To listen to a discussion of this and other Ray films with my friend Deepayan, listen to our podcast episode on S. Ray here.
I had a chance to watch this at the Walter Reade Theater yesterday and it was a really fantastic experience. It was my first time watching such a clean print of this film and watching it yesterday, in all it’s big screen glory only reinforced my belief that this is Ray’s best film. Or at the very least, it’s my favorite Ray film. Having watched the Apu trilogy recently, I really noticed how much more assured this film feels in comparison. I think the first half of this film, especially, is near-perfect in terms of the composition, the pacing and the setting of mood and I felt this huge sense of excitement and discovery even though I’ve watched this film several times and know these sequences really well. I really should try and watch more films on the big screen.
The best part of this film is probably the opening sequence which lasts about 7 or 8 minutes I think. This sequence is nearly entirely devoid of dialogue (I think barring one line to the servant) and it’s this really incredible tableau where we follow Charu around the house on what seems to be a typical afternoon in her life. We see her wander from one room to the next looking for something to break her ennui and nothing really seems to catch her fancy for long enough. She takes up and discards one activity after the other, goes up to the window and starts to observe the people on the street, then grabs her opera glasses to get a closer look (a recurring motif in the film) and then goes from window to window observing this man only to end up bored again.
It’s an exhilarating sequence and it’s not just masterful in terms of the technique. In those seven minutes, Ray has established so many things. From the fashionable cut of Charulata’s blouse and from her jewellery combined with the opulent decor of the living room, we learn so much about Charu’s situation. From the fact that she has a bookshelf filled with books and is reading Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s novel, Kapalkundala, we know that she is educated and even literary. And yet from the way she seems to discard every activity she takes up and from her movements and facial expressions, we are privy to the deep sense of ennui that she seems to be suffering from.
This is then followed by another really great couple of scenes where Ray quickly establishes the dynamics of Charu & Bhupati’s marriage. In the first scene, we see Bhupati walk by Charu a couple of times without even noticing her because he is too engrossed in his book. We see Charu continue to stand in position hoping to be noticed. Eventually she gives up and takes to observing her husband too through her opera glasses.
In the scenes that follow this, we get to see another side of Bhupati. We see him as a good-hearted and even affectionate man but one who is so consumed with his passion for politics and his goal of spreading liberalism through his newspaper that he has little time for anything else.
I also really like the way we are introduced to Amal. His entry into Charulata’s life and home literally seems to cause a storm and along with Charulata, I too was carried away by his youthful exuberance, his charming smile and his poetic and romantic disposition. This scene is particularly effective juxtaposed against what comes right before it. We see Charu and her sister-in-law (who doesn’t seem to have helped alleviate Charu’s boredom at all) playing a game of cards that Charu barely seems interested which then cuts to a scene where both of them have fallen asleep as we start to hear the sound of a storm rising in the background. Really great.
While the films in the Apu trilogy, even taken one at a time, feel somewhat episodic in nature to me, this one really feels like a film that really builds up gradually. Perhaps that is why it feels more cohesive to me but I’m not too sure about this. Anyway, the film is really full of these moments that are captured really perfectly imo and that taken together build into this relationship that develops between Charulata & Amal.
As I was watching this yesterday, I realized that I had forgotten just how funny the first half of this movie is. There are is a wit and charm that pervades throughout this film effortlessly and I was pretty thrilled to find that the humor translates well even through subtitles because the audience (which was largely white and I presume non-Bengali speaking) laughed at all the right moments.
Right off the bat, we see that Charu & Amal seem to have much more in common than either Charu & Bhupati or Charu and Manda. We see their relationship go from respectful and affectionate banter to mutual respect to a friendship and intimacy that both of them seem to be experiencing for the first time. I love these scenes where Charu, Amal (and sometimes Manda) are just hanging around and shooting the breeze. The dynamics between these 3 people is conveyed so well through dialogue but also through the way they are framed by Ray. There are several instances where we see only Charulata & Amal in the frame in a two-shot but then the camera pulls back and we realize that Manda is with them as well. The distances between the characters too seems to reflect their relationship at that point in time. And all of this is still really subtle and done really naturally.
The other really great scene in the film is when Charu & Amal are in the garden and Amal is writing a story. First we see Charu on her swing and I love the way throughout this sequence, everytime we see Amal, we see him from Charu’s PoV – he goes in and out of frame depending on the position of Charu’s swing.
