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.