Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Film #46: Aparajito (1957)

* This film is the second in the “Apu Trilogy,” which I will be reviewing in full after I watch the final film, The World of Apu. This review will be relatively limited since it is considered only the middle portion of a larger whole.

Title for Us English-Speaking Types: “The Unvanquished”

Director: Satyajit Ray

Initial Release Country: Bangladesh

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Poor Bengali boy reaches adolescence in Bangladesh and India.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

When last we saw the six-year old Apu Roy, he was leaving his little forest village in Bangladesh, following the tragic death of his older sister.

It is now 1920 in Banares. The ten-year old Apu, his mother and priest father live in the packed city that straddles the holy Ganges. His father ekes out a living by administering rituals to the locals, and his mother tends their battered, ancient home. Apu, unable to go to school due to his family's extreme poverty, roams the streets and riverside, taking in the massive buildings and the strange local people.

Apu heeds his mother in the narrow alleys of Benares.

During an evening festival, Apu's father takes ill. After a struggle of a few days, he succumbs to his sickness and dies. With no other obvious source of income, Apu is trained as a priest and begins to conduct minor rituals around the city. Eventually, a wealthy family takes Apu's mother in as a housekeeper, which enables her to scratch together a modest amount of rupees, though this is hardly enough for anything beyond subsistence living. After a few months, mother and son pack up and move to the smaller town of Dewanpur.

In Dewanpur, Apu continues his work as a small-time local priest, young as he is. He one day discovers that there is a quality school nearby, and he begs his mother to enroll him. She takes what little money she has and does so. In school, Apu excels in his studies. He greatly impresses the instructors and superintendent at the school. They even give him extra work outside of class, which he absorbs with prodigious enthusiasm.

After roughly six years of superior work at school, Apu is offered a scholarship to a university in Calcutta. When he excitedly tells his mother, she grows very upset at the prospect of losing Apu, the only living member of her immediate family. She soon calms, however, and resignedly supports her son's desire to leave Dewanpur and go to Calcutta.

The adolescnent Apu somberly thinks about just how figurative that globe in his hands is.

In Calcutta, Apu takes residence in a print shop, where he works on the presses at night to make enough to support himself. During the day, he tries his best in class, but finds the amount of studying and night work overwhelming. He drifts off to sleep in the middle of the class, only to be called out and told to leave for the day. He does manage to stagger through the rest of his first semester, and returns to his mother for the holiday.

Back in Dewanpur, his mother is overjoyed to see him again. She has had little to do since her son's departure. She even tries to convince him to delay his return to Calcutta for a few days, so as to have a little more time with him. He tells her that he cannot, but he is somewhat stymied when his mother intentionally does not wake him for his return train. Initially angered, he decides to stay for one extra day. This seems to bring him a certain amount of inner peace.

Upon returning to Calcutta the next day, Apu becomes a studying and working machine. He now manages his printing job and his studies far more easily than before, and he once again seems to be on the track that will lead him out of poverty and towards far greater things. His mother, however, begins a slow mental and physical deterioration due to loneliness. She sends him a letter asking him to write more and come home for a few days to visit. Apu sends back a brief response, explaining that his impending exams demand that he stay in Calcutta to study.

Shortly after this, Apu receives a letter from his mother's friend. In it, he learns that his mother's health is failing. He returns home to find that she has passed away. He is distraught. By the next morning, though, he steels himself, packs his few belongings into his carrying sheet, and walks out of Dewanpur towards the train station, presumably to return to Calcutta and finish his education.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research)

Aparajito is a very logical continuation of its preceding chapter, Pather Panchali. As such, it requires the correct mood to watch. As with that first installment, I was in the proper frame of mind, which allowed me to see what an excellent film this is.

