Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

THE APU TRILOGY (S. Ray, 1955-1958)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

The scope of Satyajit Ray's “The Apu Trilogy,” adapted from the popular Bengali novels of Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, is nothing less than the life of its title protagonist from birth to adulthood, from an impoverished childhood in a rural Indian village to a university education in Calcutta and then to points beyond that. Any effort to encapsulate the entire series in a mere review is doomed to seem superficial and incomplete.

Better to recount only the moments that linger most vividly, though even they are so numerous as to cram a short-form essay to bursting, in the hopes of creating an impression for the reader of just how monumental Ray's achievement is, one of the most monumental in the history of cinema.

For starters, Apu is nowhere near the most interesting character in the first film in the series. The stars of “Pather Panchali” (1955) are three remarkable women. Mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) shines in the first two films of the trilogy. In her debut, she provides the pragmatic ballast to her idealist husband Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), which leaves her to do the literal dirty work of the household as well as putting her in charge of discipline. The latter duty generally involves daughter Durga (Runki Banerjee as a little girl, Uma Das Gupta when older), the unrepentant petty thief so full of energy and joy that the confines of the crumbling family abode cannot contain her. She dashes through the countryside, dances in the rain, and cagily evades prying eyes to spend time with her beloved Auntie.

I am confident that nobody who has ever seen “Pather Panchali” will forget Auntie, played by 80-year-old veteran stage actress Chunibala Devi, coaxed out of a lengthy retirement by Ray. Auntie is an unspecified family relation so bent over by time her body forms a near-perfect right angle as she shuffles through the dirt, defiantly stealing one more day and still another, all with a quiet dignity and scrappy resourcefulness that inspires Durga, even as the burden of Auntie's upkeep frustrates Sarbajaya whose own dreams die each day she shoulders the role of universal caretaker.

All three women are so mesmerizing that little Apu (Subir Banerjee) can hardly make an impression by comparison. Yet his first appearance still provides one of the series' high points. Durga wakes up her sleepy-head brother who hides under a blanket until a single eye is visible peering out at his sister and at the audience. Both mother and sister dote on Apu to the point of ignoring their own needs, a testament to a patriarchal society but also to genuine love, which also conveniently sets us up for the next chapter when Apu will finally take center stage in his own trilogy.

The family home, a dirt courtyard and a few small rooms partially ringed by collapsing stone walls, is almost as memorable as the women of the film. Shots of the surrounding countryside further showcase the evocative power of effective location shooting, lending the film the sense of naturalism that earned instant comparisons to Italian neo-realism. Rendered in subdued black-and-white by cinematographer Subrata Mitra, this poor rural village is a defining element inextricable from the characters that populate it.

In “Aparajito” (1956) the family has moved to the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi) where Apu's father plies his trade as a local priest. Early shots of hundreds of people gathered along the Ganges, just about everyone dressed in a white that fills the visual field (occasionally making subtitles difficult to read) immerse viewers inthe new location. Apu (now played by Pinaki Sengupta) is a bit older, but still young enough to spend most of his day playing and wandering. This produces some dreamy interludes such as when he watches a muscle-bound man on the docks swinging a weighted rod, or when Apu feeds a cluster of monkeys who chatter and ring bells, performing a chorus just for the young boy.

Apu's idle adventures fire his imagination and lead to perhaps the most inspiring sequence in the trilogy. After Apu enrolls in school, his connection to a broader world of ideas yields a seismic effect. He explains the orbital mechanics of an eclipse to his wide-eyed mother and is transformed so completely that, without warning, in the space of a single cut, Apu has suddenly become a teenager (Smaran Ghosal) who is now the star pupil of his school.

If I have made the series out to be a childlike wonderland so far, let me disabuse you of the notion. Satyajit Ray is a cruel taskmaster. Death is a constant presence in the trilogy, but tragedy manifests by many other means as well. Apu's education is a personal liberation, but also drives a permanent wedge between him and his mother, who knows how bleak life will be if her pride and joy dashes off to Calcutta to continue his studies. Cinema has offered many a mother who tugs on the viewer's heartstrings, but I cannot offhand recall a more brutal moment in filmic mother-son relations than when the loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing Sarbajaya asks Apu “Am I to be cast aside?” and he, in effect ultimately answers, “Yes.”

