Aparajito (1956)

Aka The Unvanquished.

After the success of Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray—who had never intended to make a sequel to the film—was encouraged to take the story of Apurba ‘Apu’ Ray forward, a story that emerged in Aparajito.

This instalment of the story of Apu begins a few years after the last scene of Pather Panchali. Apu (now Pinaki Sen Gupta) has now moved to Banaras, with his priest father Hori (Kanu Bannerjee) and mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee). Hori goes to the riverside every day to deliver sermons to a group of Bengalis, most of them widows. He makes enough money for the little family to be just about comfortable, no more.

They live in cramped accommodations, with Banaras’s famous monkeys coming in every now and then, frightening Sarbojaya as she goes about her housework.

There is also their next door neighbour, a single man named Nanda (Charuprakash Ghosh), whose presence makes Sarbojaya very uncomfortable: he seems to have little awareness of the distance due to an unrelated woman, and comes barging in without a thought, retreating only when Sarbojaya makes it amply clear that he’s intruding.

Apu spends his day here, there and everywhere, playing with the boys in the neighbourhood, generally being the child that he is.

Then, out of the blue, disaster strikes. One day, Hori comes home from his day at the ghat, running a high fever and feeling unwell. Since he’s an Ayurvedic practitioner too, Hori instructs Sarbojaya on what decoction to brew for him. After this medication and a night’s rest, he claims to feel fine and goes to the ghat again the next day, though Sarbojaya tries to dissuade him.

… with tragic consequences. On his way back up from the ghat, Hori—already reeling—collapses and is brought home very ill. Though a kindly neighbour calls a doctor, in the middle of the night Hori regains consciousness only long enough to ask for water: Ganga jal, the sacred water of the Ganga, to send his soul on its way.

There are a few tense, ominous minutes as Sarbojaya wakens a sleeping Apu and sends him scurrying down to the river to fetch water. This she pours into her gasping husband’s mouth, and Hori dies. (Ray uses one of the most vivid visual metaphors of death that I’ve ever seen in Indian cinema: literally a depiction of the Hindi idiom praan-pakheru ud jaana, ‘life-bird taking flight’).

Sarbojaya, naturally, is shattered; but she soon manages to find work as domestic help with a wealthy Bengali family in Banaras. Apu accompanies her now and then to their home, and is given little errands to do (and paid for them). The family is so pleased with Sarbojaya’s work that when they decide to leave Banaras and go to Dewanpur, the lady of the house asks Sarbojaya (in fact almost pleads with her) to come along too, both her and Apu.

Sarbojaya is considering this when an old uncle (Ramani Sen Gupta) comes to visit from Bengal. He offers to take Sarbojaya and Apu with him when he returns; they will have a comfortable home there in the village, and he will train Apu to be a priest, to carry on his father’s legacy, the family profession. Sarbojaya, after some thought, chooses Bengal over Dewanpur, and the two of them go to Bengal with Uncle.

It turns out to be what seems like a good decision: in the village, their neighbours are kind and caring; Uncle soon teaches Apu the rituals and then goes his way. Apu and Sarbojaya, mother and son, are happy together in their own little world.

One day, though, coming home from the temple after his day’s work, Apu sees the local boys coming from school. He sees the school too, and there’s a longing in his eyes for it, for what he has left behind.

So Apu asks Sarbojaya if he may go to school, and though she initially baulks at the idea (where will they get the money to pay his school fees?), she gives in soon after. The Sarbojaya who was so devoted to her little son in Pather Panchali is still the mother who will, for her son’s happiness, do whatever it takes, even if it means a sacrifice for her.

Apu proves to be a diligent and conscientious student: when a visiting inspector of schools poses a question, Apu answers correctly and then proceeds to read, with correct diction and cadence, a poem the visitor sets before him.

The inspector is moved as well as impressed, and the school headmaster (Subodh Ganguli) summons Apu to his office to congratulate the boy. He also gives Apu, along with several encouraging remarks on expanding his reading, a stack of books that will help Apu improve his English.

Apu plunges into the world of learning, so engrossed in his books that his mother has to often prise a half-asleep Apu off them late at night just so he can eat and go to bed. Apu loves his books, and so, as a teenager (now Smaran Ghoshal), it’s hardly surprising that he one day springs the news on Sarbojaya: he can get a scholarship to go and study in a Calcutta college.

