Review of World Of Apu, A 1959 Bengali Film Directed by Satyajit Ray and Starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore

GRADE: A / 80%
Sharmila Tagore – Aparna
Apur Sansar title card.jpg

A naughty moment happens in the morning after newlyweds Apu and Aparna have made love to each other. We know they have made love because of the way Aparna blushes when she gets up to start her morning chores. Just when she gets out of bed, her saree ka pallu is caught under her sleeping husband. Aparna gently tries to pull it once, twice and finally gets it out the third time when she nudges her husband slightly. She pats him on his back, smiles and walks outside to wash her face. Apu, who was pretending to sleep this whole time, then smiles back at her. She coyly asks him ‘How long will you continue staring at me?’. They have fallen in love at last.

The film I speak of is World of Apu, released in the year 1959. Forward to the present time. You switch on your idiot box and watch the latest Indian television serial. Tragedies are yet to strike the protagonists and their families with the hellacious force of Jupiter’s thunderbolt (usually joint families that seem to spawn rapidly like an epidemic virus, only so that there can be plenty of reaction shots; oddly, many of the children look nothing like their parents…). Currently, the story revolves around a single guy and an unmarried girl falling in love gradually over twenty episodes(or fifty, depending on TRP generated by googly-eyed kitschy romance-loving female audiences). There are a couple of stolen glances usually after some obnoxious flirting, and its generally found that the boy and the girl begin their relationship on a wrong note. Until the famous ‘saree ka pallu’ sequence, after which the two finally fall in love.

Now here’s how the scene would be filmed. The lady absentmindedly bumps into the guy (most young female viewers have already begun already fanning themselves like they’ve got their hands on the guy) and the two spend lengthy minutes staring like a couple of very stupid dogs (proud owner of three Labrador retrievers, so know it) into each other’s eyes while holding each other in static position. The cameras frenziedly try to capture the couple from all possible angles of modesty until the couple finally let go of each other. The girl begins to turn very slowly in a slightly different direction from where she was originally heading (maybe to dump something into the dustbin or to wash her hands after potty, but that doesn’t matter) when suddenly she realizes her saree ka pallu is caught with the hero’s shirt cuffs (another aahhh! from the girls). It’s like she’s got metal hooks attached to her saree that somehow manage to cling themselves onto the hero.

She nervously looks back at him, and he too looks p*ssy-faced at her. Camera cuts to static close-ups alternating with long-shots and mid-shots, again com every possible angle of modesty. Usually the girl’s too freaked out to pull the pallu out from his cuffs so its the guy who does the honors. Wait till they discover kissing, forget sex! A generic romantic score will play all over the scene, and cliched background sounds shall be heard too, like invisible leaves rustling or non-existent wind whistling. It’s sad there’s no horny wolf around to howl.

 

It’s also very sad and unfortunate that many would actually prefer to watch this kooky depiction of love than the one we see in The World of Apu, which kicks into the bin any form of pretentiousness that often plague scenes of love. Here we find Apu and Aparna, a couple that has married under the most extraordinary circumstance, quietly accept their fate and learn to live together happily till fate directs another change. She knows no English, he spends his hours teaching her spellings. She fans her husband while he eats his dinner and then has her husband fan her while she eats, which rules out sexism; I remember feeling very uncomfortable watching one of my aunts in Chennai serve the whole family first (including my cousins, who would keep telling her ‘Mom, you are coming in the way (of the television)!)’) and take her food after everybody leaves the table. He acts like a spendthrift so she becomes cautious with money. While taking her home in a taxi after they watch a talkie, she asks him why they couldn’t ride in a bus, and he replies she would’ve felt uncomfortable in a crowded bus. She was not brought up in such surroundings, you see. And now I want to come to the extraordinary circumstance that tied the fates of Apu and Aparna: Aparna’s intended husband turned insane (literally) on the day of the wedding, and if Apu, who was only a visitor invited by his best friend Pulu to his cousin Aparna’s wedding, did not marry her, then her life would be cursed.

Then why did Apu, a literate who would scoff at any superstitious ideas, agree to marry Aparna? He struggled to make a decent living; having no money to continue his undergraduate studies, he was under qualified for the teaching job, and it was below him to accept a job he was terribly overqualified for. He earned a meaner salary of ten rupees a month, and some additional whenever his short stories were published in the journal.

It is difficult to answer this question, but then again, is it really? Anyone who has seen Pather Panchali shall remember how Apu’s father Harihar could never say ‘no’ to anyone; the man promised to buy a shawl for an old lady known to the family even though his family was in the most desperate financial circumstances. So while the marriage does come as a surprise, it isn’t that hard to understand why Apu acquiesced. If you notice well enough, you’d find a Harihar in Apu and a Sarbajaya (Apu’s mother) in Aparna. Again, I guess it would not be difficult to make this observation because Satyajit Ray, the film’s director films the scenes of Apu and Aparna in a composition that reminds us of his parents. The laconicism of dialogues helps here too, obliquely hinting that a similarly extraordinary circumstance might have led to Apu’s parents’ marriage.

When Aparna dies during childbirth, Apu is not by her side. She dies a tragic death in her village, while Apu stays back to manage his home, his job and continue writing the partly autobiographical novel he is working on. A messenger informs him about Aparna when he returns home, expecting to find Aparna back from the village after a two month stay at her ‘maayka’. The shot is captured memorably by Ray using an unsettlingly slow zoom and a foreboding sitar note (chosen by Ravi Shankar, whose work in The Apu Trilogy has been consistently immaculate). Imagine how a moment like this would be captured on a television serial, with its shrieking score and frenetic camerawork. An absolute disaster.

A theme of abandonment is recurrent in the trilogy, with Apu refusing to take his newborn child Kajal with him. The child remains for years at his mother’s ancestral home with his grandparents. Apu now carries the haunted look we often saw on his mother’s face in Pather Panchali whenever her husband would leave their home for months on end. We see the shadow of Harihar in him as he wanders haplessly in search of work and stability.

In one of the most stirring scenes in movies, Apu decides to abandon his novel, letting his manuscript fly away with the dismal wind. The camera here almost freezes and so does Apu as the pages slip from his hands into the woods below (he stands at the foot of a hillock). Its an extremely difficult choice, and yet its for his own good; he would now be able to shoulder the responsibilities he has been abdicating all along.

In terms of psychological complexity, I honestly believe the film could have gone deeper, and I think the problem here is me: I have watched a lot of movies. And I am well aware that Apu’s character is secondary to the journey he undergoes, as emphasized by the sound of the passing train, there were times I wanted to hear Apu contemplating his decisions because he seems like a very intelligent adult. The absence of dialogue functioned better in Pather Panchali because Apu is only a kid then. But again, it may be that I’ve seen so many great films already, I’m expecting too much!

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