By “Apur Sansar” (1959), the adult Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee, who would star in over a dozen Ray films) is alone in Calcutta and forced to abandon university studies, though hopefully not his burgeoning writing career, due to a lack of funds. After he unexpectedly finds himself pinch-hitting for the groom at a wedding, he embarks on a new chapter of his life as a married man. It is only after the marriage that he falls wildly in love with his young bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore, just 13 at the time) and ready to enjoy life once again. In one of the most-quoted shots in the trilogy, Aparna rises from bed to conduct her morning chores, only to find that the mischievous Apu has tied her voluminous sari to his own clothing; she must pry it away before she can escape his tender clutches. Staying consistent with the pattern of the series, Ray doesn't allow happiness to last long, and Apu spends much of the film lost in the labyrinth his own grief, with no promise he will ever find his way back out.

The special place “The Apu Trilogy” occupies in the canon of world cinema is justified solely by its artistic achievements, but is buttressed in no small part because its story of the emergence and maturation of Apu mirrors that of its writer/director/producer. Satyajit Ray was no country bumpkin when he began shooting. A member of a proud artistic and literary family, Ray was an accomplished commercial artist whose book illustrations (including those for an abridged version of “Pather Panchali” adapted for children) were both well-known and respected. But Ray had nurtured a passion for cinema for years, co-founding the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, writing criticism (including an influential essay critiquing Indian commercial cinema), and participating in location scouting for Jean Renoir's 1950 film “The River.”

In the fall of 1952, Ray decided to start filming his screenplay of “Pather Panchali” with no prior directing experience. His severely underbudgeted crew was similarly inexperienced, including cinematographer Subrata Mitra, an accomplished still photographer now working with a motion-picture camera for the first time. With virtually no money, Ray's initial plan was to shoot a few scenes on location in rural Bengal, in hopes of using it to secure government funding to complete the film. His audacious gambit succeeded, though the shoot would proceed in fits and starts, taking about two years to complete due to multiple prolonged stoppages necessitated by the lack of cash flow.

“Pather Panchali” was a success in Indian theaters, a pleasant surprise in a country defined by lavish musical productions far removed from Ray's gritty, naturalistic, and sometimes depressing vision. When it hit the festival circuit, the film not only introduced Satyajit Ray to the world, but was largely credited with introducing the category of Indian cinema to international audiences. Ray would often be seen as the global representative of all Indian film, an unfair burden for the director and an equally unfair dismissal of one of the world's most prolific national cinemas.

“Aparajito” wasn't nearly as successful commercially in India, but it still earned positive festival attention and convinced Ray to complete the trilogy, which was not at all his idea from the start. By the time the world got to see Apu as an adult in “Apur Sansar,” the neophyte who took the world by storm had become an established star both at home and abroad. He had already snuck in another masterpiece, “The Music Room” (1958), before completing the trilogy and would waste no time in proving that he was no flash in the pan, churning out, seemingly effortlessly, equally great films such as “The Big City” (1963) and “Charulata” (1964). “The Apu Trilogy” was an achievement sufficient to secure an lifelong legacy - for Ray, it was merely the opening salvo in one of the most remarkable careers of the 20th century.

And, yeah, I swear, even here just past the 1,500 word mark, I really did just touch on a few of the highlights. And I didn't even talk about the trains. Or mention Ravi Shankar. 

Most of us have become accustomed to seeing lesser-quality versions of “The Apu Trilogy.” This is due in part to a 1993 laboratory fire in London which badly damaged the original negatives to several of Ray's films, including “The Apu Trilogy.” Sony Pictures Classics released the trilogy on DVD back in 2003 and though they'd had some restoration, the picture quality was disappointing even if it was “best possible” at the time.

The extensive restoration project undertaken by Criterion and L'Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy for this Blu-ray release involved salvaging whatever of the burned negatives could still be restored (through rehydration, recreating sprocket holes, etc.) and scouring the globe for other sources to restore the rest of the material. A feature on disc three explains part of the laborious process.

The net result can only be described as a revelation for viewers. With multiple sources there is inevitably some variation with damage more noticeable in a handful of scenes, but so much of the trilogy looks outright luminous with sharp detail visible in scenes I had only seen in blurry, badly compromised versions before. The films generally look much brighter than in previous DVD releases which means the prominent whites can sometimes be a bit overwhelming (though seldom “blown out”) in these black-and-white images, but compared to the dingy, drab look before this is still a vast improvement. “Apur Sansar” is the most even in quality but this is probably due to the fact that none of the original negative could be used and the whole film “was restored from a fine-grain master and a duplicate negative.”

Considering how close we were to losing Ray's original negatives, it's simply extraordinary to have the opportunity to see them restored to this condition.

