World of Apu, The (Apur Sansar) (India, 1959)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) concludes one of the greatest film series of all time, Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, which chronicles the life of one Bengali boy as he traverses the road from childhood through adolescence to maturity. Ray, a masterfully accomplished director, is at the height of his powers with this film, one of the most equally wrenching, uplifting, and cathartic motion pictures I have experienced. Following 1955's Pather Panchali and 1956's Aparajito, this 1959 feature provides the perfect culmination to an unforgettable saga.

It's possible to review The World of Apu without mentioning the other films in the trilogy, because Ray has constructed this movie so that its full power can be felt by anyone unfamiliar with what preceded it. Nevertheless, for those who accompanied the writer/director as he charted the emotional and spiritual odyssey of Apu's early life, The World of Apu provides a fitting final chapter. Not only are we afforded the opportunity to observe the kind of man the protagonist has ultimately become, but we see how his cumulative experience coalesces to influence the most monumental decision of his life.

The World of Apu is carefully divided into three acts. In the first, we are introduced to the adult Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee), a struggling writer living in a Calcutta apartment during the 1930s. Apu is alone in the world, having already lost his sister (Pather Panchali) and father and mother (Aparajito). He's three months behind in his rent, so, to meet his landlord's demands, he is forced to sell some of his precious books. Jobs are scarce, and Apu can't find one that suits him. One day, his old school friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), arrives to invite him to a wedding in the village of Khulna. Apu, who doesn't have anything else to do, agrees to come. On the day of the marriage, however, the groom develops unexpected mental problems, and the bride, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), is left alone and unmarried. Her superstitious family believes that if a wedding does not take place at the appointed hour, she will be cursed forever. To save her, Apu is recruited as a "substitute bridegroom."

The second act, which has an almost-playful tone, details Apu and Aparna's married life -- how they initially come together as strangers then grow to love and understand one another. In slightly more than thirty minutes, Ray brings to life an unforced, deeply moving romance. Apu and Aparna's gentle relationship is punctuated by bursts of pathos and comedy, but their union is so effectively crafted that it's easy for the viewer to lose him- or herself in the simple beauty of Ray's world.

Alas, the happiness doesn't last forever. The third, defining act of the film hinges on tragedy and its aftermath. Aparna dies giving birth to a son, and a devastated Apu abandons his baby for a nomadic lifestyle filled with hopelessness and self-recrimination. Only in the final scenes of The World of Apu is the protagonist offered an opportunity at redemption, and we aren't sure until the last shot whether or not he will accept it.

The "tragic love story" is a timeless motion picture staple, but few, if any, express emotional truth with the simple, heartbreaking eloquence of The World of Apu. Although the best stories of this sort (such as Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands) typically have moments when they ring false, this movie is free of such missteps. Ray's considerable skills as a film maker are at their pinnacle, and the result is unforgettable.

The acting, as is usually the case in a Ray film, is of the highest caliber. Soumitra Chatterjee, who was to become a "regular" in the director's films, gives a fine, multi-dimensional portrayal; it's easy to believe that he's the same Apu that we got to know in the other two films. The void created by the absence of Karuna Bannerjee, who anchored both Pather Panchali and Aparjito as Apu's mother, is filled by the exquisite Sharmila Tagore, who, like Chatterjee, would appear in future Ray films (as well as Mississippi Masala).

The greatness of the "Apu Trilogy" lies not only in its intimate understanding of the intricacies of human nature, but the artistry with which it expresses those truths. Each of the films is filled with wondrous images, and watching Apu's life unfold is like gazing through a window into a rare and unique world. And, even though the trilogy includes much tragedy, Ray gives birth to hope from each despair, and a measure of joy from every sadness. After all, life is like that, and the "Apu Trilogy" reflects the universality of the human experience.

I saw The World of Apu in a full theater, and, after the end credits had rolled, everyone reluctantly rose from their seats to file towards the exit. An unusual silence enveloped the crowd of 150. There was no discussion or aimless chatter, just the quiet, communal introspection of a lingering experience. I can think of no better illustration of this film's power and impact. The "Apu Trilogy" is a true masterpiece, and The World of Apu is its crown jewel.

World of Apu, The (Apur Sansar) (India, 1959)

Ranked #42 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Bengali
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1