Meeting Apu Again for the First Time

Growing up as the son of an artist/actress and a theatre professor at a small liberal college, I was blessed with early and unique exposure to the arts. My father’s involvement with the visiting artist series and other programming on his campus was an important factor in this education because it brought many masters and their work to our community in rural Indiana: as a child, I was able to see in-person musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and the Red Clay Ramblers, performance troupes like the Second City and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and writers like Edward Albee and Elie Wiesel.

Among the events that left the most indelible impressions upon me, though, were the special film presentations that periodically came through the college. In particular, I remember a showing of Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute for parents and children; the first of many alternate cuts of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; the restoration of Abel Gance’s silent classic Napoleon; and a pristine reissue of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, marking the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.

There was also a disastrous screening of Indian director Satyajit Ray’s first masterpiece, 1955’s Pather Panchali (in English, Song of the Little Road). When I was quite small, my mother took me to see a battered 16mm print at a lecture hall on campus. “Do you even remember that?” she asked recently. “It was in terrible condition. The film kept breaking, and you couldn’t see the whole image — just a bright part in the center.” Between my age at the time and the especially shoddy picture quality, I didn’t actually remember a lot about child protagonist Apu and his poor Brahmin family in 1920s Bengal. But I did remember that bright part in the center: those lasting feelings of empathy and understanding that can only be generated by a filmmaker in complete command of the craft.

My mother and I are hardly the only ones who have been impacted by the film despite less-than-ideal circumstances. “I was in high school and happened to see Pather Panchali on television. Dubbed in English. With commercials,” Martin Scorsese told the Washington Post during a 2002 retrospective of Ray’s work at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. “It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.”

In fact, for quite a while, appreciating Pather Panchali and its two sequels, 1956’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and 1959’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), in spite of inferior presentation has been the rule rather than the exception. Until now.

The Criterion Collection, in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata, has undergone the painstaking process of giving a new 4K digital restoration to the “Apu Trilogy”. (The films’ original negatives were badly damaged in a fire at London’s Henderson Film Laboratories, making a difficult job that much harder.) After a limited theatrical release earlier this year, the restored films were released on DVD and in digital formats this month. In addition, you can watch all three films tonight on Turner Class Movies (TCM), starting at 8 p.m. EST.

Revisiting Pather Panchali this month, on its sixtieth anniversary, felt like something more than a rediscovery. Indeed, to see the restoration is to meet Apu again for the first time.

That said, it’s not as though its classic status has ever been in doubt: Sight & Sound‘s 2015 poll of nearly a thousand “critics, programmers, academics, and distributors” resulted in its ranking as the 42nd greatest film of all time. In addition, the trilogy and its auteur have maintained some seriously impressive cachet in the popular culture. The Beatles’s paradigm-shifting discovery of Ravi Shankar’s music, for example, came through Pather Panchali‘s dazzling score. The creators of The Simpsons also named their Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria) in honor of the trilogy’s titular hero. In addition, one can feel Ray’s influence all over the work of Wes Anderson; the young auteur’s underrated The Darjeeling Limited is even dedicated to him, incorporating soundtrack cuts from across the master’s oeuvre, as well as a portrait of himin one key scene.

Perhaps it’s better to say that the restoration of Pather Panchali underscores the film’s resplendent technical qualities and magnifies the overall accomplishment. For example, the cinematography by Subrata Mitra finally registers in all of its exquisiteness; it is a rapturously beautiful film, with some of the most evocative natural photography ever put to celluloid. In particular, a montage of the wildlife at the pond near Apu’s family’s home comes to life in ways it has not for ages. The scene’s effect owes much to Shankar’s glorious music, which, thanks the remastered audio, now envelopes the viewer in the story even more so than before. It might be the greatest film score ever written.

