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Review: Apur Sansar marks the liberation of an eternal journey inherent in Apu Trilogy

Release Date: 01 May 1959 / 01hr 47min

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Roushni Sarkar

Apur Sansar completes 60 years today. The film seems to offer a philosophy that lacks in the present ambition-driven lifestyle. This reviewer attempts to explore certain dominant themes of the film in this particular respect.

Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, or The World Of Apu, the third part of The Apu Trilogy, was released on 1 May 1959. Apur Sansar was based on the last two-thirds of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel Aparajito, while Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956) were based on the novel Pather Panchali. Apur Sansar also marked the debut of two of the most successful artistes of Indian cinema — Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore.

One of the dominant themes of Bibhutibhushan's novels and of The Apu Trilogy is death and the sense of loss that redirects the journey of Apu and his family. Harihar, Sarbojaya and Apu leave Nishchindipur village (a fictional name given to Gopalpur village by Bandopadhyay) after Durga dies a premature death in Pather Panchali (1955).

In Aparajito (1956), first Sarbojaya and then Apu are forced to abandon their household in Benaras after Harihar passes away. Then Sarbojaya’s death liberates Apu from all the clutches of attachment that were holding him back from immersing himself into the new urban life he had recently got a taste of.

For this unusual portrayal of a mother-son relationship, Aparajito was the least successful of the three films with the Bengali audience, as they were mostly used to an ideal relationship between mother and children.

Hence, in Apur Sansar, we enter the world of the orphaned Apu, who has no one to fall back on and has to abide by no one. Though incessantly eager to learn, Apu has no option but to stop his education at the university midway for lack of funds and manages his days with his meagre earnings from private tuitions.

Not answerable to anyone, Apu is laidback and not ambitious. He still carries the twinkle of his childhood in his eyes to explore the deepest mysteries hidden in the most mundane elements of life. Life is not a race for him, but essentially a journey.

From Pather Panchali onwards, the theme of life as an eternal journey, despite joys and sorrows, is gradually expressed through Apu’s own. In Aparajito, the distinction becomes apparent with Sarbojaya’s death. In Apur Sansar, Apu only starts looking for jobs when his landlord pesters him and threatens to throw him out. However, all the jobs have requirements for either overqualified or underqualified candidates.

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Apu manages a few more days by selling off his books. He is dejected but not depressed or desperate. At the end of the day, he stealthily crawls into his den and plays the flute with utmost contentment. His closing of the window with the flute so that no one can intervene in his life signifies his contentment in having a roof for the moment, under which he can peacefully play his favourite instrument.

Apu first speaks of his ideals in the film after his university friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) pays him a visit and treats him at a restaurant. Pulu offers him a job of a typist and invites him to his sister Aparna’s wedding. Apu is not excited by the prospect of a job. His facial expression continuously attempts to escape further discussion on the topic. He answers meekly when his friend asks why he did not find a job in the railways. However, in the next moment, he expresses his delight, with beaming eye and hearty laugh, when Pulu describes his beautiful village in the Khulna district to lure him to attend his sister’s wedding.

A satiated Apu, who barely manages to have rice and boiled potato, begins to recite poems loudly after the treat while walking with his friend in the dark. The scene explains why Soumitra Chatterjee’s articulation of speech and talents for recitation were one of the reasons why he was chosen for the character of Apu. It is fascinating to see how Ray manages to bring depth out of this particular sequence, by placing Apu reciting loudly in the dark of night. His recitation and the meaning of the words pierce through the pitch darkness of the ambience, asserting his presence as an individual, even if he might not have much significance in society's eyes.

Apu gradually begins to feel more liberated and eventually informs his friend that he is not interested in the job. Then follows one of the most crucial sequences of the film, where he declares that he is not bound to be a mere clerk because he has no one to look after. He also expresses his aversion for the idea of ‘settling down’ or having a secured future.

Since the end of Aparajito, Apu has been running away from such a notion. However, at the same time, his belief in his talent appears to be idealistic as he cites the example of Charles Dickens, John Keats, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to support his ideas, and his friend takes no time to burst his bubble of daydreaming.

Apu is so immersed in his own world that he refuses to accept that the novel he is working on is nothing but his autobiography. He insists he has infused his imagination in it. Through the character of his novel, he clarifies his sole objective of simply living life for the moment by not attempting to partake in anything great. He declares that nothing can make him escape from life.

However, it is soon proved that Apu was not able to foresee his life. A dramatic situation arises at Pulu’s sister’s wedding. The prospective husband turns out to be insane and Apu is forced by Pulu and the family to save Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) from embarrassment by getting married to her. Rational and averse to superstitions and age-old customs, Apu initially refuses to comply with their requests.

In the book, Apu’s reaction was not as blunt, but Satyajit Ray’s Apu is created with certain liberties and has certain distinct features that are important for a compact cinematic composition of a vast text.

In the article 'Exploring Apu’s World' for Frontline magazine, Sarbari Sinha wrote, “Ray softens the shock for an incredulous audience by making Apu react furiously when his friend first asks him to marry his cousin because the intended bridegroom has turned out to be a half-wit. Bibhutibhushan's Apu had reacted with more gentleness.”

However, the sensitive Apu soon gives in when he senses the danger looming over Aparna and agrees to marry her.

It is expected of Ray, a connoisseur of modernity, to compose the sequence of a night of arranged wedding of two strangers as he did in Apur Sansar. Apu gets married but is still divided with his inner conflicts. Again, his progressive mind becomes alert and he asks Aparna if she is ready to share his poverty-ridden life instead of taking his marital life with her for granted. He also makes sure to gather the information whether she knows how to read and write, an important requirement for his companion.

