Director: Satyajit Ray
Writer: Satyajit Ray
DP: Subrata Mitra
Editor: Dulal Dutta
Score: Ravi Shankhar
Producer: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Swapan Mukherjee, Alok Chakravarty
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Length: 1 hr. 40 min.
While Aparajito picked up exactly where Pather Panchali left off, Apur Sansar opens several years after the events of Aparajito, and with none of the same actors. Apu, the titular character, is living in Calcutta as a writer with only minimal success who barely manages to pay his rent by selling his old school books. He's not a totally impractical man: he searches for a job and is willing to work outside his preferred field and under his education level. There is one instance in which we see him refuse a job, but only because it wouldn't help him - it would be too emotionally draining, and the whole Apu Trilogy deals with how people build lives that keep them above despair.
So, he persists as a writer, because it means something to him. He tells his friend Pulu that he's writing a novel, one that he's proud of and believes could be successful. Pulu asks him for a synopsis, and as Apu summarizes it, we realize that he intends to retell the events of Pather Panchali and Aparajito. During his summary, we hear an excerpt from the score of Pather Panchali swell in the background. It gives uplifting emotional force to his story, the romanticized story of his own life; through art, his life is elevated.
Pulu notices the autobiographical nature of Apu's novel, but when he points it out, Apu responds that he's including some elements from outside his own life, including a romantic plotline. Pulu objects to this, claiming that Apu can't include romance in such an autobiographical story until he's experienced love for himself. This kind of embellishment on Apu's part reflects the decision he made to leave home in Aparajito; we saw in that film, and even a little in Pather Panchali, that Apu tends to pursue things unfamiliar to him.
Taking this into account, we can understand his behavior when he encounters an unexpected situation: Pulu invites Apu to his cousin Aparna's wedding in the country, claiming that he may be able to help him find a job if he comes. But on the day of the wedding, the prospective groom is afflicted with heatstroke and has to miss the wedding. Aparna's traditional family, who had scheduled the wedding on an auspicious day, insists that she still be wed, leaving Apu as the only potential husband. It takes some persuasion before he agrees, but it's kind of an ideal situation for him: he's given the opportunity to do something beyond his experience, and more importantly, he's promised a steady job working on something close to his chosen field.
In Pather Panchali, we see the destruction of a world leading to a transition in perspective. In Aparajito, we see the building of a new personal world. The challenge Apu faces in Apur Sansar is to let another person become an integral part of his world. At one point it's revealed that between his new job and spending time with Aparna, he hasn't had time to work on his novel at all. However, when Aparna asks him if that bothers him, citing how much his novel means to him, he answers that it means more to be with her.
In a way that isn't very characteristic of the Apu Trilogy, Aparna is a fairly flat character, written as a cipher. Fortunately, Sharmila Tagore doesn't play her as one - her performance is slightly melancholic, yet contented. She tries very hard to be a good wife to Apu, and looks happy in his company, though at one point, when she's alone, she regards the city and cries. The growing presence of modernity in these films combines with Ray's compartmentalization of their world and the characters' development, painting a picture of society that changes with the continuing individual efforts of people trying to preserve their lives.
On top of presenting Apu with a new challenge, one appropriate to life as an adult, Apur Sansar brings something absolutely vital to the trilogy. In Pather Panchali we learn of the inevitability of loss as a fact of life; in Aparajito, or "The Unvanquished," we learn how people build worlds that let them maintain stability in the face of such tragedy. But neither film demonstrates what happens when a person's world is demolished, leaving them without stability in the face of unavoidable suffering. Apur Sansar does.
When Apu's world collapses, the collapse is visualized by several dissolves between shots of him in broad landscapes untouched by humanity. They leave Apu in an inconsistent space, absorbing him and erasing the places through which he moves. They displace him from location, and more importantly, from community. In Apur Sansar, the loss of stability and the consequential inability to carry on amounts to a moral failing; Apu has responsibilities and unfulfilled relationships that he abandons when he loses his sense of place, creating rifts between him and the people he once knew that only grow with time as he becomes increasingly afraid to face them.
At the end of Apur Sansar, the train motif that exists throughout the Apu trilogy gains a new meaning. In Pather Panchali, it was an intrusion of the modern into nature; it was alien at first, but eventually necessary. In Aparajito, it gives Apu the means to pursue his own ends for the first time, but it creates distance between his chosen life and the life he was born into. In Apur Sansar, we finally understand that the train is important as an instrument of guided movement; it carries people to new places, but along a reliable, safely navigable path. It's the meeting point of individuality, personal background, and the unfamiliar.
With the Apu Trilogy, Satyajit Ray has represented the unique challenges facing children, adolescents, and adults and united them within Apu, an extremely comprehensible character grounded in a strong balance of nature and nurture. He's captured excellent performances and shown great formal control, successfully using both to conjure insight that the narrative doesn't carry on its own. Each film could stand by itself, yet each one makes an ideal complement to the others. It's essential cinema.