Sunday, March 22, 2009

Satyajit Ray Marathon: Apur Sansar

Apur Sansar (1959, Satyajit Ray)

And so the Apu trilogy comes to a close with The World of Apu. How often is that the third chapter in a trilogy of films is the weak link? Momentum is a funny thing for it can leave your story just as soon as it arrived. The creative process is sapped, the filmmakers are unsure of where to take the hero (or heroes). Does Ray’s closing chapter in the Apu saga fall into the same pitfall as, say, Alien 3 (Like, OMG! Like, you know, it sucked balls man! That David Fincher, he’s, like, you know, such a hack)?

The general answer to that question would be no. In fact, the film attempts to take Apu’s story, and by consequent Apu the character, to new and greater dramatic heights. As the film opens, our favourite aspiring author, now a young adult played quite naturally by Soumitra Chatterjee, is an unemployed graduate living in a 1 room loft in Calcutta. The landlord pays him visit one morning and calmly reminds the man the he is 3 months late with the rent (oh, the memories…). Things are decidedly not going Apu’s way. He’d like to be an honest worker to make a living, but his real passion lies in writing. If he could only finish his one true love, his semi-autobiographical tale, and get it published, he would be content. Of course, from what the viewer witnessed in the first two instalments in the saga, fate has a cruel and strange sense of humour. His old university pal Pulu, played by Swapan Mukherjee (who I suspect is the grown up version of the chubby school boy who hangs out with Apu in a few scenes during Aparajito). Apu, after explaining his plight and his dream, is invited to attend the wedding of Pulu’s cousin, the beautiful Aparna (love that name), portrayed here by Sharmila Tagore .

So far so good. Nothing groundbreaking has transpired, but then again, director Ray has handsomely proven from the previous two films that he can depict ordinary life moments without the necessities of forced dramatic beats. Even the lead up to the wedding, albeit brief, is a pleasure to watch. The family reunions, the dresses, the make up, it’s all compelling for a poor white boy as myself. As misfortune would have it however, it turns out that the arranged marriage (of course it was arranged. How silly of me to have thought otherwise) was hanging on a very thin string to begin with. When it turns out the husband to be is unfortunately afflicted with a mental illness, the string snaps and the wedding is off. Sad, no doubt about it, but I had the sneaking suspicion that all this was occurring for a very specific reason. It is here that, in my opinion, director Ray’s attempts to elevate the stakes in this Apu saga begin to wobble and show cracks in the armour. Pulu’s family mourns the waste of all the preparations that went into the wedding ceremony. Aparna must be wed during the auspicious hour or suffer the fate of remaining unwed for the remainder of her existence. Great drama, but out of that comes the family’s plead to Apu that he should marry Aparna. At first Apu makes the sensible decision and refuses the invitation. He knows nothing of this woman and obviously wasn’t thinking to much about marriage in his ordinary life to begin with. Upon further reflection however, Apu gives in to Pulu’s pleas and accepts to take Aparna’s hand in marriage. Wow, that’s a pretty eventful day. He came for the food and left with a wife. I didn’t fully appreciate this turn of events. Was there something about Bengali culture that I didn’t understand? Did Apu come to realize something about the failure to marry during the auspicious hour that nagged him? I have no clue. Had an explanation been provided for his dramatic change of face, then I would have digested the sequence easily. On the face of things, he simply rescinds on his earlier decision and marries Aparna. Okay…

Thankfully, Ray injects Aparna with a bit of life. The movie never teaches the audience very much about her character, but what little we see of her was nonetheless sufficient to establish her relationship with Apu. What began rather awkwardly flourishes into what appears to be a more or less healthy and loving marriage. They talk nicely to one another, they smile, she cooks, he writes, he likes to spend money on taxi rides home, etc. Nothing too deep in the character development department, but enough to give the viewer an idea of the happy times in Calcutta they seem to be having. All in all, Tagore works her best with what she is handed, which may not be much in the grander scheme of things, but enough overall for her to have at least some impact on my memory. That also might have just been the makeup that made her look good however, I haven’t decided which one just yet.

