Tuesday, 1 July 2014

THE APU TRILOGY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - All three Satyajit Ray Classics Reviewed Under One Roof

Here you will find all three Greg Klymkiw Film Corner reviews of Satyajit Ray's THE APU TRILOGY (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu) bundled together under one roof in this single mega-post. Do not miss a single one of these RESTORED 35mm FILM prints on display at TIFF Bell Lightbox in the stunning TIFF Cinematheque series courtesy of the visionary programmer James Quandt entitled "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". This is easily one of the most important retrospectives ever presented. If you care about cinema, you cannot afford to miss a single one.
Uma Dasgupta plays the sweet, saintly & sadly doomed Durga.

Little Durga & Auntie: Birds of a Feather.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road (1955) dir. Satyajit Ray *****
Starring: Subir Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee, Uma Dasgupta, Runki Banerjee, Chunibala Devi, Tulsi Chakraborty

Review By Greg Klymkiw

From childhood to adolescence, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta respectively) has always adored Auntie (Chunibala Devi), but to everyone else, especially Durga's mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), the wizened, hobbling, hunched-over old "hag" is not only an annoyance, but a burden. Auntie's feisty, impish and individualistic nature has been a particular thorn in Mom's side as she believes the old woman's been a bad influence upon her first-born. On the surface, Auntie has always adhered to her Old World "place" as a woman in Bengali society, but deep down her spirit has always been modern - ahead of its time, really.

If Auntie can do anything for Durga's future, it's to impart a sense of wonder and adventure within the child (Auntie's a spirited storyteller), but to also encourage her happy, willing young charge to properly utilize her smarts - the kind that allow a woman a depth of understanding in a patriarchal world and to use every bit of cunning at her disposal.

However, the sword on this, cuts two ways.

Pather Panchali begins with the child Durga brazenly (and clearly for the umpteenth time) stealing fruit from the orchards belonging to the neighbours, who are blood relatives of the nastiest kind and as it turns out, have swindled the orchard from Durga's father Harihar (Subir Banerjee). Even at her young age, this isn't lost on Durga, but also, she's a child and as such, their home is surrounded with more than enough fruit for everybody. Most importantly, Durga doesn't steal the fruit for herself, but to give it to Auntie. Lord knows, this pays off in spades for the old gal since the kid is happily plying her with juicy mangoes, a far cry from the spartan slop served up at the deeply impoverished family dinner table. It also irks Mom to no end since she's concerned that Durga's thieving will reflect badly on the family and her upbringing.

For me, Satyajit Roy has always delivered movies with exceptionally varied female characters. Yes, all his characters have depth, but there's something so unique and compelling about his sensitivity towards women. In many ways, he might well be the Neo-Realist Indian equivalent to the great George Cukor in that respect.

Pather Panchali is the first film in a trilogy that focuses upon a male character called Apu and is based on a classical Indian novel rooted in the country's strong tradition of "coming-of-age" stories. In spite of this and a slight shift in the film's perspective when the character of Apu is finally born, it's always been Durga's character who I've been especially drawn to - possibly because Apu (Subir Banerjee), though always compelling to keep one's eye on is, in many ways a very reactive, witness-like presence in the tale, whereas Durga is so vibrant and active.

It's Durga's promise as a human being, as a beautiful, intelligent young woman that, in spite of so many alternately heartbreaking and joyous moments in the film (and threads in the story), is what finally seems the most poignant and tragic of all. For all her chicanery, Durga seems almost saint-like in wanting to use her wiles to assist others. At the same time, she has a curiosity in the ways of the world that suggest how much she desires to maintain her individuality. So many girls of her age have already been in serious training to satisfy their husbands-to-be. She delights in their happiness at attaining these skills, but has virtually no interest in acquiring them herself.

Durga also understands fully the desire of her little brother to see a train, a miracle of the modern world that seems so far removed from their little village. The train, of course, represents flight as well as progress and one of the most magical sequences ever committed to film is an odyssey Durga takes little Apu on to see the train. The train, alas, takes a strange backseat to the journey itself and later in the film, there's a moment where Durga promises Apu a better, more proper opportunity to see the train. (And never, EVER, will a big sister's promise to her little brother be as deeply and passionately moving as this one proves to be.)

Ray's film clearly threw the Indian film industry for a loop. This was no epic melodrama with song and dance routines set against mythical backdrops of the past and relegated to larger-than-life studio sets and backlots. Pather Panchali was born from two major influences - the first being Ray's acquaintanceship with Jean Renoir during the shooting of the French auteur's The River in India and the other being Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief). Ray was convinced more than ever that movies could be made in India that pulsated with the life of the country itself and as such, could utilize actual locations and even rely upon amateur actors. Though most of Ray's principal actors in Pather Panchali had a good taste of stage acting prior to their appearance in his film, screen success had eluded them and his supporting performers and even the lead role of Apu were played by "real" people.