The similarities between the first two parts of the Apu trilogy are obvious and deep: they are thoroughly humanistic, being devoid of any hint of overdramatization or sentimentality. They both focus on a select few people. In Pather Panchali, it was clearly Apu and his mother, with his sister and father being lesser, though key, characters. With Apu's sister dead, and his father not lasting more than twenty minutes into it, Aparajito narrows the character focus even more. Everything is about Apu and his mother. The tale is a very delicate balance that conveys the deep, universal feelings of the maternal bond, and yet it never overplays its hand. Even if they wanted to, I feel that very few filmmakers could have pulled off this feat.

This clip contains a key moment, and a fine example of how Ray captured the very understandable connection between Apu and his mother. They have been in Dewanpur and Apu, 10, has been earning a bit of money as a child priest. Start it at 8:00:

The pace of Aparajito is blessedly faster than the first chapter. Pather Panchali, while masterful in its meditative state, was tryingly slow. This portion of Apu's life takes place in larger cities, amongst the ancient buildings and various peoples of Benares and Calcutta. For someone like me, who has never been anywhere close to these places, Apu serves as a proxy spy glass. As a wide-eyed village boy, he soaks in the new sights and sounds, and so do we. Director Satyajit Ray had to be aware of this, and plays up this relationship wonderfully.

I have to admit that a great amount of the appeal was certainly due to personal experience and bias. I myself am a teacher. This makes the entire sequence of Apu's academic progress a very easy thing to appreciate. As with all portions of these films, this is not high, fantastic drama, especially not to the average viewer. But to anyone who has worked with or watched someone as they sought their way in the world, such triumphs and progress are marvels to behold.

Of course, the strength of the movie comes from the emotional power imbued with the tale of Apu and his mother. Once his eminently likable father dies, Apu and his mother are even more tightly bound. This could easily have been the point where Satyajit Ray took the tale along one of many standard, cliched paths. Instead, he used a dash of familiar story lines that would ring true within his tale, and blended them perfectly. Apu and his mother show affection, love, respect, scorn, anger, and admiration for each other, all at different times and all in eminently authentic ways. As I stated in my review of Pather Panchali, this story has the very real feeling of a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

Here's a solid clip. Just watch from the beginning, and know that just prior, Apu has asked his mother if he can go to Calcutta to study. His mother initially panics and refuses. Apu gets surly and is slapped. He runs out of the house and to the nearby pond to sulk. That's where we pick up the scene. Just watch the two actors' faces throughout, to get a nice variety of emotion:

While Aparajito may feel like documentary, it is not documentary. If there is any doubt of it, one needs only look at the film itself. If Satyajit Ray worked cinematographic wonders with his first movie, his skills only grew greater in the years immediately following. On another shoestring budget, he shows an amazing eye for setting up shots, both long and close, to communicate both feelings of intimacy and feelings of awe. The larger cities seemed to be something of a playground for Ray, who used a variety of appropriate high and low angles to enmesh the viewer in the settings. The result is a film that, while nearly identical in spirit to Pather Panchali, has a very different aesthetic.

I suppose one could, after reading about how many of Apu's family members die in these first two movies, assume that this film is just a sad-sack tragedy. One could assume that. I, however, am reserving judgment until the final film. The first two chapters have been the story of a bright, precocious boy who has only just begun to hear the larger world calling out to him. He could not hear it in his earliest years due to his poverty, and he could not heed it fully as an adolescent due to his familial bonds. At the end of Aparajito, though, he seems to be walking towards that calling. I have a feeling that the final film of the trilogy, The World of Apu, may be something quite different. Whatever the case, I do look forward to the finale of Apu's tale.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little bit of research)

There's not really much to be found in this movie on its own, since most reviewers consider it the middle episode of a longer work. Of mild interest is that Aparajito raked in plenty of awards back in the day. Seemingly the most interesting is the fact that it is, to this very day, the only sequel that has ever won the award for “Best Film” at Venice Film Festival.

And so, with far more brevity than usual, that is a wrap. 46 shows down. 59 to go.

Coming Soon: Pyaasa (1957):

Bollywood, proper!! I know that India is a movie-mad country, and the Bollywood industry is as hulking as a rogue elephant. And yet, I've never actually watched a Bollywood picture. That's all about to change. Come on back and see how I take to it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.