Sarbojaya is unhappy about this; she tries to let Apu know that she doesn’t want him to go; and won’t it cost money? Where will they get the money? But Apu has an answer to that: the scholarship will pay most of the fees, and he will get a part-time job to take care of the rest of his expenses. Sarbojaya is obviously torn; on the one hand, this is her son, whom she loves so much, she cannot find it in her to deny him what he wants. On the other hand, how will she live without Apu?

Mother love wins, and Sarbojaya digs about among her savings to unearth thirty carefully-hoarded rupees from when she used to work in Banaras. These she hands over to Apu, who soon after, arrives in Calcutta. Here, he comes with a letter of introduction (from his school headmaster) to a man who runs a printing press. Apu will stay in a room above the press, and instead of paying rent, will work at the press at night, once he’s back from college.

And thus, Apu goes off to Calcutta, and Sarbojaya is left all alone.

What I liked about this film (and some general meanderings):

Like Pather Panchali, Aparajito too is marked by a stark realism that draws you in. The acting is top-notch (more about this later, especially Karuna Bannerjee); the filming locations, whether in the countryside in Bengal or the riverside in Banaras, or even Calcutta—are beautiful in a very real way; and there’s a strong sense of balance throughout. A balance between dialogue and silence, between things happening and life going on, slow and unhurried. Between limbo and action, love and sacrifice, pride and immature self-centredness.

That last bit—about pride on the one hand, immature self-centredness on the other—comes through very poignantly in the relationship between Sarbojaya and Apu. Her love for him is profound, even though Sarbojaya is not the emotional, melodramatic sort: what she feels for her son, instead, comes through in her actions. As a child, Apu was fed by her, patiently, each morsel placed in his mouth while he played; as a ten-year old, he is allowed to go to school because he wants to. As an older teen, he is allowed to go away to Calcutta, even though it means that Sarbojaya will be left all alone. Not to fend for herself; she has money, and there is evidence that Apu sends her money orders now and then—but lonely. Karuna Bannerjee, as Sarbojaya, is superb: she has very little to speak, but that very expressive face speaks volumes.

What makes Sarbojaya’s loneliness worse is that she has too much self-respect to let Apu know how his absence is affecting her. And Apu, typical teenager that he is, is too wrapped up in the headiness of college, friends, Calcutta and the freedom of being on his own, to pay attention. He can see that his mother misses him and would like him to be home (it’s not as if Apu is completely oblivious or insensitive); it’s just that he cannot equal her sacrifice. In his own way, he tries to compensate—going back to the city a day later (by deliberately missing a train back to Calcutta)—but it isn’t enough.

There’s so much more about this film. Ray’s absolutely beautiful photography, for one, each frame so stunningly composed. Banaras, especially, is exquisitely framed here, from the riverside ghats and temples to the narrow gallis in which Hori and his family have their home.

There are the silences, the many things that are said without words being used.

There is the motif of the train, continued from Pather Panchali. It’s interesting to see, too, how the symbolism of the train changes within this film. The first time a train passes by near their new home in Bengal, Apu runs to the doorway and looks out, briefly excited. Then, as Sarbojaya comes to stand beside him, his face clouds. Nothing is said, but from the pain and grief mirrored in the faces of both mother and son, it’s clear what they’re thinking of, the loss they’re reliving when they see the train chugging past. (I like that Satyajit Ray respects his audience’s emotional intelligence enough to not express this in words).

Later in the film, though, the passing of the train means something else: to Sarbojaya, this is her one link with the son she misses so much. Will the train have brought Apu to her? It becomes a symbol of hope, and at the same time, of hopes dashed.

A wonderful film, Aparajito is very different from Pather Panchali, even though it is a continuation of the same story. This one is not about the grittiness of a family in the face of crushing poverty; this is about the relationship between a lonely mother and her restless, ambitious, outward-bound son. Memorable.

29 thoughts on “Aparajito (1956)

    • I do think films like Meghe Dhaka Taara (or even the Apu Trilogy, well-made though they are) can be quite depressing in the way they depict the harsh reality of life, but there are plenty of Bengali films that aren’t depressing, and which I would recommend. Some are by Ray himself (Mahapurush, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella); some by other directors (Thana These Aschi, Lokuchuri, Baksha Badal, Barnali, Chaowa-Paowa)… and quite a few more. I have reviewed a fair number of Bengali films on this blog, and while a few have been pretty tragic and depressing, there have been plenty that are not at all in that style.