The movie has the feeling of being loose and episodic, but beneath this "veneer" of Neo-Realist movie-making was a narrative as strong and solid as one would ever want. It's as if Ray used real life to instigate his film's story beats and though this was completely new for Indian Cinema, it was certainly a rare property in any films of its time (and most certainly in ours). Ray proves meticulous in his compositions and with his cinematographer Subrata Mitra he goes above and beyond the call of duty. Every shot feels utterly exquisite, yet never indulgent. Whether capturing simple dramatic beats, dialogue sequences or dramatic action, the camera calls attention to the salient details within the frame as opposed to itself. Even in the poetic and cerebral sequences, everything feels as if it's in service to the narrative and thematic elements. Ray, of course, wisely selected Ravi Shankar to compose the stunning musical score (one of the very best in movie history) and while it serves to underscore everything it needs to, Shankar goes delectably mad during the poetic sequences - so much so that one either gets completely lost in the ethereal qualities of the imagery or, better yet (as exemplified during a montage of insects dancing across the water) one feels compelled to leap up from one's seat and engage in some manner of dervish-like gymnastics.

One astonishing moment where the film seems to literally meander from the narrative is when Apu watches an Indian brass band, adorned in Colonial fineries, ever-so spirited, yet hilariously out of tune as they blast out a goofy, but heartfelt rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". Here, the camera leaves the scene and we're afforded a beautiful montage delivering a variety of life (and lives) pulsating around them. This is no mere indulgence, but rather an extraordinary reflection upon the lives of all the people living near our family and as such, a reiteration of what affects them societally, culturally and emotionally, yet doing so to give us a sense that what the family is going through, is as profoundly disappointing and frustrating to so many in this impoverished country.

Throughout the film one senses that Ray is probably most entranced with Durga's character also. If anything, she feels closer to someone who'd be a worthy on-screen surrogate for the filmmaker. It certainly wouldn't be her father Harihar, a man of of letters and intelligence with a desire to be a great writer, but reduced to taking vaguely menial and/or administrative positions to support his family. We're constantly frustrated with this kindly man who is so obviously lacking in real motivation and gumption. His choice to locate the family in his ancestral home in the country instead of raising them in the city is one reason why they all live in such dire poverty, but even worse, why Harihar has wasted his gifts due to his endless procrastination. When he finally admits to his wife Sarbajaya that he gave up on all his dreams, we believe it.

A sequence which Ray handles exquisitely is a conversation between the husband and wife. Sarbajaya attempts to analyze where things went wrong, but to also provide a very solid, intelligent and well-reasoned plan for the family to leave this life of poverty and isolation behind. All Harihar can do is resort to the self-pity of it being too late to make dreams come true that he had abandoned a long time ago.

There's a moment and a manner in which Ray trains his camera on Sarbajaya that's so simple and yet so breathtaking. It's maybe the first time in the film where we see this "traditional" wife display the very vision that her own daughter and even Auntie have had.

"I had dreams, too," Sarbajaya declares. For the first time in the film we genuinely understand her attitudes towards both her daughter and Auntie. It's also a point in the narrative where she displays a shift in how she views her extraordinary daughter. Alas, as things turn out, it comes too late.

This, in fact, might be an especially poignant subtext to the entire film - making the right decisions at the wrong time, all of which seem to resonate with a powerhouse force - especially when characters begin to realize how huge an impact their decisions have had upon them and their family. Needless to say, there is heartache and tragedy to befall the family, but it's their own choice to make the concerted effort to move on. Moving on might be their only salvation and one that so many lives in this world will experience and acknowledge. Never, however, will they face and acknowledge this notion of life itself with the same force Ray delivers on film.

Auntie, of course, knows all about moving on. She sits alone one clear, starry night and sings about her death:

"Those who came after have already gone. Leaving me behind, the poorest of beggars. Night's mantle descends. Row me across to the other side. Oh, hurry, Lord of the Crossings."

It's the other side that not only offers rest to the weary, but hopefully, there's another other side in life, in the here and now - one that can offer contentment beyond eternal rest, but one that rather provides new beginnings. It's the least we can look forward to, strive for and to live out our small and seemingly inconsequential lives as we too embark upon that "little road".

Pather Panchali is presented with a RESTORED 35mm (yes, REAL FILM) PRINT at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 3, 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.

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.

Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) trades riches for poverty in Calcutta.

