a little more polish to his direction (not to mention budget), and this story takes place several years later, when Apu is now an adult (or, relatively, his 20's we can guess), played by a new actor - Soumitra Chatterjee, one of Ray's regulars - and now at a point in his life where he can do... anything, really.  He sometimes tutors, wants to write, publishes a short story here and there, but isn't with much direction and has the thought of making a "fiction" novel based on his life... but without love, what can he do?

He's invited by a friend to his cousin's wedding, which goes bust when the groom is revealed to be rather 'mad' (crazy, cukoo really), and a replacement must be found or else no marriage will take place - it's one of those 'arranged' deals.  Apu, as it turns out, fills that role and marries young Aparna (beautiful Sharmila Tagore).  Whether or not you relate to that part of it or not, it doesn't matter as this is in large part the most fully entertaining and, up until a major turning point, the funniest of the films.  It's also rather tender in the depiction of this relationship of Apu, at first rather apologetic about not being wealthy enough for his new bride and in the digs that he's in (a rather shabby apartment, still Calcutta), and Aparna, who is possibly more money-conscious, about how little they have, how much work brings the money, than Apu is). 

The World of Apu is a kind of miracle of cinema - so full of everything that you might want in an experience, which is saying a lot considering what has come before.  If 'Pather' and 'Aparajito' make up a kind of early 20th century take on what Linklater just recently did in Boyhood, 'Apu' is the Adulthood section, and he is this time squarely the hero who has gone on this journey through these films of self/world discovery, and now must impart that responsibility for the future to come.  And Ray's technique is not that much more complicated or complex than in the first film; when he needs to he dollies in on a face, he pans, he tilts, he gets his expressive close-ups (and Tagore is the kind of actress the camera loves), but in the space of five years I could sense that he upped his game from Pather to Apu, and it should be so - the innocence and danger of the jungle now has the setting of the city and, for the marriage part, the countryside. 

"Oh, so scared of the monster, help me, save me."
The filmmaking is there to let us in to how these characters experience things, how they grow, how they sometimes break down from the pressures of the world, how they become closer, how they come apart, and the frame often makes a note of this.  Watch when Apu and Aparna are together in a room right after being married - she's facing away from him, he's on the other side of the room by the bed (this bed, by the way, is over-decorated, as one might imagine for a wedding night), and she doesn't turn to face him through most of their words, which are kind of awkward but polite and considerate.  But as their relationship grows, they get closer, they share the frame more, and then... when Apu falls apart, following Aparna's demise (childbirth!!) his face changes, deepens, goes into full beard and like he has really been hit by shellshock.

It's interesting to me that this turn is what makes Apu go into total Walk-the-Earth/India mode.  He can't be found for years, though still sends money to his baby, who soon becomes a little boy, as he once was, and it's the death of his wife - not his sister, father, or mother - that does it to him.  Or, more to the point, it's the accumulation of a life of loss, of all of this shaping him, each loss making him hardened and that he tries to find joy and creativity, the poetry of the world that he can try his best to put back out into words (science leaves soon after Aparajito, we can gather, though that is still essential to his character too, to be logical and try to process things that way), and then this one thing that grew for him, genuinely, gets taken away.  It's enough to make anyone crack, I should think, and there's never a point I felt like he was being bad in escaping responsibilities - you just want to see him be OK, try to find some peace with himself, his son, the world, and if not 'move on' then to make things better for the future.

So much depth and heart is in this trilogy, and even with my (admittedly very minor) misgivings with Aparajito, it's all essential viewing for anyone looking to deepen their appreciation not just for cinema, but for the world at large.  Roger Ebert noted in his review how Ray, with Pather, made people outside of India aware of what conditions were like for those who did not know (most Indian cinema, one assumes before this, was more fantastical in nature).  It's a testament to everything that works and connects to to what we as humans look for in other humans on the big screen; family, love, respect, survival, education, employment, creative fulfillment, and, sometimes, running around in a funny mask (as Apu's son does at one point). 

Sun and moon.  That's about right.

Kurosawa getting to hang out with the maker of the UNIVERSE!

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