The audio required extensive restoration as well. Dropoffs in audio quality are usually more noticeable and jarring than, say, a slightly softer image might be. Considering how much damage was present and how many sources were used for these transfers, the consistent quality of the audio is nothing short of amazing. The voices in “Pather Panchali” may sound a bit tinnier than in the other two films, but that's likely attributable to Ray's low-budget approach in his debut film. The most important aspect of the sound mix is the Ravi Shankar score, heavy on sitar on flute, that helps to define the trilogy almost as much as the image, acting, and writing. In a word, it sounds great. I'm really not qualified to attest to how true to the original it is, but I can't imagine it's far off. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali dialogue.

There are no commentary tracks offered on this three-disc set, but Criterion has included an ample array of supporting extras on each disc.

Disc One (“Pather Panchali”) kicks off with “A Long Time On The Little Road” (14 min.) This is an audio-only extra that features Satyajit Ray reading from his 1957 “Sight & Sound” article about the making of “Pather Panchali.” The audio was recorded by film critic Gideon Bachmann. In addition to his seemingly endless artistic gifts, Ray had a magnificent speaking voice, rich and smooth and utterly mesmerizing.

The disc also includes several interviews recently recorded by Criterion. Soumitra Chatterjee (7 min.) does not appear in “Pather Panchali” but talks about how the film and his appreciation for Ray's early work prepared him for his film debut as the adult Apu in “Apur Sansar.” Shampa Srivastava (16 min.) played young Durga (credited as Runki Banerjee) and discusses what it was like to be a six-year-old actress on set with Ray, who she describes as tall and handsome, both imposing and awe-inspiring. Soumendu Roy (12 min.) was an assistant cameraman on “Pather Panchali” and later become one of Ray's regular camera operators. He discusses the challenges of location shooting in Boral Village and how the shoot felt very much like a family experience.

The disc also includes a short feature with the great musician Ravi Shankar (6 min.) who composed the music for all three films. This mildly disappointing feature consists of brief excerpts from a 2003 documentary titled “The Song Of The Little Road.”

Disc Two (“Aparajito”) begins with “The Small Details” (11 min.), a recent interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty who touches on Ray's career as a commercial illustrator while also providing some details about the shift in locations in “Aparajito.”

We also get another audio recording by Gideon Bachmann, this time of Ray speaking at the 1958 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in Vermont in conjunction with the official U.S. release of “Pather Panchali.” This 14-minute audio-only feature sees Ray specifying his work as Bengali rather than Indian and touching on other details about the trilogy's release. Ray's voice – my goodness.

“Making 'The Apu Trilogy': Satyajit Ray's Epic Debut” (38 min.) is a new video essay written and narrated by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson. He describes the trilogy's impact as nothing less than a “radical re-orientation of the world's view of India” and provides plenty of information about Ray's career and insightful analysis of the trilogy.

“The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray” (29 min.) is a 1967 episode of the Canadian TV series “The Creative Person” directed by documentarian James Beveridge. Beveridge went to Calcutta to film Ray at work and this episode consists of interviews with Ray, Soumitra Chaterjee, Karuna Banerjee, and other cast and crew.

Disc Three (“Apur Sansar') offers a feature (15 min,) that combines new interviews with actor Soumitra Chaterjee and actress Sharmila Tagore. I was particularly interested in Tagore's account of being a schoolgirl thrown into a major shoot and discovering a previously unknown love of acting that would shape her life. She describes how heavily directed her performance was at this early stage of her career and how Ray didn't shoot many takes or conduct lengthy rehearsals.

“'The Apu Trilogy': A Closer Look” (43 min.) is a lengthy interview with Mamoun Hassan, filmmaker, producer and former head of production at the British Film Institute. Hassan provides a close reading of several motifs in the films with special attention to some of its more ominous aspects. And he talks a lot about trains.

The disc also includes a feature on the restoration of the trilogy, directed by filmmaker::kogonada and is offered both in a Shorter Version (3 min.) and a Longer Version (12 min.). For Criterion fans, the longer version will let you see and hear from several Criterion employees as well as from the diligent preservationists at L'Immagine Ritrovato in Bologna. Many of The amount of restoration that went into this project was nothing short of heroic.

The final feature is a 3-minute video of Ray's acceptance speech when he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1992, shortly before his death. Even gravely ill in his hospital bed, he has a commanding presence and even gets a few good laughs.

The insert booklet includes essays by film critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu, whose blog at girishshambu.blogspot.com should be on every cinephile's reading list, as well as several of Ray's storyboards for “Pather Panchali” and a few pages discussing the films' restoration.

Final Thoughts:
Sorry, “Star Wars” fans, this is the greatest trilogy of all time. And this epic three-disc set from Criterion, restoring Ray's masterpiece to its audiovisual glory, is going to be hard to beat as the besst Blu-ray release of 2015.

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