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  1. I was fascinated when I saw the film on regional films slot on d .d ibeas stunned by beauty of Banaras as captured in the film. It remained entrenched in my memory till I reached Banaras later in life. Karuna Banerjee was exceptional in the film. Satyajit ray in exceptional form.

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    • If memory serves me correctly, I think I know who you are speaking of. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, so just like you I will not get into who that person was. However, their criticism seems so hypocritical given that their best known work did exactly the same, only with the melodrama dialed up to a 1000. Enough said.

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          • Your comment about the high melodrama was clue enough! That was a seriously short-sighted comment by Nargis; I would have thought anybody trying to pull down Ray by accusing him of exhibiting India’s poverty would not have had a Mother India in their kitty.

            Also a comment that shows a superficial understanding of the film, I think. For me, the resilience of the characters – both in Pather Panchali and its sequels – is what stands out. Despite poverty, despite setbacks, they have dignity, they find joy in little things, and they bounce back. If anything, while showing the stark reality of life in India’s villages, these films show too the spirit of the people who live in such dire poverty.

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  2. My favourite movie of the Apu trilogy, for all the reasons you mention. There’s something almost meditative about this film, a sense of lingering melancholy (I hesitate to call it ‘sadness’). I watched the trilogy on Criterion when they were having a Satyajit Ray retrospective, not so long ago, so this is fresh in my mind. Thank you for the review.

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    • Even Sai Paranjpye’s fav. My fav is Apur Sansar. Having said that, the novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito are so true to life and touching that all I did for the first 8 years (from 10 when I got PP as a birthday present and 18 when I bought Aparajito) was only weep, weep and more weep..

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    • “a sense of lingering melancholy (I hesitate to call it ‘sadness’).

      That’s an interesting comment, Anu. Made me think. And yes, I agree with you: it’s probably more melancholy than sadness. The loneliness of Sarbojaya, I think, and the hard practical self-centredness of Apu…

      I’m glad you liked this review. Thank you.

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  3. Madhu,
    ‘Aparajito’ is my great favourite, too, among the trilogy. In PP Ray was more art, he had a vision how to frame a scene which he presented to the world. They were awed by Ray’s ability to present his vision through cinema shots.

    ‘Aparajito’ is more conventional cinema; it has a narrative and drama, because the story moves a long distance in space and time. Village to Banaras to another village to Calcutta captures a growing Apu from a child to a college student. Bengal had a special relationship with Banaras. Ray has shown Banaras more realistically than any other filmmaker, yet making it so endearing and dramatic.

    My compliments for a nice review of a great film.

    AK

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    • Thank you, AK. I’m so glad you enjoyed this review.

      On a fairly tangential note: oh, yes – I do know about the special relationship of Bengalis with Banaras. My mother’s grandfather belonged to a fairly well-respected and wealthy Brahmin Bengali family of Banaras. When he and his brother decided to convert to Christianity, their father was so angry, he disowned them and they were forced to leave Banaras! They came away to Calcutta and settled there after that. :-)

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  4. Very good review Madhu. Aparajito and Apur Sansar are definitely more mature films but I still prefer Pather Panchali. It has a freshness and innocence that the other two lack.

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    • Thank you, Soumya – and I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I agree that Pather Panchali has an innocence (also perhaps a lack of self-awareness – there’s something more raw about it, less practised – in a good way) than is the case with its sequels. To me, Apur Sansar was almost Bollywoodish at times, or as Bollywood as Ray could get!

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      • Satyajit Ray eliminated a lot of of the plot from the original novels for his films. In Aparajito Apu becomes friends with the girl in the rich household where Sarbajoya works as a maid. Later he falls in love with her but because of the difference in their social status they go different ways. It would have been more Bollywood-ish if Ray had chosen to keep this sub-plot. But fortunately for the film the actress chosen by him to play the girl backed out because her would-be husband objected to her acting in films.
        In the original novel when Apu hears of the death of his mother the first emotion he feels is a sense of freedom (mukti in Bengali). He immediately feels remorse for this but he can’t help it. The dominant theme in Aparajito is the gradual estrangement between mother and son and Apu’s journey towards a more unshackled life.

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  5. Very nice review. The Apu Triology are classics, cannot forget them. One interesting thing. The interior of their Benares home was filmed in a Tollygunge Studio. They recreated it paying attention to every little detail.

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