Sunday, February 13, 2011

Film #50: Apur Sansor (1959)

Note: Apur Sansar is the final installment of the Apu Trilogy. Here are my reviews of the first two, Pather Panchali and Aparajito,

Title for Us English-Speaking Types: The World of Apu

Director: Satyajit Ray

Initial Release Country: Bangladesh

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Young and artistic Bengali man faces myriad of emotional swings when reality clashes with his ideals.

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

When last we saw the young Apu Roy, he was leaving his ancestral home after his mother's tragic death. He was returning to Calcutta to proceed with his university education. It is now a few years down the road, and he has only been able to partially complete his education due to lack of money. With only an Intermediate diploma, he is hard-pressed to find work. He dreams of being a writer, and works diligently at it, but can only pay his bills through modest tutoring jobs.

Under the threat of eviction from his worn-down room, he seeks a more regular job. However, when he learns that the only jobs available are the most menial and mind-numbing of tasks, he decides to continue eking out his living through tutoring and writing. He does receive word that one of his short stories has been accepted for publication. This is perhaps a hint at potential future success.

A very poor but fairly contented Apu plays his pipe to while away time in his battered room.

Apu is eventually visited by his old college friend, Pulu. Pulu is initially disappointed that Apu has not been heard of since leaving college, and the two bicker over Apu's idealist notions compared to Pulu's more practical approach to life. The two do rekindle their friendship for one another, though.

On Pulu's invitation, Apu travels to his friend's impressive family home to witness his younger cousin, Apurna's, forthcoming wedding. Things go horribly wrong, though, when the groom-to-be shows up and appears to be stark mad. Pulu's family is distraught, as they believe that a cancellation of the wedding will curse Apurna for the rest of her life. Desperate, they ask Apu if he will marry Apurna so that their family will not be cursed and disgraced. Apu is at first appalled, and he angrily refuses. After some thought, though, he decides that it would be highly virtuous to accede to their request. As such, he becomes the unexpected groom.

On the wedding night, Apu comes clean to his new wife, who is quite beautiful, if rather young. Apu explains his reasons for marrying her and admits that his artistic aspirations likely preclude any possibility of riches. He has accepted a life of poverty and asks if she is willing to do the same. Despite being from a family of significant means, Apurna accepts the situation and agrees to go with her new husband back to Calcutta.

Apu and his new wife, complete strangers, make awkward attempts to get to know each other.

On first arriving, Apurna has a few moments of quiet sadness as, in Apu's dilapidated apartment, the realization of her new life hits her. And yet, she soon comes to love her husband's kind nature. She even rebuffs his proposal to find more work so that they may be a little more comfortable, preferring instead to simply spend the time with him. She has realized that any material wealth is as nothing compared to being with the man that she loves. Apu sees this and his love for his wife grows deep and profound.

Soon, Apurna becomes pregnant. She leaves Apu in Calcutta, in order to be with her family for the few months leading up to the birth. Then, tragedy. One of Apurna's brothers unexpectedly shows on Apu's door to inform him that Apurna has died in a premature birth. His child lives, but Apu has lost the one thing that he treasures above all else in the world – his loving wife.

With Apurna gone, Apu becomes a shell of the man he was. He turns his back on nearly everything, including his newborn son, Kajal. Leaving Kajal with Apurna's family, Apu becomes a wanderer who has lost faith in everything. He even takes his novel,his semi-autobiographical prized work, and jettisons the pages off of a cliff. Everything that was his has now been taken or thrown away.

Five years pass. All who once knew him now know almost nothing of Apu's whereabouts. His young son is now a very troubled child, causing no end of mischief for his de facto guardians, his great aunt and uncle. In the midst of Kajal's turmoil, Pulu shows up. Upon seeing Kajal's behavior, he decides to seek out his old friend, Apu.

After losing his beloved wife, Apu becomes an aimless drifter.

After a little searching, Pulu finds Apu drifting between coal mining and writing jobs, saving money in order to leave the country. At Pulu's insistence, Apu confesses that he feels nothing for his son. He explains that he cannot get past the fact that it was Kajal's life that caused Apurna's death. Apu, therefore, feels that he cannot act as the child's father. Nevertheless, Pulu convinces Apu to at least visit his son to see if he might have a change of heart.

On returning to his in-laws' home, where Kajal is living, Apu faces more difficulty. His in-laws are rightfully accusatory, and Kajal greets him with willful reluctance. Apu explains who he is to his son, and even tries to melt away some of the bitter iciness that Kajal has for him. Alas, it does not seem to be, and Apu decides to leave for good.

On walking along the road from his son and his keepers' house, however, Apu turns back to see Kajal following him. Kajal seems to be interested in Apu, even if he does not want to believe that he is his real father. Kajal asks if, should he agree to go with Apu, they could go to Calcutta to “find his father,” a pact that Apu is glad to make. Father and son continue along the road, one tiny stitch mended from the shredded fabric of their relationship.

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

The Apu Trilogy is an amazing piece of work, though one I may never feel the need to watch again.

After taking in the entire trilogy, it is clear that Satyajit Ray constructed a wonderfully unique set of films. The tale of Apu's growth into his late twenties blends universal sentiments that can move any viewer, yet the films have a distinctively regional feel. This masterful mixture is due to many components.