And then there’s the wonderful moment when Charu is reading Amal’s notebook using her opera glasses and finds a spelling mistake that she gleefully points out. She then continues to look around with her opera glasses and finally lands her eyes back on Amal and along with her, we too get to see him as if for the first time. It’s a great scene and really captures this complex series of emotions without getting at all heavy-handed about it.
I also really like the scene where Bhupati is spinning this really amazing dream where Amal is in snowy London and traveling to Europe and trying to convince him to get married to this rich man’s daughter. We see Amal getting swept up in the fantasy for an instant and Charulata’s reaction to the prospect of Amal getting married. And by the time the scene ends, we realize that for all his apparent patriotism, Bhupati is still fixated with the West and England in particular whereas Amal seems to carry a nationalist’s heart beneath his flippant, frivolous demeanor after all. Which reminds me that I love all the discussions that Bhupati and Amal have about literature and the way that Ray seems to portray both extremes so affectionately and yet be able to critique both positions as well. Given everything I’ve read about the family Ray grew up in, I suspect he interacted with enough people like Bhupati and Amal in his own life.
he scene where Charulata hits Amal repeatedly with her copy of the journal that published her piece and then gets upset when he praises her writing and breaks down and promises never to write again is another one of my favorite scene (probably neck to neck with those opening 7 minutes). It’s perfectly acted by Madhabi Mukherjee imo and that scene is really where I get reminded of the hopelessness of the situation. Till that point, we are mostly seeing these two people engage in harmless flirtation and being competitive with one another and so on and this is when I think even we as the viewers realize that this idyllic situation can’t possibly last.
I was less interested overall in the side-plot about the embezzling of funds but Ray doesn’t pull it out of a hat or anything. The first time we see Bhupati hand over the keys to Uma, we know what’s coming. And in retrospect, I could see why he wanted to keep that particular plot-point (apart from the fact that it’s present in Tagore’s story that Ray is being reasonably faithful to). It paves the way for another really good scene where Bhupati is talking to Amal about betrayal and we get to see Amal’s growing realization that he is guilty too by virtue of not doing anything and merely letting things take their course. Amal’s guilt-ridden sideways glance just captures all this so well.
These are the parts where the film starts to get really dramatic. And as I’ve probably mentioned in the write-ups of the other films I’ve watched for this marathon, I like Ray best when he is just capturing simple moments that are seemingly lacking in drama but are so poetic and beautiful. That’s the case here as well. And yet, I was quite comfortable with most of the drama in this film. I was ok up until the point where Amal leaves and we see Bhupati and Charu having a conversation on the seashore. I really quite like that seashore scene in fact.
At least watching it yesterday, I wasn’t so sure that I like what comes after that scene on the seashore. For one thing, the film gets even more dramatic in these last 10-15 minutes. To me, that really interrupted the rhythm that the film had up until then. It was jarring to me when Charu breaks down and starts crying and we see Bhupati watch her from outside the room. Bhupati’s lonely carriage ride is poetic on paper but didn’t work nearly as well for me in reality. And the freeze frame shots at the end which are reminiscent of The 400 Blows are cool and all that but the pessimism of the ending (and especially the text at the end that reads The Ruined Nest) felt so heavy-handed in contrast to the rest of the film.
Right now, I really wish Ray had chosen to end the film at that scene on the seashore. I think that scene still retains the ambiguity that he was perhaps going for with that last freeze-frame with the outstretched hands. There is no certainty that the plans they are hatching are going to work out and that Charu will find happiness at the newspaper. But at least it suggests that there might be hope yet and acknowledges that ultimately, we all move on and don’t stay heartbroken forever.
I brought this up when me and my friends (who watched the film with me) went to dinner after the film. I was pretty much shot down the minute I suggested it and told that the tragic ending was the only way to end the film. One of my friends also suggested that perhaps I had not understood the film properly .
I still think I’m right about this.
Regardless of the ending, I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s one of my all-time favorite films and if there’s only one film from this marathon that I wish everyone would watch, it’s this one.
Ah, I love the start of this film. All the clamor of the ghats in Benares, the narrow lanes that Apu keeps running through, the wide shots of the steps by the river and just the sounds of the neighbors whenever we are in Apu’s home. So great. So, as the middle film of the trilogy, I guess this is the film that covers the most in terms of plot if I remember correctly. Or at least it has a lot more going on than Pather Panchali. As I mentioned earlier, most people I know seem to consider Aparajito, the strongest film the trilogy. I was really curious to see if I’d feel the same way watching it now. Nah, didn’t happen.
