Sunday, 29 June 2014

APARAJITO (The Unvanquished) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - #2 of The Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray

When a mother and child must face the world alone.

When a mother must face the world alone.
Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) Dir. Satyajit Roy *****
Starring: Smaran Ghosal, Pinaki Sen Gupta, Karuna Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Some movies sneak up on you. Aparajito is such a picture. This sequel to Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali and second entry in his Apu Trilogy most definitely delivers the new beginning promised at the end of the previous film. Having left their rural village behind in favour of big city life in Benares, The Roy family are still living in poverty, but existence doesn't seem quite so tenuous. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) continues his work as a priest and delivers prayers on the banks of the Ganges River while his wife Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) tends to her homemaking chores.

Though the family is more secure than back in the sticks, it's Apu (Pinaki Sen Gupta) who seems especially satisfied with his current lot in life. With an entire city as a playground and the joy he clearly expresses whilst tearing about the teeming populace, Apu seems the happiest of the three, with one exception, one definite want and need. They family lives too far away from a school and Apu does indeed express a desire for an education.

If anything, literacy and education in Apu's life are the real driving forces behind the film's narrative. Interestingly, Ray was always disappointed that there was one key role he had to write out of the film at the last minute due to casting issues, but if truth be told, it's a role that's completely unnecessary and in fact strengthens the education factor in Apu's life and how it transforms the movie into a kind of transcendence one doesn't expect - at least not in the early going.

And, of course, this is one of the ways in which the movie sneaks up on you.

The first chunk of the film is extremely amiable on all fronts. Though Harihar continues to work his butt off for not much more than he was making before, the dough is at least steady and given the tragic events that befell the Roy family in Pather Panchali, it's a relief seeing these three people peacefully living out their lives in the city Sarbajaya always regretted leaving (and in fact, begged Harihar earlier in the previous movie to return to). If Sarabajaya isn't quite living out her "I had dreams once, too" lament from the first of the trilogy, this is still a far cry from the repressive life in Harihar's ancestral home in the country.

Then, like the snakes wending their way mysteriously through every corner of India, we are thrown for a loop narratively as tragedy strikes when we least expect it. Illness takes Harihar from the family in a manner that echoes sweet Durga's passing in Pather Panchali. Mother and Son are forced to leave the city behind and take up new positions in a new home with an affluent family in the country. Sarabajaya works as a domestic while Apu apprentices with an old uncle as a priest.

Life is once again lonely and quiet as before the move to Benares, but Mother and Son bond even closer and at least they aren't subject to the daily trials and tribulations of meddlesome neighbours and nasty relatives. On his way home from his morning chores at the Temple, Apu gazes longingly at all the young boys attending the local school. With his mother's cautious permission, he continues working the Temple by morning and going to school by day.

From leaving the city to this point in the narrative, Ray delivers one stunning emotional and/or poetic set piece after another - all very different in tone from Pather Panchali, but just as stirring and original. The train journey from Benares to the countryside takes on significant resonance for both Apu and his Mother. In Pather Panchali, the train was this distant thing that Apu desperately wished to see properly, but also represented flight and new beginnings.

Certainly, the opening images of Aparajito lead us into the city from the inside of a train's window, but at this latter juncture, Ray affords us an evocative montage of what Sarbajaya sees through the window - gradually diminishing vestiges of civilization and increasingly, endless fields and forests stretching out far and wide under a big, clean sky. This is a new beginning, alright, but one which transforms Sarbajaya's face from resolution, through to deep sadness and finally to a kind of blankness that's the most heartbreaking expression of all.

On a more joyous note, Ray crafts several great sequences involving Apu's education at school and with Sarbajaya, the tone jettisons into a kind of stratospheric elation. The pure jubilance with which Apu explains matters of science, nature and the world to his Mother fill her with pride, amazement and even the thrill of learning new things from her own son.

Eventually, Aparjito moves us into the adolescent years of Apu (now played by Smaran Ghosal) and we begin a new chapter in the lives of Mother and Son. It is here that Ray (as if we didn't already know it with Pather Panchali) firmly establishes his innate gifts as a filmmaker. The turn in the story alternates between joy and sadness. As the young man moves to Calcutta to begin college life and a new job at a printing press business, his mother remains behind in the rural farm where she continues to toil as a domestic and pines for every letter and increasingly infrequent visit from her son.

Eventually, our Apu truly becomes the unbeaten young man of a poverty-stricken existence. Knowledge not only fuels him, but so to does life in a place like Calcutta. As life is wont to do, an empty nest results in both parent and child facing a whole new life, but separated by distance and priorities, they will both be entering these worlds alone. One world yields opportunity, but for an illiterate widow living alone in the middle of nowhere, her world will offer what, sadly, it is only able to. The last third of the film is devastating to say the least, but with devastation comes rebuilding anew.

Once again, surrounding himself with his team of loyal creative crew, including composer Ravi Shankar (who manages to create an equally haunting score as he did in Pather Panchali) and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, Ray was able to generate yet another masterpiece and this time with a production fraught with numerous setbacks. In addition to the aforementioned casting difficulties (an actress who was to play Apu's Calcutta love interest and buggered off when her Old World hubby started giving her guff about having to hug and kiss her leading man), then financing issues (money falling in and out of place), a prolonged two-year on-again-off-again shooting schedule and the threat of monsoons scuttling a major already-planned series of sequences. To the latter, it was the brilliant Mitra who came up with the plan to match the neorealist look of the film by insisting they shoot on a soundstage and recreate sun pouring into a courtyard arrangement with a bit of cheesecloth and bounce boards. Nobody would ever notice the difference.

With his second film, Satyajit Ray proved conclusively that he was already a genuine Master with filmmaking hard-wired into his DNA. Way ahead of his time, he ultimately rendered this haunting tale with maturity, artistry and deep humanity. It turns out, Ray was just like that. As such, Aparjito is just like that, too. It keeps sneaking up on you, lifting you to the Heavens in one fell swoop, then slamming you to the ground the next, knocking the wind out of you, but always offering a hand-up from the misery and suffering, as if to always remind you of life's infinite delight, wonder and mystery.

Aparajito is presented with a restored 35mm (yes, real FILM) print at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 4, 2014 at 6:30pm as part of the TIFF Cinematheque series "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". This might be your only chance to see this masterpiece the way it was meant to be seen, so get your tickets NOW and GO. Visit the TIFF website for further details by clicking HERE.


*BUYERS PLEASE NOTE* (Canadian Amazon) has a relatively cruddy collection of Satyajit Ray product and generally shitty prices. has a huge selection of materials (including music and books) and decent prices. Amazon.UK has a GREAT selection of Satyajit Ray movies from a very cool company called Artificial Eye (second these days only to the Criterion Collection). Any decent Chinatown sells region-free Blu-Ray and DVD players for peanuts. Just get one (or several - they can be that cheap) and don't be afraid of ordering from foreign regions. The fucking film companies should just merge the formats into one acceptable delivery method worldwide. Besides, you can order anything you want from any country anyway.