Aparna hardly has much significance of her own. Like many other elements in Ray’s film, he adds to the core journey of the story that Apu represents. Apu is seen to be blissfully indulging into his marital life with his young, devoted and ideal wife, who doesn’t take much time to adjust into the new and unknown territory, despite hailing from a well-off family and is primarily concerned about her husband’s well-being. When she enters Apu’s room for the first time, she secretly sheds a few tears, but immediately responds with Apu’s demand to get introduced to all the other tenants of his house, with a smile. Though mature, Aparna's character is mostly kept one-dimensional, to retain the cinematic focus on Apu’s journey.

The scene, through which Ray conveys their first act of intimacy, without directly showing them making love, has been discussed more than enough times. To the reviewer, what strikes the most is the light slap with which Aparna wakes Apu up in the morning. The slap signifies that she is not shy or benign anymore. As life goes on, Aparna too doesn’t take much time to get on with her new life and starts settling the household chores.

Apu, too, forgets all about his novel in his new joy. The scene, in which Aparna first fans her husband while he eats and then Apu does the same while Aparna has her lunch, is one of the most symbolic and compact representations of equal distribution of responsibilities in a marital relationship, way ahead of its time.

However, their deep love is expressed through a sequence after Aparna leaves for her paternal home during her pregnancy. Apu is shown to be immersed in a letter written to him by Aparna in his office and even while travelling in a bus, he cannot help but go through it. He expresses the triumph of being loved by his beloved by suddenly taking up a roadside child and settling him in a cot in mirth. Again here Ray brings out a beautiful significance by equating the innocence of their love associating it with the child.

In a stark contrast, when he receives the news that Aparna has passed away while giving birth to their son in the following sequence, in an uncontrollable rage and unfathomable sense of loss, he ends up slapping the bearer of the news. The scene raised a lot criticism for portraying Apu violently, but it shows how deeply Ray was in sync with Apu’s state of mind which was brimming with happiness a few moments ago and then suddenly received the most unexpected shock of his life that he could not express otherwise. Through the slap, Apu wanted to deny the bitter truth.

Apu, ever positive about life, finally comes at a juncture which pushes him to escape from all the familiarities and the responsibilities that he happily endowed himself with. Apu refuses to meet his son Kajal for once, leaves his household and tears the manuscript of his novel. He even contemplates dying, standing before a railway track and is suddenly brought to his senses by the death of cattle on the railway tracks. Again, death and loss uproot him from a secure settlement and puts him on a harrowing journey in which, for the first time, he cannot let go of memories and attachments, intending to go against the law of nature.

However, the transcendence of life, which remains at the core of the trilogy, cannot be defined with tragedy. Pulu eventually finds out vagabond Apu to remind him once again of his responsibilities towards his son. A bitter and dejected Apu confesses that he cannot forgive his son for taking the life of his beloved wife but at the same time, he suffers from an inner conflict and repeatedly asks Pulu to make an arrangement for the poor soul in a boarding school.

In order to construct the last sequence, Ray makes Apu’s son Kajal a naughty boy, who first refuses to speak to Apu, whose heart melts at the first sight of his son back in the village. Even at the ending sequence, Kajal is suspicious about his father’s identity, but agrees to go with him to the city, considering him as his friend. Kajal brings Apu back in his own shoes of living life to the fullest as he takes him up on his shoulders and sets out on a new quest full of surprises and possibilities.

Soumitra Chatterjee’s innocence, romantic eyes and hearty laugh brings Apu, a well-known character from Bengali literature alive and reduces the distance between the readers’ imagination and the text. He is Apu in every pulse as even in the moments of frustration and cluelessness he cannot get rid of his quintessential image that submits itself in the hands of destiny. The way his eyes beam at the ending sequences when Kajal runs into his lap, show the hunger for life that he has long been burying under his sorrows.

Sharmila Tagore, too, appears like a flower that has been born for only a few days to spread its fragrance. She is adorable, and personifies a loving soul who demands love with her simplicity. Swapan Mukherjee plays the voice of logic as Pulu amidst all the occurrences of a fleeting reality.

Ravi Shankar’s background score not only aids the sequences in lending them a body of their own, but also fulfils deep cinematic purpose. The sound of conch shells in the evening around Apu’s room along with the one of a train departing beautifully creates an ambience of a day descending into night which turns into an ideal atmosphere for Apu away from the world to take up his flute in the next moment.

Signifying an eternal flow throughout the film, the background score is mostly playful and optimistic. However, the famous tune of Pather Panchali in the sequence of Apu talking about his own novel makes it even more apparent that he is writing his autobiography.

In the sequences of village, Shankar mostly uses the flute to render a folk element and in the rest, Sitar in different ragas dominates. The grim sequences, for example, the one of Apu lamenting Aparna’s death in solitude, are amplified with the Veena. The flute creates a mysterious aura around him, when he throws away his manuscripts in the winds amidst the forest.

Subrata Mitra’s cinematography essentially makes sure that each and every frame captures all the elements in way that fulfils the purpose of the scenes. The camera hovering in the empty room after Aparna’s death magnifies Apu’s loneliness, with the clock ticking loudly. After Aparna’s death, Apu is seen to be standing before the vast ocean. Mitra has captured the ocean and in the following sequence, the hills and the forest amidst which Apu stands in solitude, in a way to signify the unpredictability of life that awaits Apu, who is not sure how many more losses he needs to cope with.

Apur Sansar is an epitome of a synchronised creation that retains the central themes till the end. Surely, Satyajit Ray did not conceive the trilogy at once, but it is astonishing how he delivers a complete creation through the three films, never stepping aside from his objectives. In a way, Apur Sansar turns into a culminating creation that signifies liberation of Apu and Kajal’s journey from the clutches of ‘samsara’ into an unending vastness.

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