Here's a fantastic sequence from before and through the botched marriage. It actually makes for a great little mini-tale that can be taken completely on its own. Just start at the beginning and watch for a few minutes:

The story is one that has something for every fan of humanistic movies. Apu overcomes nearly-crushing poverty and personal tragedies through his intelligence and perseverance. Through the three movies, each successive death in his family takes a greater and greater toll on him. The first, his sister Durga's death, is one that the six-year old Apu moves past with an alacrity that only a young child can possess. In the second film, his father's passing is also overcome by the ten-year-old Apu's further bonding with his mother. When she too dies, he turns towards the beckoning word of academics for solace. When he is unable to see this through, his surprise marriage promises to give him the love that is missing. With the death of Apurna, however, Apu seems unable to cope any more. His devastation at this loss turns him into a rather unsympathetic character, though one can understand his plight in light of everything.

Running through the second half of the roughly five-and-a-half hour fully story is the conflict between Apu the artist and Apu the man. Any person who has attempted to carve out a livelihood in the creative arts can easily understand the friction that results when idealism meets the cold, hard realities of being a husband and father. The family tensions are always palpable, though not presented in the highly dramatic fashion of most popular drama.

How does director Ray communicate this to the viewer? Unlike most other directors, he uses very quiet moments of reflection during which you can see the calm anguish on certain characters' faces. With Ray often not relying on the dialogue to pass this along, we viewers have to adopt the same contemplative state that the characters show. It brings us closer to them by allowing us into their minds and spirits in a more authentic manner. A fine example is Apurna's arrival at Apu's run-down apartment in Calcutta. She arrives and Apu leaves the room for a moment. Apurna, still adorned in her wedding dress and make-up, sits down on his bed, looks out at the tattered neighborhood, and begins to cry softly. She never voices this initial disappointment, but I could feel it almost as if it were my own.

Here is a clip which includes that very scene. Start it at 6:20:

The backgrounds of India and Bangladesh, and Ray's integration of these areas, are a major part of what give the Apu Trilogy its distinctive look, sound and feel. With the eye of a cultural anthropologist, he includes the locales, music and customs of Bangladesh and India. We foreign viewers may not understand the reasons and feelings behind some of the traditions we see, but we can certainly grasp their significance for the characters in the tale. One of the many sequences that exemplifies this is the wedding. From Apurna being dressed up by her mother, aunts and sisters, to the actual ceremony itself, there is a wealth of visual wonders to take in. Ray set up these scenes and shot them so as to maximize our ability to slowly absorb them and dwell on what they mean to all characters involved.

I need to say more about Ray's general filming style. I still need to check on who the primary cinematographer was, but the final product is dazzling in its efficiency. An array of great work is done, from still to low-angle to wide-angle to panning shots, each technique is measured and executed perfectly. They draw the eye to exactly where it needs to be, while allowing one to take in the greater whole when necessary. Between the first and third films, I feel that Ray went from great to phenomenal in these respects. By even summoning certain sounds and images from the earlier films, such as windows, trains and beds, The World of Apu adds a satisfying sense of cohesion to the whole.

Here's a clip from near the end. You can pick any place and just watch for a little while. The work is so well-done that it's not hard to pick up the mood of the entire scene or figure out exactly what's going on:

The only complaint I can possibly imagine anyone leveling at these movies is that they are rather slow and mildly depressing. The truth is that I can't really argue against this. However, these are certainly cultural biases that would lead one to feel that the Apu Trilogy is not an “entertaining” set of films. Entertaining they may not be, but I feel that they transcend mere entertainment, and bring us something of greater depth and artistry. I may not ever be in the right frame of mind to sit through them again, but I have no doubt that these three movies will stay with me for the rest of my days.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

No real shockers in the digging. Here's what the professionals say:

Right from the jump, The Apu Trilogy, including the final installment, was recognized as a phenomenal piece of work. Between the three films, it raked in heaps of awards at film shows all over the world, and it opened up entire new worlds for Indian/Bengali filmmakers. Apparently, virtually all films in the region had been basic swashbucklers or musical romances (which is ironic, since there is a scene in the third film in which Apu and Apurna enjoy taking in an Indian pirate flick of just such fare). Even the TIME magazine reviewer in 1960 gushed about it. Here's their review.

Even more recent critics seem unable to ignore this black and white story that was done for a pittance. Roger Ebert brings up many of the things that I couldn't help notice, but articulates them better than I can, and of course adds a few minor observations in his review here.

The only other note of interest was what I dug up on the photographer. He was a man named Subrata Mitra, and, like nearly everyone else on the cast and crew, had never done any film work before Pather Panchali. To this day, filmmakers and critics alike all seem to marvel at just how Mitra, along with everyone else, wrung so much from such meager finances (the entire trilogy was made for $3,000! Try that in today's market!). I suppose it's amazing what true talent can do.

That's a wrap. 50 shows down, 53 to go.

Coming Soon: The 400 Blows (1959)

Joy of joys – French cinema verite comes alive. (Be sure to read that last sentence with an extremely sarcastic tone.) I can't say I've enjoyed the verite films that I've seen, including this one, but I'll try to watch this one with fresh eyes. Wish me "bon chance!"

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