This film is definitely far bigger in scope than Pather Panchali. We move to a big city to begin with but also this spans a lot more locations and I think thematically as well, the film feels more ambitious. For instance, I felt like this film has a lot more social commentary on the struggle between tradition and progress and the distinction between rural and urban life. At the same time, I really never felt as though the film is hitting us over the head with these themes. The film never feels judgmental or preachy but instead only raises these issues to the extent that they have bearing upon Apu’s choices and his life.
But all that aside, my favorite moments in the film come from the montage of scenes where little Apu is in school, being a bright student and generally being enthralled by all sorts of new things that he is learning about. It’s a rather quick little montage but one that I think does such a great job of showing Apu coming into his own.
That montage is really the time ellipsis after which we leave little Apu behind and are introduced to a grown-up Apu, one who has won scholarships and made up his mind to leave for Calcutta to continue his education.
To my mind, this is a really key transition in the film. I have always thought of this trilogy not so much as the story of Apu but rather as the story of Apu’s relationship with the three women who seem to have had the most impact on his life. So where we mostly saw Apu with Durga in the first film, this film for me is really about Apu’s relationship with Sarbajaya.
There is a scene somewhere around the 1/3rd mark I think and at this time Sarbajaya is working for a family that seems to be generally good-hearted and so on. They offer to take Sarbajaya and Apu with them when they go on vacation and Sarbajaya seems to agree. Soon after though we see Sarbajaya and Apu in Sarbajaya’s relative’s house and it becomes apparent and Sarbajaya chose not to continue her employment with the family but instead to move away. The movie doesn’t really explain this decision. Instead we see Sarbajaya glance at Apu as he seems to be generally killing time playing with monkeys and running errands for his mother’s employers. I really loved this touch. There are so many possible explanations for Sarbajaya’s decision here… the need to bring back structure and routine into Apu’s life, the need to be able to focus on his upbringing to a greater extent and perhaps most importantly, her refusal to let him continue this tradition of servitude that circumstances have thrown her into. I love the fact that Ray doesn’t explicitly talk about any of this. Just a glance is all we get.
Another key element of the film I think is that we see Sarbajaya transform from the practical, strong woman we saw in the first film to a rather needy, sentimental mom. There is this superb scene when Apu is leaving for Calcutta the first time and Sarbajaya is standing at the door wishing him goodbye. It’s this really quick scene that one could so easily miss but in this one flash we see her face go from a smile (happy at the prospect of her son moving on to a land of opportunities) to doubt (will I lose him to the big city) to actual sadness/resignation as if she knows that this is inevitably going to be true.
I also really like the scenes in Calcutta as Apu starts to experience life on his own. The first few scenes when the train is just coming into the station and when he’s just getting his bearings in particular are so good. It’s funny because I just read a review elsewhere saying that the visuals in the Apu trilogy are rather pedestrian and its the story they tell that makes them such a marvel. I am definitely no expert on shot composition and such but strangely its the visuals in these films that have stayed the longest with me. The entire sequence with the train in the first film, the screenshot I used at the top of this post from this one, the initial scenes in the film where we see Apu just running along narrow alleys and down the stairs that lead to the Ganges and so on.
And I love the little humorous touches like in the scene where Apu falls asleep in the English class while the teacher is discussing figures of speech.
And even Apu’s growing distance from his mom is not just a pat sequence where the son would rather be in the city and ignore his old mother. I think the film does a great job of depicting the inevitable gap between parents as kids over time. I love the scene where Apu decides to miss his train to the city and come back and spend an extra day with Sarbajaya. Also the scene where Sarbajaya insists on his return that he’s grown taller and appears not to be eating well.. neither of which seems particularly true from looking at Apu but which are exactly the kinds of things one would expect a mother to say.
Overall, for me, as much as I loved this film, it doesn’t hold the same impact that Pather Panchali did. Sure, its more ambitious in scope and maybe even technically more accomplished (although I’d argue that’s not true), it just doesn’t have the same poetic beauty that the first film did. There are moments in this film that I think achieve that for me but overall, it just didn’t manage to move me in the same way the first film did. That being said, the part that I do like is the weird sense of liberation from family and other ties that Apu seems to have achieved at the end of the film. That really has me excited for the third film where we really will get to see Apu start his life afresh unencumbered by his past I think.
