Aka The World of Apu.
The third, and last, film of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar came a full three years after its prequel Aparajito had been released. Aparajito, while it hadn’t been received well in India (Indian audiences baulked at the obvious callousness and self-centredness of Apu in the film, so contrary to the established ideas of how a offspring must behave towards a mother), had won critical acclaim—and many awards—abroad. This was what encouraged Ray to make Apur Sansar, rounding off the story of Apu as he grows from a teenager to a man.
Apur Sansar introduces us to Apurba Ray ‘Apu’, (Soumitra Chatterjee, in his debut role) now a young man living in Calcutta. Apu is really down at heel: it shows in the ragged curtain hanging at the window of his single room; in the drab dreariness of that room, even the fact that he has to sleep with his outdoor clothes neatly folded and kept under the mattress so that the wrinkles get smoothed out.
His nights are spent partly in writing: Apu is an aspiring author, eager to be published. His days go in doing the rounds, both of publishers where he’s submitted work, and of other establishments where he’s hoping to get employment. Not necessarily writing work, but anything that will pay the bills. This is far from easy, and Apu goes from door to door, turned away or otherwise disappointed: there seems little work available for an educated man like him. There is some mention that Apu is part-time tutor to a schoolboy, but we are never shown this.
In a telling, brief, wordless scene, we catch a glimpse of Apu’s (non-existent) love life. Apu is sitting beside the window, and at the window opposite his, a young woman stands, looking longingly towards Apu. Apu gently uses his flute to close the shutters on the window, effectively shutting out the woman too.
Apu’s friend is Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), a wealthy young man who takes Apu out for the occasional big meal, reads his manuscripts, encourages Apu, and is generally his one real companion and friend in a world that otherwise seems pretty indifferent to Apu’s fate.
It is Pulu who one day compels Apu to come along with him to the countryside, to attend the wedding of Pulu’s cousin Aparna (Sharmila Tagore). Pulu is persuasive: the countryside, which Apu has not visited in so many years, is green and clean and uncrowded; it will be such a relief to be there, away from the dust and busy-ness of Calcutta. Apu will be happy, even if it’s just for a few days, to be back in the rural countryside where he grew up.
Apu gives in, and the two friends journey to Aparna’s village, where Apu is welcomed with open arms into the grand mansion, decorated, crowded with Pulu’s relatives, and in festive mood. Aparna’s mother (Sefalika Devi) is especially approving of Apu, who has brought along his flute. This is Krishna, personified, she says, smiling benevolently at Apu and adding that if she hadn’t already found a bridegroom for Aparna, she would have settled on Apu.
Later that day, Aparna’s bridegroom arrives in a palanquin, accompanied by his friends and relatives, a large and joyful group of men. When the palanquin comes to a stop outside the mansion, the bridegroom’s father tries to get his son to climb out—and it is now that the awful truth is revealed: this young man is mentally ill. He gets distressed, he refuses to get out of the safe cocoon of the palanquin, he starts tearing to bits the flowers of the garland round his neck.
Aparna’s father (Dhiresh Majumdar) is in half a mind to let the wedding proceed as planned, once the groom has been pacified; perhaps there is in his mind the realization that his daughter’s wedding being called off will amount to a loss of face. Also, there’s the horrifying fact that if the mahurat (the auspicious time decreed for the wedding, which is till 10 PM that night) passes without Aparna being married, she can never be then married: such is the custom in these parts.
But Aparna’s mother puts her foot down; she will not allow her daughter (Sharmila Tagore, in her debut role) to be given to a madman.
The only option now is that another groom be found to marry Aparna, within the space of a few hours. Pulu of course comes up with the obvious solution: Apu, whom Aparna’s mother had liked at first glance, and whom Pulu knows so well.
Pulu speaks to Apu, and a group of elderly relatives of Aparna’s, all of them with pleading faces, join the conversation, begging Apu to agree to marry Aparna. Apu is rattled but refuses. He cannot possibly marry now; he is rootless, he has no proper source of income, he just doesn’t want to marry at this stage.
