A popular debate among movie lovers concerns ‘what is the best film trilogy?’ There are numerous mainstream candidates, such as the original Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future and The Godfather (plus Toy Story before they went and made an unnecessary fourth chapter). However, the world/independent/arthouse cinema scene is not without its three-part sagas and arguably a number of these would easily trump the more popular choices, in terms of quality. I’ve reviewed a couple of strong contenders over the past year, namely The Vengeance Trilogy and The Koker Trilogy. However, there’s one holy grail of trilogies that I’ve shamefully only watched one segment of, and that’s Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. I’m not sure any set of films has been as overwhelmingly praised by critics and what makes this achievement extra special, is that these were among the first films made by the writer/director (though he made two others in-between the second and third chapters).

Ray began his career as an illustrator, working on book covers and illustrations. In 1944, he was asked to work on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s popular autobiographical novel ‘Pather Panchali’. Ray was impressed by the book and his employer told him he believed it would make a great film. Ray hadn’t made one before but had a great love of cinema, so the idea inspired him to take up the challenge. It took several years to get the money together and 2 years to actually finish the shoot due to the restricted budget. However, when Ray’s version of Pather Panchali was finally completed in 1955 for its premiere at MoMA, it was well-received and word soon spread. Not only did it become popular in its home country (albeit after a slow start), it won a special Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival and made a surprisingly decent amount of money for a foreign-language film in the West.

The film’s success led Ray to follow-up the film with two sequels also based on the work of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) (though supposedly he only made Apur Sansar after telling reporters at a film festival he would make a sequel without actually planning to do so). These also found great success with critics, festivals and audiences, and the director went on to make a career full of masterpieces, though the Apu Trilogy remains his most famous work.

The trilogy faced a major issue with regards to its restoration for home entertainment distribution though. In 1993, a fire severely damaged the negatives for all three films. This has led to sub-par transfers on DVD over the years, but Criterion took on the unenviable task of salvaging what they could from the burnt-out negatives and digging out any decent duplicate negatives and prints from around the world to be able to restore the films as close as they could to their former glory. In 2015, this was completed and now the Blu-ray set Criterion produced is finally making its way to the UK.

Brief reviews of the three films in the trilogy follow:

* Please note – the opening synopses of the latter films spoil events that happen in previous films, so take care when reading if you haven’t seen the films before.

Pather Panchali (a.k.a. Song of the Little Road)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a Novel by: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Starring: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Banerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Runki Banerjee
Country: India
Running Time: 125 min
Year: 1955

Pather Panchali begins in the 1910s, before Apu is even born, introducing us to the rest of his family; his older sister Durga (Runki Banerjee initially, then Uma Das Gupta when she gets older), mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), father Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and auntie Indir (Chunibala Devi), who lives with them, on and off. They live in poverty on the outskirts of a rural village. The father is a writer and priest, who is respected but has little chance of earning in the area. The village is their birthplace though and traditionally at least some of the family is expected to stick to their roots.

Once Apu (Subir Banerjee) is born, things become even more difficult and Harihar often has to travel away to find work, leaving Sarbojaya to raise the children with little money for food. Not helping matters is the fact that the strong-willed and crafty Durga is constantly getting into trouble. Sarbojaya is at her wit’s end whilst the children play and cause mischief. Tragedy is never far around the corner either.

Pather Panchali is often hailed as a humanist masterpiece and, indeed, the film’s humanism is one of its strongest traits. Nothing in the film feels overwrought (other than perhaps a storm during a key scene) and the performances, which come from a mix of professional actors and non-professionals, all feel natural. There are quite a few family members among the cast and this helps create a believable dynamic between characters. The bickering and fighting between them feels like it would in a real family today. This helps the audience relate to the film, which was made 65 years ago and is set even further beyond that.

There are scenes of great tragedy and hardship in the film, but watching it is not a bleak or harrowing experience. The natural warmth between characters and the exuberant presence of the two children breathes so much life into it, that you’re never left to wallow in misery for long. Pather Panchali is a deeply touching film, but it’s not what I’d class as a tear-jerker, where the audience’s emotions feel regularly manipulated.

What aids this humanism and also marks Ray out as a cinematic master craftsman is the film’s deceptively simple style. He likes to tell his story through clear imagery rather than dialogue. He also doesn’t feel the need to ‘show off’ with fancy camerawork or atmospheric lighting either (though some of the night scenes do have a nice look to them). Instead, compositions are kept relatively static and clear.

That’s not to say the film is basic or ugly though. There’s much beauty in the relatively simple imagery Ray presents us with. He makes great use of the natural surroundings and windows and entrances of the humble family home.