Father (Sumitra Chatterjee)
and Son (Alok Chatravarty):
A parent must grow up.
The World of Apu (Apu Sansar) (1959) Dir. Satyajit Ray *****
Starring: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Swapan Mukherjee, Alok Chakravarty

Review By Greg Klymkiw

To hold a child responsible for the death of the mother when she passes after giving birth is as understandable as it is ultimately appalling. Having been completely orphaned by his late teens, one might think Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) would have had enough experience with losing those closest to him (a beloved sister in early childhood, Dad in his tweens and Mom at age 17), but the fact of the matter is that he's never really grown up, even now in early adulthood. The World of Apu is the final instalment in Satyajit Ray's extraordinary trilogy preceded by Pather Panchali and Aparajito and all three works are based upon the first two novels of the legendary Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. Ray's films comprise an epic coming-of-age tale. Though we see a number of such elements throughout, it's The World of Apu that delivers a final one-two knockout punch to the title character's entrance into manhood. Though the deaths of those he loved dearest always contributed to Apu moving forward, what he needs this time is to discover himself via pure, unconditional love and in some ways, and perhaps because of it, this might be the most emotionally wrenching and satisfying of Ray's trilogy.

The utter simplicity of the story is its greatest strength and as such, this instalment yields perhaps the highest degree of complexity - levels of depth which seem almost unparalleled in other motion picture trilogies and certainly offering one of cinema's greatest and most satisfying family dramas. The World of Apu's deceptively simple three act structure begins with our almost-reluctant protagonist not finishing his studies beyond an intermediate level and setting out upon a life of leisure in his perversely carefree life of poverty and slacking, then marrying the beautiful Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) and discovering a boundless romantic love and finally, upon losing her to childbirth, abandoning his newborn son and launching himself into an aimless odyssey of self-discovery until finally coming to his senses.

These three seemingly straightforward movements all offer vastly different emotional states for our title character which furthermore result in the audience being put through a great deal of genial humour in Act One. Apu is so clearly a layabout here, but he's like a puppy dog who looks at us with his big moist eyes after soiling a rug and though we're momentarily annoyed, we can't find it in our collective hearts to abandon, nor chastise. In fact his slacker qualities seem so delightfully naive that we become as scoldingly bemused as Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), his old friend from college who tries to encourage him to follow his artistic passion as a writer, but to also please get a job!

It's Pulu who is inadvertently responsible for what might be the best thing to ever happen to Apu. The middle movement of the movie has our title character's pal inviting him to a sumptuous family wedding on a rich estate in the country. The bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) not only comes from a filthy rich family, but is also drop-dead-hubba-hubba-salivation-inducing gorgeous. Unfortunately, the worst thing possibly happens when the groom shows up and is stark-raving-major-nervous-breakdown insane and the distraught parents of the bride are on the verge of doing the worst possible thing - cancelling the wedding. In Hindu tradition, if a bride's wedding is cancelled for whatever reason, she becomes cursed to never marry again if a marriage ceremony is not performed within an hour of the appointed time.

Well, guess who's reluctantly enlisted to be of assistance?

Luckily for Apu, he scores bigtime. Even though Aparna is initially horrified by the utter squalor she must live in with her new husband, Cupid's arrow is aimed squarely in their direction. They're a match made in Heaven and soon Aparna is begging Apu to not take an extra tutoring job so he can spend as much time as possible with her. This, frankly, is one hell of a good deal. I have to say, too, that as a director, Ray shines big time in creating several simple, beautiful and wildly romantic set pieces - so much so, that it's pretty safe to proclaim that The World of Apu is easily one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film. (The performances and chemistry between Chatterjee and Tagore are so astounding that both became frequent Ray collaborators and stars in their own right.)

Ah, but as fate will have it, even great love stories can be tempered with tragedy (the best usually are) and the final act of the film is gut wrenching. Without crude melodramatics, the film progresses to a state of melodramatic bliss with the kind of glorious touches at every level that make you realize that melodrama is never a dirty word and nor, frankly, is sentiment. (Like I always say, there's only good melodrama and bad melodrama and when the seams of sentiment aren't frayed, it is a glorious and beautiful thing.) When Apu is finally face-to-face with his long-estranged little boy Kajal (Alok Chakravarty), cinematographer Subrata Mitra and composer Ravi Shankar and their Master filmmaker Mr. Ray work double overtime and offer one breathtaking beat after the next that prove to be truly and genuinely knock-you-on-your-keester moving.

Plenty of tears have flowed throughout this great trilogy, but none will flow more copiously than they do throughout the denouement of The World of Apu. You leave the cinema, the film, this entire epic of humanity soaring higher than you'll ever imagine experiencing.

The Apu Trilogy represents Satyajit Ray's first three films. They are individually and collectively as great as the greatest pictures of all time. If this was all he was able to manage, he'd still be considered up there with the best of the best. Luckily for him, for cinema and for all of humanity, Satyajit Ray made films for 40 years and even his occasional minor works make the major works of most other filmmakers look like cardboard cutout puppet theatre.

The World of Apu is presented with a restored 35mm (yes, real FILM) print at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 5, 2014 at 6:00pm 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* Amazon.ca (Canadian Amazon) has a relatively cruddy collection of Satyajit Ray product and generally shitty prices. Amazon.com 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.