Sunday, August 2, 2015

Aparajito (1956)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Writer: Satyajit Ray
DP: Subrata Mitra
Editor: Dulal Dutta
Score: Ravi Shankar
Producer: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Smaran Ghosal, Pinaki Sen Gupta, Karuna Banerjee, Kanu Banerjee
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 1 hr. 44 min.

Aparajito is the sequel to director Satyajit Ray's 1955 masterpiece Pather Panchali. Its title translates to "The Unvanquished" in English, a fitting title for a film that shows how the family from Pather Panchali, devastated by loss, managed to carry on with their lives. As a sequel, it's especially impressive in its treatment of the main character, Apu; in Pather Panchali he seemed to be more of a symbol than a character, but Aparajito makes him his own person while basing that growth on same traits that let him function as a symbolic presence in Pather Panchali.

The film opens with a shot filmed through the window of a train passing over a river. In effect, this picks up immediately where Pather Panchali left off, with the central family moving to a new place. A title card tells us exactly where that is: the city of Varanasi, a setting much more urban than that of Pather Panchali. We see the ghat, a public area consisting of steps descending into a river. The ghat is a communal space, bustling with people engaging in all manners of business. The camera moves in closer and we see Horihor, Apu's father played by Kanu Banerjee. It follows Horihor as he returns home, and we move from the open ghat to the narrow alleys of the city, and then to the inside of their residence.

Slowly shrinking our perspective like this lets us see the nature of the urban community: it's large, but also compartmentalized between the smaller communities therein. It's by finding roles within smaller communities that Apu's parents are able find work; we can compare this state of affairs to that in Pather Panchali, in which Apu's father had to wait for opportunities to work and make money. The social structure of the city is different as well: in Pather Panchali, each family unit was expected to maintain a lifestyle they deserved according to their social standing. The people in the city are more interdependent.

But the detail with which Ray depicts the city is only a factor in his greater vision. In Pather Panchali, Ray introduces us to the idea that the way we build our own lives is truly put to the test when irreversible loss strikes - and it inevitably will. Aparajito shows us how Apu and his family have held up under such a test.

Pather Panchali destroyed its world, and Aparajito shows the building of a new one. It takes this concept rather literally, reaching a point in which the central characters physically separate themselves in space because of their differences in perspective. Apu separates from his mother because he fits in more with modernity. The film realizes children grow up in a world their parents created, and eventually must look outside of that world.

To portray this separation between family members, Ray shows characters peering at other characters through frames inside frames, placing each in their own subjective world within a larger, objective one. It's apparent that he doesn't believe all people live this way all the time, but he finds it a necessary step in both Apu's coming-of-age and the coming-of-age of the society he lives in. In an earlier time he may have been bound to a predetermined role, but this was left behind by the endless current of collective adaptation.

Between Pather Panchali and Aparajito, we see a parallel development between Apu's maturity and the modernity of the setting. Pather Panchali takes place mostly in nature, prior to Apu's first encounter with true loss; before then, modernity was something alien while nature was portrayed with beauty. By the end of Pather Panchali, that's changed. He's experienced loss, and his family becomes reliant on modern infrastructure. Then in Aparajito, modernity becomes a part of his personal world.

Where Pather Panchali's power arises from a confluence of every aspect of its production, Aparajito's power comes mostly from the way Ray uses his camera.  The camera comments on the story being told, allowing us to glimpse the depth behind a story that really has very few moving pieces.  Because of this, I suspect that Aparajito would function just fine without the context provided by Pather Panchali, but I can't overstate just how well it fits as a continuation of Pather Panchali's narrative.

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