Ray also gives the film dynamism when required, through editing and the occasional use of movement. Because this is done sparingly, it helps these moments stand out as they should. Key moments here include when Sarbojaya loses her temper with Durga and drags her out of the house by her hair. This is a shocking scene within the story and Ray reflects this through a sudden change of editing style and camerawork. Similarly, the classic scene when Durga and Apu run over to the train tracks to see a train up close for the first time perfectly balances a slow and quietly tense build-up with an exhilarating release when the train finally arrives.

I could say much more about this wonderful film, but because the rest of the trilogy shares similar qualities, I’ll hold some comments for the rest of the writeups. What I will end with in this section though is that, as directorial debut’s go, it’s hard to top and I believe it’s one of the finest films ever made, in general. Deceptively simple but beautifully crafted, brimming with life and quietly commenting on divisions in Indian culture, it’s a masterpiece through and through.

Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a Novel by: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Starring: Smaran Ghosal, Karuna Bannerjee, Kamala Adhikari, Pinaki Sengupta, Kanu Bannerjee
Country: India
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1956

Aparajito begins not long after the first film, with what’s left of the family now living in Calcutta. All seems well, though Sarbojaya isn’t adjusting to life in the city quite as easily as the others. Harihar is finding regular work, so the family are getting by, even if they’re far from wealthy. However, when he falls ill and dies, Sarbojaya and Apu (Pinaki Sengupta initially, then Smaran Ghosal later) are forced to move out and live with her uncle in a village in Bengal. There, Apu is initially expected to train to be a priest like his father, but he longs to go to school like the other children and talks his mother into letting him do it whilst entering the priesthood.

We move forward a few years and Apu is doing very well at school, so is offered a scholarship at Calcutta. Sarbojaya is initially resistant to this but lets him go. As Apu soon warms to his new city life and the pleasures of learning, however, he drifts further away from his mother, who is now left alone.

Much like Pather Panchali, Aparajito excels in presenting a wonderfully human portrayal of life in India at the time. After being more about Apu’s family living in poverty, the story now focuses more closely on Apu himself, his ambitions and desire to rise above his past. This is no Hollywood rags-to-riches feel-good story though. Once again the film keeps things simple, allowing the characters to take centre stage rather than any sort of elaborate narrative.

Ray’s technical skill seems to be improving here a little. Pather Panchali is hardly what you’d call shoddily-made, but in Aparajito Ray ventures out to a wider range of locations as well as some impressively natural-looking sets. He also pulls off some slightly more elaborate shots here and there. This, along with the wider scope of the settings and shift away from portraying young children, means a little of the raw zest-for-life of the first film is lost perhaps, but it’s nonetheless a fine piece of work.

Looking a little at the comments Ray or Bandyopadhyay might have been making through these films, there seems to be a damning of India’s patriarchy in Pather Panchali. Here we saw Sarbojaya endlessly working and Harihar sauntering back after days or sometimes weeks away with little to show for it, wasting money on treats for the kids and seeming oblivious to the trouble they’re in. In Aparajito, this is less apparent, but I did detect some quiet digs at religion and traditionalism here and there. When Harihar lays dying, he asks for water from the Ganges, but this does nothing, in fact, it almost seems like that’s what finally kills him. We also see that the priesthood studies forced on Apu are holding him back. These suggestions are not pivotal though, so the film isn’t making any bold statements that might interfere with the personal focus of the story.

Something I also didn’t mention before is Ray’s keen eye for detail. He loves to place small things within a shot or scene that might seem meaningless but subtly get across key information about a character or situation. In Aparajito, some of these include nice little call-backs to the previous film. We get a moment somewhere in the middle where Apu gets excited about a train he can see in the distance, but his expression changes, quietly showing he’s missing his sister. You also see him frequently carrying his umbrella around, much like his father did, symbolising the fact he’s following the literary path Harihar longed to and his influence will always stay with Apu. I found the fact Apu carried around a little globe through his initial travels away from home a little overstated though, perhaps.

Overall, this is an excellent and more-than-worthy follow-up to Pather Panchali. It perhaps doesn’t have the same spark of energy that caught the world’s attention the first time around, but it remains a beautifully made coming-of-age drama.

Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a Novel by: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Starring: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Alok Chakravarty, Swapan Mukherjee
Country: India
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1959

Apur Sansar continues the story further, seeing a now truly independent Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) living with little money but grand dreams of success as a writer, whilst living in humble accommodation in Calcutta. A college friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who’s from a wealthier family, invites him to the country for his cousin’s wedding. The perpetual bachelor Apu goes along and gets more than he bargains for when the groom is found to have lost his mind and the bride’s devastated family, including Pulu, ask Apu to marry her instead. He’s initially horrified at this ridiculous suggestion but eventually feels the noble thing to do would be to marry the woman.

So Apu takes Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) as his wife that day and he ashamedly takes her back to his hovel in Calcutta. Aparna is initially devastated by this, though she tries not to show it to Apu. As time passes, however, the pair become deeply in love and enjoy a happy, if unassuming, time together. As is often the case in the trilogy though, tragedy is never far behind and events take a dramatic twist in the latter portion of the film.