It’s a little weird for me to be writing about a film that I’ve watched several times since I was a kid and that was at least partially responsible for me falling in love with the movies. We didn’t own a VCR at home. My mom, being rather fond of movies herself, rather correctly predicted that the arrival of a VCR would distract us away from studying. So my access to movies was pretty limited. But every Sunday we would get to watch one of the two movies being shown on television – one, a popular mainstream Bollywood movie and the other, a rather slow, artsy regional movie with subtitles. Thankfully, I usually picked the latter in the hope that it’d feature more nudity, sex and violence (which it seldom did) and this is how I discovered some of the best films to ever come out of India (that almost no one has heard of unfortunately). My most distinct memory from the movies I watched then is a Satyajit Ray film… not this one but Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne which will be covered later in the marathon and that I haven’t watched since I was 9 or 10 years old.
This is Satyajit Ray’s first film and arguably his best known work and one of the few Indian films that features pretty regularly on Best of Lists both in India and in the West. Maybe this is why Indians like to go on about how this is not really his best film. My Bengali friend insists that Aparajito is the actual masterpiece in the trilogy. One of the reasons I embarked on this marathon is to check if Charulata is still my favorite film by him. Other people I know insist that Goopy Gyne is inventive in a way that none of his other films are. All of this might be true and yet, as I watched the film for the nth time, I found myself totally enraptured by the film and unable to tear my eyes away from the screen. The familiarity only made the film more special as opposed to making it all seem mundane.
What struck me the most while rewatching it this time is just how undramatic this film is. Perhaps the least dramatic of all his films and definitely of the present trilogy. In that sense this film feels almost like a poem. It’s full of these amazingly evocative vignettes from the simple life of this family living in rural Bengal and the lovely cinematography (the movie is *full* of pretty images) just adds to this sense of poetry. The movie just spends a few years in the lives of Harihar (the dreamer playwright father), Sarbajaya (the pragmatic and proud mom), Apu (the newborn, the baby, the much-adored brother) and Durga.
If I didn’t know that these films were based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, I would wonder why Ray chose to make this the Apu Trilogy when this film so clearly belongs to Durga. Oh, Durga. She is just such a wonderful character. She is free-spirited, bright, mischievous, deceitful and yet capable of such infinite affection and just so magnetic overall. She is really the emotional core of the film along with the old aunt and I love the way Ray allows these characters to simply live and breathe and go about their lives for a large part of the film. Another thing that I find extraordinary about the film is the way Durga grows up during the course of the film. She seems to become more responsible and obedient overall (as evidenced by scenes where she is trying to help her mom and praying and so on) and despite this, she doesn’t lose that fundamental spark that makes her so much fun to be around. Even more amazing when it’s two different actresses playing her in the course of the film.
All we see for the first half of the film are scenes that paint this really vivid portrait of each member of the family and their position in relation to the rest of the society that surrounds them. I love the way this portrait albeit specific in terms of time and place is still so universal. The family, like any other, has moments of joy and sadness. They have problems but are also capable of rejoicing at the birth of a child. The most poignant moments for me are the ones where Durga and Apu are just growing up and being kids (which is the majority of the film thankfully). The first time they steal tobacco and taste it, their excitement at the arrival of the sweetmeat vendor (shot from across the river so that their reflection in the pond is captured so beautifully by the camera), the kids in Apu’s school playing tic-tac-toe on a piece of slate, Durga’s carefree dance in the first rain of the season and of course, Apu and Durga seeing a train for the first time.
I hate to even say this but I feel like the weakest scene in the entire film for me is the tragedy that occurs towards the end of the film. I always burst into tears when it happens and I love the way it’s shot with the stormy night and everything. Plus, I really love watching Sarbajaya’s face that night. It is one of the few occasions in the film where we see her hard exterior completely crumble and her pragmatism fail her. Maybe the reason I have problems with it is that it introduces a plotline and drama to a film that seems to be doing so well without any of that. Plus, my criticism really isn’t fair because this is clearly one of the formative events in Apu’s life that we are going to see play out through the rest of the trilogy. And yet, viewing this film in isolation, I find myself wishing away that part of the film.
Plus, the tragedy is followed by some really incredible moments in the film. For one thing, the way Apu’s face and his entire physical demeanor seems to change after the event is just heart-wrenching (especially the scene above when he can overhear his father from a distance). Secondly, the scene where Apu finds the string of beads on the shelf and throws it into the pond – the burial of a secret, a memory he doesn’t want remembered. I tear up even thinking about that scene. And that final shot of the family in the cart – a family whose life will never be quite the same.
The film is also perfectly cast and I loved pretty much all the performances – the aunt is probably my favorite though. Ravi Shankar’s music for the film is outstanding. This book tells me that he actually composed all the music for the film in one night-long session!