With almost no blemishes to distract attention, viewers can now focus in much more closely on Ray’s story of India. As Scorsese points out, one of the things that remains so striking about Pather Panchali is its radical and crucial departure from the picture of the subcontinent we are normally shown in the West, “usually through colonialist eyes.” Adapted from the autobiographical novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the film certainly shows us an “India of contradictions” that is not necessarily unfamiliar: the family is Brahmin, the highest caste, and struggles mightily with crushing and lethal poverty nonetheless. But Ray — who was most influenced by Jean Renoir, the Italian neo-realists, and classical Hollywood — also offers an impressionistic portrait of Bengali people that shows us not only something of their individual experiences, but also something about human beings more broadly. The annual Hindu festival of Durga Puja, for example, is depicted through Apu’s eyes without explanation. These glimpses affect and instruct us in their own way, but also reflect universals about community and culture. “There’s a lesson [here] for younger people,” Scorsese says of Pather Panchali. “The more they see other cultures, the more accessible, the more you get to learn about the other cultures, the less you fear them, the less hatred.”

In his review of 1963’s Mahanagar (The Big City), Roger Ebert explains further: “[Ray’s films] are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but [his] characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood. Ray’s people have genuine emotions and ambitions, like the people next door and the people in Peoria and the people in Kansas City. There is not a person reading this review who would not identify immediately and deeply with [these] characters.”

However, in America, so-called “foreign” films can still seem like a lot of work to many audiences — an act of vegetable-eating, done dutifully if at all. But, as Ebert says: “Hollywood films with exploding cigarette lighters and gasping starlets and idiot plots are the real ‘foreign’ films. They have nothing at all in common with us, and Satyajit Ray of India understands us.”

In this regard, the Apu Trilogy returns to us not a moment too soon, as Hollywood’s franchise approach to filmmaking intensifies and further dominates the movie landscape. (Among other things, we are told to expect no less than thirty entries in the “Marvel Universe” over the next five years, and at least one Star Wars film a year for the foreseeable future.) Steven Soderbergh was right to lament in his keynote at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival:

Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint…[and it] is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision, and a lack of leadership, you’ve got a trajectory that I think is pretty difficult to reverse.

In a recent interview, Spike Lee also reflected on the resistance of many audience members to idiosyncratic storytelling, saying:

They’re just seeing the same movies all the time. Hollywood, there’s less variety of the films that are being made today versus in the past. So they’re seeing the same thing again and again, being spoon-fed the same thing again and again. And more explosions. Louder explosions. More special effects… If you’re eating the same thing every day, and someone places something in front of you that’s not the same diet you’ve been eating, your palate, it’s different.

But some films have that rare ability to break through complacency and even reinvigorate the medium. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Pather Panchali is one of those films. Its restoration is a vital reminder of that power, even after sixty years. To work, it needs only to be seen.

What’s more, the experience of watching it evokes a kind of compassion that is so urgently needed. I can personally attest that these feelings will stay with the viewer long after other aspects of the film are forgotten, and can stoke an abiding interest in the world and the people in it. I’m not the only one who can testify to this effect, either. “My family was a working-class family and were uneducated and there were no books in the house,” says Scorsese. “But I would see certain films and the films would drive me to read these books or learn more about the culture. So when I saw Pather Panchali, it was a really a revelation and that’s why I think cinema’s so important.”

Indeed, Pather Panchali is an important film in the fullest sense of that adjective. And how many films can you really and truly say that about without cheapening the word?

Before the Force awakens, be sure you make some time for Apu and his family. It’s an investment of time that will not only broaden your horizons, but genuinely stir your heart. Throughout his career, Satyajit Ray has shown us, in his gentle way, that eliciting real emotional responses from an audience is not the same as manipulating them: to look at one of his films next to almost anything at the multiplexes right now is to see and appreciate this difference.

When a film is able to generate authentic feelings of connection with our fellow human beings, it is an astonishing feat — the best special effect of all. In the history of cinema, I wonder if there’s ever been a greater reminder of this than Pather Panchali?

Bibliography:

  • “Martin Scorsese Pays Tribute to Satyajit Ray” by Lloyd Grove for the Washington Post(Thursday, February 28th, 2002).

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is an activist documentarian whose work has been featured by Vimeo Staff Picks, The AV Club, No Film School, io9, Film School Rejects, Boing Boing, Films for Action, Movies.com, and Filmscalpel. In addition, his writing has appeared in outlets that include AlterNet, Bright Lights Film Journal, Nonfics, Diabolique, and Culture Matters.
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