But the disappointment and despair on the faces of Pulu and the other men eventually makes Apu change his mind. He agrees, and Aparna is married to Apu.
Apu is frustrated and anxious; Aparna is a very wealthy girl, used to luxury. How will she possibly adapt to life as the wife of a poor young man in Calcutta? He expresses his concerns to Aparna, but she, smiling shyly, assures him that all is well; she will adjust. She will be happy to be with him.
An assurance, sadly, which is at odds with Aparna’s own feelings. When she steps into Apu’s dilapidated little home in Calcutta, so poor and tattered and battered, Aparna sits down at the window while Apu excuses himself to go downstairs for a while. Sitting at the window, looking down through a rent in the curtain at a neighbouring woman playing with a toddler, Aparna bursts out crying.
When Apu returns and sees her (Aparna has already wiped her face and regained her composure), he, showing more perception than perhaps Aparna had expected, asks her if all is well. Aparna assures him she is fine.
But it isn’t, of course…
What I didn’t like about this film:
Which is really a quibble, because, like Pather Panchali and Aparajito, there was nothing in Apur Sansar that outright irked me. But yes, if there was something I had wished Satyajit Ray had spent a little more time over, it’s the Apu-Aparna relationship. After that first traumatic entry of Aparna into Apu’s home, the scene shifts somewhat abruptly to a later date in their life, with Aparna going about the house doing housework while Apu plays the flute, watches her with both longing and a sense of guilt that she’s working so hard.
Where and how their relationship settles into one where Aparna is truly and visibly happy being a housewife is never shown. Yes, it’s clear, in later scenes, that they have fallen deeply in love, and that Aparna has calmly accepted her lot as a poor man’s wife—but how does that happen? How does she come to terms with the situation? What part does Apu play in it, if any?
None of that is shown.
What I liked, and some more:
Apur Sansar is, to me, the one film of the Apu trilogy that is the closest to Hindi commercial cinema, in that it shares some tropes that I’ve seen in several films of the 50s, 60s and later. For instance, there is the marriage of convenience that changes to one of love: a trope well-used in many films, even in the avatar in which it appears here, of a man having to marry a bride whose wedding to another man has abruptly been called off. There is also another trope, seen especially memorably in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (also starring Sharmila Tagore, in one of my favourite Hindi film roles): that of the father who holds his offspring responsible for the death of its mother in childbirth.
Despite using two ‘popular’ tropes (though I wonder how popular these, especially the latter, might have been back in 1959), Ray manages to make Apur Sansar very much his type of film: nuanced, subtle, a film not so much plot-driven as character-driven. The story is a simple one, but its main characters—Apu, Aparna and Pulu, in particular—are memorable people, with very real emotions, very believable fears and sorrows and joys. Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee are excellent, and the chemistry between them is palpable.
Plus, as in Pather Panchali and Aparajito, there is the motif of the train. I love the way Ray uses a train symbolically through the three films of this trilogy, with the symbol changing in each film. In Pather Panchali, the distant train, chugging through the countryside, is like a happy dream for little Apu and Durga: a symbol of a magical, faraway world that is too far out of their reach but which they can admire from a distance. In Aparajito, with a teenaged Apu leaving home for Calcutta and coming home only occasionally, the train by which he travels becomes for his mother Sarbojaya a symbol of the son she pines for: a harbinger of hope, an eradicator of her loneliness.
In Apur Sansar, the train again becomes an important symbol, this time representing the relationship between Apu and Aparna. A symbol of extreme pain and distress for Apu, driving him to the edge…
And, of course, there are all the other many elements that make a Satyajit Ray film so very watchable: the beautifully composed frames, the use of music (Ravi Shankar’s; he composed the background music for all three films of the Apu trilogy), the use of silences…
A very satisfying film, and one which deserves all the many accolades and awards it’s won.
I love everything about Apur Sansar though I agree with your comment about wanting a little more relationship development! This is the film that really endeared me to Sharmila, and showed me what she was capable of.
