My memories of Satyajit Ray's work before this year are blurred—they come up but they don't come out concretely developed. They aren't stenciled into the cohesive aesthetic dominating my attitude toward art. The first is gooey and, not surprisingly, Oscarized. His supporters in Hollywood knew of his terminal illness and in 1992 he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar, “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world,” a few weeks before his death. Speaking from his deathbed, it was one of the first videotaped acceptance speeches. A diminished man, Ray cradled the glistening award, as the producers cut away from Ray’s words for two close-ups of the little golden man. Nevertheless, Ray came off witty when recounting writing to Ginger Rodgers and Billy Wilder of their importance for him in his salad days, but not getting replies. Even at 17, when I witnessed this, the episode seemed almost icky—well-intentioned but ultimately exploitive—and subsequently, I find it the exact antithesis of Ray's art. Then, a few years later, the experience of encountering his work in film school—first under the auspices of an Indian teacher, who, though Fellini was his favorite, told me that three directors stood out above all else: Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Ray. A year later, my film theory teacher showed us Eastern films galore and Ray in particular, but during one of the excruciatingly long conversation scenes in 1984's The Home and the World, I became impatient and yearned to be in a popcorn-scented cinema watching the soon to be released Casino.
Twenty years later, the Criterion Collection, in collaboration with Janus films, has restored Ray's Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar) to be shown at Film Forum in New York. The first two are his first pictures, and about half of the original negatives were burned in a laboratory fire, with Apur Sansar (also known as The World of Apu), totally lost. The yield is a new creation, a digital restoration that is as close as possible to the originals Ray worked with when he made the films between 1950 and 1959.
The Apu Trilogy carries a mystique that can be as hard for a twenty-year-old as for a seventy-year-old to understand. Country life, the life of the mind, and the life of eros and pathos are the subjects of the trilogy. Apu is a young boy in the first film, in the next, a teenager, as he moves with his family to Varanasi and then goes to Calcutta to pursue his schooling, and in the final film, chance brings him, in his twenties then, into an arranged marriage, but it also takes his wife away and he wanders for some years, unsure if he should continue as a novelist. The films are grounded in Italian Neo-Realism, Ray’s primary influence (though he says their style is owed to the two novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay on which the films are based), yet they were created by a West Bengalian from a prominent family of writers and illustrators. He started in visual design, a fact lending itself to his ability to create painterly images. Pather Panchali (1955) is filled with mythical figures: the housewife, the adventurous and willful sister always getting in trouble, the young innocent boy, Apu (whose life is followed throughout the trilogy), and the hunchbacked old woman, Indir, a cousin of Apu's father, who walks with a staff—echoes of each will recur in the last two films' different characters. There is great melodrama sustained throughout the trilogy, though nothing especially avant-garde in the methodology behind the films. The mystique is not only because the slow style of explication (long takes, scenes of wandering, and shots of nature’s bounty and force) matches the country life depicted in the first film—form perfectly matching content—but also due to a story spring-loaded with tragedy and commensurate catharsis (something in the other two as well).
Ray also extends the unlikely scenes, those quotidian ones, giving Pather Panchali a documentary resonance. Scenes such as Indir walking about at her tired, rickety speed for a few minutes of screen time enables the viewer to see and consequently care that her life is fragile, her existence endangered by her physical and emotional strain. Also the sister and brother’s wandering in the forest for some time before a train comes and delights them with its noise, architecture, and locomotion—but this is life, we walk and wander for minutes, hours, weeks, and then something incredible happens, though it just might be beautiful bird song or a stranger who asks for money.
The viewer, and especially today’s viewer, can feel Ray the scenarist, chipping away at their wall that when presented with a slice of life is simultaneously a bullshit detector and an overly-sentimental watchdog. What makes the experience hypnotic is how Ray isn't ingratiating or cloying; when tragedy strikes, it isn't paraded about to eek out sympathy (his creative spirit can’t conceive of heartstrings to pull), it is recoiled upon by living characters that have to deal with the truth of a life without a loved one. At the moment Apu's father dies in Aparajito (1956), Ray cuts to a flock of birds bursting from a building, a brief shot suddenly eclipsed by one of them flying around dusk. The rhythm of this mirrors death and the flight of the soul and one’s reaction (over these images his wife cries his name)—shock, then emotional flight. When Apu's mother dies in the same film, Ray simply shows the college-age Apu's reaction, crying underneath an immense tree. When Apu hears bad news in Apur Sansar (1959), he hits the messenger.