With several films under his belt by this point, Ray had refined his skills by Apur Sansar. While never over-stylised, the film contains some wonderfully constructed shots, such as a long track along a riverbank, following a wedding procession but ending on Apu sleeping under a nearby tree. A night scene in a train yard (trains play a key symbolic part in the trilogy) is atmospherically lit too.

Ray still knows how to tell his story succinctly through his visuals though. A key scene when we first move forward some time into Apu’s marriage was highlighted in Mark Cousins’ Story of Film documentary as being a fine example of Ray’s skill at visual storytelling. A significant amount of time passes between one scene and the next, but rather than get a caption or clunky line of dialogue telling us so, we are shown through clues such as the pair’s curtains being replaced and the fact the previously uneasy couple are now at total ease with one another, a fact we are shown through a playful slap from Aparna and a loving glance from Apu. We also soon see Aparna squash a bug, showing how she’s grown stronger and more adept at dealing with their humble surroundings.

One of the great strengths of the film is the portrayal of this central relationship. The couple’s time together is relatively brief on-screen, but the performances and visual signals build a powerful yet sweet bond between them that helps add weight to what comes later.

Speaking of which, there were a couple of key moments in Apur Sansar that threatened to derail the film for me. A major blow that comes in the latter third of the film felt like possibly a tragedy too far in the series. Also, the wedding twist is quite a bizarre shock and seems far-fetched compared to the more simple, natural directions the films’ stories take prior to this. These two events caused me to worry that the series was lurching towards the grand melodrama it had thankfully previously avoided. However, Ray manages to tread the delicate balance between high drama, bold twists and the humanism he’s famous for. He does this by avoiding sentimentality. What happens following both events is also surprising and intriguing, so lead the film in unexpected directions. The latter third of the film is particularly surprising and felt hard-to-swallow at first, but given all that has happened over Apu’s life by this point, it does make narrative sense, even if I wouldn’t take such actions myself. It also leads to a deeply moving finale that thankfully keeps its conclusion perfectly brief, rather than dragging it into saccharine territories.

This final chapter in the trilogy has some more melodramatic twists and turns then, but Ray never lets the film steer into a ditch of sentimentality or morbidity. Instead, he once again offers a great humanist work. It caps off what is truly one of the finest film trilogies of all time. The whole saga is an undisputed masterpiece and one I’d be happy to watch again and again.

The Apu Trilogy Blu-ray set is out on 25th May in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The original negatives of the films were tragically burnt in a fire twenty years ago, so the picture quality is never going to be quite as strong as many of Criterion’s releases, but they’ve done a damn fine job with the material they could find. There are slight signs of damage, with light lines and flecks appearing from time to time, but nothing awfully noticeable. On the whole, the detail and dynamic range is impressive. I compared it to the Artificial Eye DVD and it’s a notable improvement. Apur Sansar looks particularly good, with notably less damage than the others. The audio, again, isn’t perfect, particularly on Pather Panchali, but sounds as good as it ever likely will and, once again, sounds a lot better than the Artificial Eye DVD.

There are plenty of special features included too:

– New 4K digital restorations of all three films, undertaken in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
– Audio recordings from 1958 of director Satyajit Ray reading his essay “A Long Time on the Little Road” and in conversation with film historian Gideon Bachmann
– New interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore; camera assistant Soumendu Roy; and film writer Ujjal Chakraborty
– Making “The Apu Trilogy”: Satyajit Ray’s Epic Debut, a new video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson
– “The Apu Trilogy”: A Closer Look, a new program featuring filmmaker, producer, and teacher Mamoun Hassan
– Excerpts from the 2003 documentary The Song of the Little Road, featuring composer Ravi Shankar
– The Creative Person: “Satyajit Ray,” a 1967 half-hour documentary by James Beveridge, featuring interviews with Ray, several of his actors, members of his creative team, and film critic Chidananda Das Gupta
– Footage of Ray receiving an honorary Oscar in 1992
– New programs on the restorations by filmmaker kogonada
– New English subtitle translations
– PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu, as well as a selection of Ray’s storyboards for Pather Panchali

The lack of commentaries is a disappointment, but there is still plenty of material here. The interviews with Ray are all recommended. He is a decidedly eloquent man with a smooth baritone voice, so it’s always a pleasure to hear him speak about his films. I appreciated the inclusion of interviews with several other collaborators too.

Andrew Robinson and Mamoun Hassan’s essays are particularly informative, both digging into what makes the trilogy special.

I would recommend anyone who enjoys this set to check out Criterion’s The Music Room release too, as that contains a wonderful feature-length documentary on Ray, on top of being a superb film in its own right.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Overall then, it’s a fantastic package that comes very highly recommended.

The Apu Trilogy - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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