I knew it was coming. I didn’t want it to happen, but I knew it would. This leads to that and so on, and eventually Aparna, upon giving birth to their son Kajal back in her home town of Khulna, passes away. Apu, who had remained to work in Calcutta, is needless to say devastated when learning of this dreadful news. And this may sound harsh, but I wasn’t. Auntie, Durga, hooka dad, his mother, everyone is dropping like vampires sprinkled with garlic powder. Whatever King Midus touched turned to gold. Whomever Apu touches in their hearts passes away. One or two over the course of the trilogy is fine because that can had some extra dramatic weight to the proceedings, but by now the deaths were piling up to the point that I’m sure Jason would have been very jealous. Jason actually has to make an effort when splitting open those teenage skulls. Apu only has to say ‘hi’ or ‘I love you’ and poof! You dead sucka!

In an act of depression, our hero renounces his desire to complete his novel, tossing his manuscript into the wind. Rather than travelling to Khulna in order to attend to his son, Apu decides to travel in order to…I don’t know, escape from it all. I told myself, as I watched the movie, that perhaps by now Apu had indeed arrived at the conclusion that everyone he holds dear earns a tombstone earlier than necessary. It wasn’t necessarily his responsibilities as a father that he wanted to flee (although in essence he is fleeing just that, whether that is on his mind or not). Strangely enough, I did enjoy this sequence. The lonely man, the broken man, travelling hither and thither, earning some money to survive and exploring the regions. A mid life crisis that arrived all too soon. It’s played well, but of course it can’t last as Apu eventually comes to the right decision to become a real father and spend time with his son. The final hurdle Apu must overcome in the film is his son’s reluctance to accept him as his father. Try as he might, Apu can’t seem to pierce Kajal’s defences until the final sequence when he does a bit of play acting that convinces Kajal to join him.

All this made for a strange experience. The first episode in the cannon, Pathar Panchali, featured many scenes exploring the daily lives of the Rays as they lived in the country side. From there, the story took us to Calcutta in Aparajito, where again the director put on display many scenes of daily life, but inserted a few dramatic beats to get some kind of story moving forward. Now with Apur Sansar, Ray has for the most part put aside random scenes of daily life and almost exclusively drives home very specific, story-driven elements. I don’t believe this was un unwise choice per say, only that I felt that the trilogy feels unbalanced to a certain degree. Looking back, I feel as if nothing at all happened in Pathar Panchali, whereas too much occurred in Apur Sansar, the latter which seems overflowing with big events, perhaps too much for me to care about each one with equal emotional investment. Like so many movies I watch, the ideas are unquestionably there. The execution…fair at best.

I don’t mean to sound as if everything has gone awry in this third entry. I’m quite certain that director Ray had his heart in the right place when bringing these stories to the silver screen. I only doubt his abilities to plan the story out evenly over the course of the three films. Interestingly however, I noticed a dramatic shift in the more technical aspects. Whereas both PP and Apa felt oftentimes like random life captured on film with a camera, Apur Sansar looks and sounds like a movie, as if Ray had a bigger budget this time, or perhaps had attuned his directorial skills further. There is a gap of a few years between this and the previous instalment, which may help explain the technical leap in the movie. The camera movements feel more dynamic this time around, close ups, zooming in, zooming out, fluid fading in and fading out, Apu’s musical theme playing with an echo when he tells Pulu when his book will be about (a really nice little touch). In both the sound and visual departments, the final entry is clearly the most impressive.

With the trilogy now complete and fresh in my memory, I can say that I enjoyed spending time with these characters for the most part. Not everything hit the right notes at all times for me, but generally speaking the cannon is strong. Even though Apu himself may not have always been a contributor to the life changing events (things are often happening to him instead), there is little doubt that he lived an eventful life. I guess the story had won me over in the end, since as the final shot of Apu and Kajal closed the third movie, I did hope that things would work out for them.

Given that the Apu trilogy consist of Ray’s first films, his efforts demand some respect. Not only is his debut, Pathar Panchali, a very fine film, but his mastery of the technical aspects of filmmaking shows considerable improvement by the end of the third film. I’ll find some time to watch some of the director’s other projects. I’d like to see what he did with some other material. Even though I have watched three films, they were all chapters in the same body of work really.

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