She had once said in an interview that she was miserable in Bombay, even though Kashmir ki Kali was a hit. And Satyajit Ray had told her to pack her bags and come home because Bengal was where she belonged. Certainly, if you watch her in Apur Sansar and Devi, you realize just what an excellent performer she could be. And she was what? 13? 14? in this film? Incredible – kudos to Ray.
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I watched Devi a little before I watched Apur Sansar, so yes, I already knew what Sharmila Tagore was capable of, even at such a young age! It speaks volumes for Ray as a film-maker, I think, that he could get someone so young (or the children, in both Pather Panchali as well as Aparajito) to act so well, it never seems like acting. People who have only ever seen Sharmila Tagore in the Hindi films of the 60s (not even later, when – in Mausam, Namkeen, etc, she got some good roles) might never know.
I had seen it years ago and had liked it, especially Sharmila’s performance.
I had preferred it over Aparajito.
Need to visit all the three Apu films again.
Sharmila Tagore, apparently, got her best roles in films helmed by Bengali directors.
BTW, have you seen the new Aparajito(2022)?
I saw it last month at the Asian Film Festival in Mumbai.
Its like a docu-drama, a tribute to the master and is based on the story behind the making of Pather Panchali.
A well-made movie, more effective being made in B&W, Jeetu Kamal has done very well as Satyajit Ray (named Aparajito Ray in the film).
And the train scene picturization is there.
Its just that the movie gives you a feeling that Ray overcome all the challenges easily than what must have happened in reality.
Since the film is in flashback and begins with his interview, the viewer knows the outcome and so one doesn’t get too involved. So, a feel-good movie but a nice watch.
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From all the Bengali films (not very many, I will admit) I have seen of Sharmila Tagore’s, I can readily believe that Bengali directors gave her her best roles. But then, that could also be a reflection of Bengali cinema vis-a-vis Hindi as a whole: from what little I’ve seen, I get the impression that Bengali cinema was generally more refined (even when producing comedies or mysteries or whatever) than Hindi cinema. Better acting, better direction.
I have heard of the new Aparajito, but haven’t got around to watching it yet. That might be because the two people who told me about it were both very dismissive of it!
Very perceptive review, Madhu. I agree with you that the tropes – last minute change of groom and the rejection of Kajal – have become very familiar to modern day viewers. But these were part of the novel. I also agree that the relationship between Apu and Aparna could have been fleshed out a little bit. The novel dwelt upon this in great detail and brought out out the gradual falling in love very well. The truth is Ray had to cut down the novel quite a bit to make Apur Sansar. One of my favorite sections from the novel deals with Apu’s aimless wanderings after Aparna’s death. In the movie this has been shortened quite a bit.
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I find it interesting that those tropes were part of the novel. I suppose most of us who haven’t read Bengali novels think of these elements as typically Hindi film-ish – but then, Noukadoubi also has some fairly filmi elements. I guess it says something for the way these coincidences and improbabilities appeal to people – both readers as well as film-goers – that they’ve become so vastly popular over the years.
Thank you for your insightful comment, Soumya, and for appreciating the review.
By the time I got down to post my comments, it has been overtaken by a new post. But I must compliment you on completing your own Apu Trilogy. Having seen the three parts, now one can compare the films and the international acclaim in perspective. I can’t help thinking that after the West got awed by Ray’s style of presentation from his first film ‘Pather Panchali’, there was a kind of momentum to view the other two with a similar reverence. These films were slow-paced and were devoid of the standard cinematic drama. I think Ray emphasised this aspect while talking about the Apu Trilogy.
‘Jalsaghar’ and ‘Charulata’ were Ray as well as great ‘cinema’ as understood in any part of the world where good cinema is made. I wonder how he would have been seen had he made these films first.
In the trilogy, my favourite is Aparajito. I think I have mentioned my reasons in my comments earlier.
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That’s an interesting insight, AK. I agree, the reverence accorded to Pather Panchali probably got extended to its two sequels too, whether or not they too were of the same calibre. They are, I think, in their own way also good films, but whether all three are equally good is a moot point. I think Apur Sansar becomes a little too filmi (at least compared to its prequels).