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.