In other moments, the lyrical tussles with the neo-realist, as the action is sheared down to the clipped poetics of the playwright’s art, pointing toward the image of emotion, rather than the idea of it. In Pather Panchali—the dialogue between Apu's mother Sarbajaya, and Indir concerning the dilemma over the old woman living with them, is delivered with a Chekhovian precision:
Sarbajaya: Where did you get that shawl?
Indir: Raju, over there, gave it to me.
S: “Gave it to me?” Did you ask for it?
I: All I said was it's a bit chilly in the evenings.
S: He's clothing you, why doesn't he feed you, too?
I: I did ask Hari for a shawl.
S: And did he say no? You didn't need to go begging. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?
I: Can't an old woman have fancies?
S: Fancies? And my hungry children. You think they don't have fancies? Did you ever think about them? As long as you're living here you cannot beg. Otherwise you'll have to leave.
Right before the last line is delivered the camera spins from Sarbajaya walking further away from Indir to Indir sitting in the distance, isolated by window bars, her back to the camera. A line that makes her turn around.
In Pather Panchali, after Apu and his parents leave their house, in partial ruin after heavy storms, and their brush with tragedy, a long snake surfaces over the broken cement of the courtyard and smoothly enters the house. It's a caesura worthy of a tone poem, images taking the setting of the film, the home in nature, and showing it as a ruination. In the past it was a place where a family once lived together, where children fought, cried, and learned, where parents grasped at happiness, though they made mistakes—that housed emotion. The snake's silent entrance and its sinuous track through their former history is what can be the best part of narrative motion pictures—a seemingly unrelated image that exemplifies the story's themes and conceits, turning them into a glorified ideal of the over-all—Kant's Ding an Sich (the thing in itself) or the unknowable. It’s a comment on the action, but the comment is aimed, parable-like, at the unconscious, not the prejudices. What happens to the ghosts of our childhood? Why do the places where we grew up often hold such a sensationalism, whether we cry when we visit or refuse to acknowledge them though they are just down the street?
Yet the snake flowing through Apu’s childhood home is the unknowable that communicates. It is like the iconology on churches and currency, things we read into by the sight of them. In Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung said,
"…a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider “unconscious” aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason."
Writer and scholar Guy Davenport has spoken of iconology (the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images) as being the “true study of the world, the true way to criticize anything.” Ray's style expands and solidifies over the trilogy’s final films, as the slight dollies and tracks of Pather Panchali are refined into patterns that fit the story like a pair of perfect gloves. As Pauline Kael said, “Ray's rhythm is derived from his subject matter, and for the college students and artists of The World of Apu, the leisurely flow of the seasons on which Pather Panchali was based would be ludicrous.” In expanding on this, the entire trilogy crescendos in the Apur Sansar when Apu goes to claim his five-year-old from the boy's grandfather, a child Apu has never seen. Just outside the gates of the grandfather's estate, Apu, who is a wanderer now, bearded and despairing since the death of his wife, tells the boy, Kajal, that he is his father, but the child throws a stone at him—an act made of many conflicting emotions. The harsh grandfather has witnessed this and comes forward, raising his stick to discipline Kajal, but Apu prevents him, saying, “You could have killed the boy.”
The metrics are downright religious and could serve as the emblem of one of the stations of the cross or an illustration from the Bhagavad Gita(with an overlay of Ravi Shankar’s music—he composed the scores of all three films). The trilogy started with a child’s life being lost, but it ends with another’s being saved. The puzzle pieces aren’t jagged but interlocking. After Apu stops the abuse,there is a thirty-second shot of the grandfather walking away and the boy following him and ignoring Apu, complimented by a slow-track back of the camera as they pass from the powerful morality of Apu's nascent gravitational pull. It's an eternity of film time for the viewer to ponder what is happening and what it is telling them.
Ray’s particular iconology, how he uses the script, camera, and editing to look at a group of characters, fuels the Apu Trilogy’s mystique. He orders the objects in his canvas in a harmonious way to create emotional beauty, whether taxing or not, between people who are believable enough to care for. There a line of poetry by William Wordsworth that goes, “The Child is the father of the Man.” An apt imbroglio for the trilogy and for the years I needed to live before I could appreciate it. As William Gass said, one does not read a masterwork the first time in order to read it, but to ready oneself to read it. On subsequent reviewings of the trilogy I could smell the stain life had made in my psyche more freely, and so I could see Apu's life more and more in mine.