Aparajito, the middle chapter in the Apu trilogy, sees the Ray family, now minus Durga, settle in the busy town of Benares after their country home was destroyed at the end of Pathar Panchali. Harihar is now a preist at the ghat (longing the Ganges river no less). Apu starts school in the afternoon while learning the skills of priesthood in the morning and the mother, Sarbojaya, does her usual house duties, only this time with frequent interference from the upstairs neighbour and stray monkeys.
To put it bluntly, without having seen Apur Sansar yet, Aparajito is thus far the best chapter in the cannon. The sets are far more lively than in Pathar Panchali and additionally, we do see the character of Apu grow this time around, a key element which I always felt was lacking in the previous instalment. Another impression as the movie rolled along was that the scope of the story was bigger this time around. Not only is there a significant time shift but the locations shift as well. At about the 40 minute mark, Sarbojaya is encouraged to move back to the countryside with Apu, but the latter wants to go to school in Benares, which leads to a lot of traveling back and forth in this episode.
Regarding Apu, we see him grow both in terms of character but also literally. He is played by two different actors this time, Pinaki Sengupta being the 10 year old version and Smaran Ghosal interpreting the adolescent version. I simply felt like I knew him more this time around. That may have to do with the fact that I am not that far removed from adolescence myself and thus remember those years clearly or, as I suspect, Apu just wasn’t given enough to do in PP. Regardless, here we see him slowly take over the narrative. There is even some conflict between himself and dear Sarbojaya. The latter sees no problem with him following in his father’s footsteps and earning a living in priesthood (neither does his great uncle apparently, who makes a brief and not terribly memorable appearance) whereas the former envisions a better future by remaining a student and broadening his knowledge (something one of his teachers tells him when still a child). Conflict, if well written, can be an attribute to growth of character and I felt the scene in which Apu and Sarbojaya argue is a particularly strong one. Apu is fascinated by much of what he learns and we see him offer some of that knowledge to his mother as he reads from his books. I liked this Apu, particularly the adolescent one, more than the one in PP. We just see him do more now, the viewer gets to spend a significant amount of time with him and the movie, at least in my humble opinion, benefited from that. At bit like in the first film, there are several scenes which show the flavour of the location, here being Benares, rather than driving home a straightforward narrative, but it’s precisely those little moments that director Ray captures so well. When they’re captured well, that in turn helps enrich the film with hints of what is going on and what the characters are experiencing. The weightlifter scene, the days at school, the trips back to his mother’s place when on holiday, playing hooky with his friend (I don’t think we ever learn his name even though he has about 2 or 3 scenes), all these and more set a compelling mood and tone to the overall experience.
It may be the city boy in me, but I felt the scope and imagery of this film was massive when compared to PP precisely because so much of it occurs in Benares. The cinematography is very, very memorable. I’m not trying to argue that PP was unimpressive from a visual standpoint mind you, but I was blown away by Aparajito. The hustle and tussle of the city, its architecture, the shadows of the narrow streets, the priest’s calling (at least I think that’s what the first scene in the movie was supposed to be). There are many shots of the ghat, which is the term to designate the steps in a city which lead down to the bank of a river or lake, which caught my attention. I’ve never travelled to the region even though it is one that has me rather intrigued, but I must say that the footage here was a fine substitute for the time being. There is a poignant shot somewhere in the middle of the film when Apu returns to the countryside with Sarbojaya. They have just moved into their home and Apu hears a train pass in the distance. He runs to the doorway in glee and watches the locomotive ride on the horizon. The expression on his face suddenly turns rather solemn. The fact that Ray doesn’t make the reason for Apu’s shift in expression explicit was intelligent. The train is too closely associated to a memory that not only remains with Apu, but the viewer as well. I felt a brief moment of sadness as well while watching that train go by. Excellent camera work and editing.
Something I overlooked in my PP review was the music. My general, North American musical knowledge is ridiculously limited, so just imagine what I know about traditional Indian music. Having said that, I think that, as long as it sounds great and feels appropriate for the scenes playing out, then I’m happy. I have no freaking clue what instruments are being played but it sounds marvellous. It’s such harmonious, beautiful music. I think this is the uncultured, unsophisticated North American in me speaking, but it really made the movie sound great.
Random notes: Sarbojaya seems much more mellow here than she did on PP. Ironically, Durga, who caused a lot of havoc for her in the previous instalment, is not a factor anymore. Hint? (I know worm will find some kind of reason to disagree however). The weightlifter scene near the beginning when Apu is waling along the ghat was really impressive. I don’t think the subtitles called them weights at all, but that’s essentially what the man was doing, if in a more dramatic way. I really thought the upstairs neighbour in Benares was going to be more involved than he turned out to be. He looked like a jolly fellow after all.
My only significant complaint would be that Harihar kicks the bucket far, far too early. He was such a great character! Even in his limited screen time, he left a significant impact on me. I was kind of ‘down’ for a minute or two following his passing. I wonder if Apu has a bright future ahead of him. I would hope so at least, as it seems as if since his birth, a lot of people around him whom he cherishes seem to drop like flies. Auntie, Durga, Sarbojaya, Harihar. There’s basically nobody left now. Well, only Apur Sanar can answer that question now…