Aparajito (India, 1956)
Aparajito, the middle installment of legendary Indian film maker Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, follows his 1955 debut, Pather Panchali, and precedes 1959's The World of Apu. Although Pather Panchali is a study of near-perfect cinematic style and exquisite emotional insight, Aparajito lifts Ray's talents to new levels. The word "masterpiece" is certainly overused, but this is one instance when it is deserved.
When Aparajito opens in 1920, Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his parents, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), are living in the city of Banaras, where they moved following the events of Pather Panchali. In Banaras, along the banks of the holy Ganges River, Harihar, a Brahmin priest, recites Hindu scriptures to earn a living, while Sarbojaya attends to their home. Apu, like any typical child, spends his time running off to play with his friends. In the early sequences of Aparajito, Ray paints a memorable picture of the city and its culture -- Banaras is a place where the ordinary and the majestic blend seamlessly together. Shots of the sacred steps and the men immersing themselves in the river are among the movie's most lasting images.
Tragedy strikes when Harihar falls ill, then dies. Suddenly, Apu and Sarbojaya are left alone, without means of support. After working as a cook for a wealthy man in Banaras, Sarbojaya and Apu move to the Bengali village of Mansapata to live with her uncle. There, Apu begins attending school, and quickly becomes a top student. After several years, Apu (now played by Smaran Ghosal) is offered the opportunity to continue his education in Calcutta, but he is concerned that his mother will forbid his leaving home.
Aparajito was filmed forty years ago, half way around the world, yet the themes and emotions embedded in the narrative are strikingly relevant to modern Western society (thus explaining why it is called a "timeless classic"). While watching this film, who doesn't nod knowingly when Sarbojaya carefully packs Apu's suitcase before his trip, adding a jar of home made butter and pleading with him to write soon? And how familiar is it when mother and son meet after a long separation, and her first comment is that he has grown taller and doesn't appear to be eating well? One aspect of Ray's mastery is that, even though he creates unique worlds for his stories, the films' basic, universal truths allow them to speak directly to the hearts of each viewer.
The overriding theme of Aparajito is that nothing is static -- life is about change and discovery. In Pather Panchali, the characters and settings are much the same throughout. Here, supporting characters and locations are in a continual state of flux. The only constant is Sarbojaya; even Apu undergoes a visible metamorphosis as the younger actor gives way to the older one.
It is an undeniable fact of life that children grow up and move away. And, though their motives in turning their back on their homes are not necessarily unkind, their actions may appear selfish. Such is the case in Aparajito. As Apu leaves for Calcutta, he is excited about the future, and barely gives a thought to the mother he leaves behind. For her part, she puts on a brave face for his sake, but, the moment his back is turned, the mask crumbles, revealing her fear and loneliness. With her husband dead and her son gone, Sarbojaya has nothing left to live for. Especially during the film's closing half-hour, her scenes are poignantly realized. The emotional conflict between her despondence and Apu's exhilaration creates a powerful dichotomy that is only bridged in Aparajito's closing moments. I can't say enough about the strength of Karuna Bannerjee's performance, not only in the concluding act, but throughout both of Ray's first two movies.
Aparajito is an amazing motion picture. Its rich, poetic composition is perfectly wed to the sublime emotional resonance of the narrative. For those who have seen Pather Panchali, Aparajito provides a nearly-flawless continuation of the journey begun there. Yet, for those who missed Ray's earlier effort, this film loses none of its impact. On its own or as part of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito should not be missed.
Aparajito (India, 1956)
Cast: Karuna Bannerjee, Kanu Bannerjee, Pinaki Sengupta, Smaran Ghosal
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray, based on the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ravi Shankar
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics