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!