Sunday 3 July 2022

Sydney Film Festival - Janice Tong's Filmic Postcard (Part Two) - THE WORLD OF APU/APUR SANSAR ( Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)

Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu and Sharmila Tagore as
Aparna, The World of Apu

What defines great cinema? Perhaps this question can be answered very simply: the universality of a good film is one that provokes a kind of emotional charge and renders the person watching the film affected by its contents; whilst a great film transcends that emotive response and transforms it to one of wonder, as though one has been touched by something sublime.


This is what Akira Kurosawa said about Satyajit Ray’s films back in 1975:


The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. … I feel that he is a “giant” of the movie industry. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon. I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali). It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river. People are born, live out their lives, and then accept their deaths. Without the least effort and without any sudden jerks, Ray paints his picture, but its effect on the audience is to stir up deep passions. How does he achieve this? There is nothing irrelevant or haphazard in his cinematographic technique. In that lies the secret of its excellence.*


Ray and Akira Kurosawa

The World of Apu is a world that seems so removed from where I was sitting, in a comfortable viewing chair at the Art Gallery of NSW’s subterranean theatre amongst the 80 or so patrons at Satyajit Ray’s retrospective of the Sydney Film Festival 2022. And yet… so much of what comes alive on the luminous screen bears a resemblance to a life I am deeply invested in, I cannot look away, the simplicity and above all, the beauty in the way Apu and his new bride, Aparna, fan each other as they’re eating, renders their love palpable and alive. This is real cinema. The artistry and magic makes the many scenes in this film deeply spellbinding – it is as though I am seeing the moon for the first time and can do little but be bewitched by its allure.


In addition to this, I was profoundly moved to read that this restoration made possible by the collaboration (and I’m sure love and meticulous work) of Janus Films, the Harvard Film ArchiveBFI and the Academy, that we are able to see this film at all…there was a fire in the studio where they were restoring ‘The Apu Trilogy’ back in 1993 and the original negatives were badly burnt and deemed unsalvageable. It wasn’t until 2013 before technology had improved to a stage where they were able to work with the damaged materials, using a solution to rehydrate what remained and then repair the film frame by frame with negatives from other archives around the world. This proved to be a successful andworthy cause, and for that, we must say our deepest thanks.


The World of Apu is the last of the trilogy: Apu is now in his early twenties, idealistic and sincere; he is happy with his impoverished existence, even if he has to sell his beloved books to pay the long overdue rent. Satyajit Ray’s world is an amorphous one where lives bleed into each other; driven by a new world that embraces progress – carried through by the metaphor of the train as it charges through the landscape without remorse or consideration (it runs over a pig, which could very well have been a person). As with all new enterprises, the only way is forward, and the speed of this arrow has a specific aim and is a little joyless.  All this is set against the backdrop of Subrata Mitra’s starkly photographed landscapes; desolate stretches, bare railway tracks, a few roaming animals, the rubble and fragments around a crumbling old world.  And yet, set in the foreground, are clusters of hope formed in the accumulation of the many byways of crisscrossing relationships. Ray situates us in this intimate world made up of friendships and family; whose bonds cannot be broken even if one is years or miles apart from each other.  We find that our philosophy of life shows us the way through an advancing wilderness.


Landscapes in a modern wilderness..."bare railway tracks"
The World of Apu

In this world, in Apu’s world, the screech of the train is unbearable, Aparna also reacts by blocking her ears with her hands and shutting her eyes to block out its presence. The human condition, on the other hand, is highly prized. Apu’s naive view of the world is counter-balanced by his act of ‘self-sacrifice’, saving Aparna’s honour by marrying her; and Aparna in return makes a home of his one room bachelor flat, gifting him her tenderness and her wonderful presence. They make each other. 


It’s incredible to think that both leads are played by non-actors (as with the roles of Pulu and Kamal) and for both actors, this is their first film. Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu made a career of it, as he went on to make more than 300 films, and Sharmila Tagore as Aparna (only fourteen years old at the time) has an incredible on-screen presence; she is related to the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. There’s something magical captured on screen between Apu and Aparna, something that is entirely human and totally believable. You find yourself falling in love with them. It can be said that Apu is likened to Krishna, he plays the flute, he is filled with humanity and humility, with doubts and downfalls too, his love of learning, of life and for his wife; he is a beacon to our current shipwrecked shores, against war, greed and impatience. Watching this film, one yearns for a simpler life, free from materiality, perhaps more rightly, a return to authenticity. But what the film teaches us is perhaps that there can still be freedom within the responsibilities one is prepared to take in life. 


Ray (r) and Ravi Shankar (centre)

Lastly, the music, it is a character of its own right in the film, haunting and graceful, other worldly and emotively stirring…Ravi Shankar first worked with Ray in late 1954 (the two had known each other for ten years at that stage) when he composed the music to the first film of the Apu trilogy, Pather Panchali. Composed and recorded in a single session through the night until 4am to selected scenes that Ray projected for him. For that film, Shankar used traditional Indian instruments including the tarshehnai, the bhimraj, and the sarod, as well as the pakhwajfor percussion and a flute; and bestowed Ray with such a vast array of music of varying tonal qualities that Ray reshot a new scene (the dance of the water bugs) just to showcase Shankar’s music. With The World of ApuShankar had more time to devote to the film, and even brought in western instruments, including the piano, violins and cellos during the three day recording session.Shankar, already a huge star in India, became a superstar around the world after his now legendary set at the Monterey Pop Festival back in 1967. The Guardian in 2007 named The 50 greatest film soundtracks of all time and placed Shankar’s Pather Panchali at number four on this list.



*Kurosawa’s quote was from Ryan Lattanzio’s piece in Indiewire


#sydneyfilmfestivaltook place 8th-19th June 2022.



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