2015 saw the re-release of India filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s extraordinary Apu Trilogy. These three films: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959) are nothing short of a revelation. The films were meticulously restored after a fire in 1993 all but destroyed the original film negatives. In 2015, the films were re-released in select theaters and on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection. The restoration, two decades in the making, is nothing short of a miracle that allows new generations of moviegoers to experience the incredibly moving story of Apu, a boy from a poor Bengal village. Nearly six decades before Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), there was the Apu trilogy, an epic coming of age saga.
Produced on a shoestring budget, Ray’s debut Pather Panchali shows Apu as a young child. The film has a meditative, contemplative tone with a childlike sensibility. Watching Pather Panchali is like viewing the world through the eyes of a child. It is difficult to believe that Pather Panchali was made by amateurs who were literally learning the craft of filmmaking on the job. Its visual splendor alone is enough to make one believe otherwise. The visuals-the dance of raindrops on a pond, the reflection of the children and a sweets vendor over the pond, and a black train moving across a field of white-are gorgeous. Along with the framing of people in doorways, the train and railway become important symbols that connect the three films. Pather Panchali was named “Best Human Document” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. If there is one word that can be used to describe the three films, it is undoubtedly human. The humanity and emotional honesty is what makes these films so compelling and universal.
Each film in the Apu Trilogy has a unique soundscape. Whether it is the monsoon rains, the rustling wind, or creaking doors, the sounds add to the film’s authenticity and immersive power. Ravi Shankar’s music is brilliant and is an important component of each film. The acting in these films is also extraordinary. Karuna Banerjee is particularly remarkable as Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya as well as Soumitra Chatterjee who appears in Apur Sansar as Apu in his 20s. Chatterjee would go on to make several films with Ray. Pather Panchali and Aparajito are as much the mother’s story as they are Apu’s. Each time Apu leaves his village to further his education in Calcutta, the look of anxiety and heartbreak on the mother’s face is devastating.
When he began work on Pather Panchali in 1953, Satyajit Ray was a skilled amateur. By the third film, he was a skilled professional. Ray made a total of thirty-seven films during his lifetime and he helped usher in a new era of Indian cinema that relied less on theatrics and more on realism. The great Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa said this of Ray: “Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon.”
More people need to discover the films of Satyajit Ray. I look forward to exploring more of his work. The Apu Trilogy stands as one of the greatest film trilogies. These beautiful films brought me to tears. Each film is another piece of one grand musical movement. These emotionally resonant films show life’s many struggles; it is all there in the faces, the images, and the sounds. Experiencing these films for the first time was a revelation.