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Date: 17 Aug 2000
In using the word "graceful" to describe a film, three directors immediately come to mind: Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray. The fact that Ray is often only mentioned in passing, if at all, is a travesty. As I watched the Apu trilogy again, after having placed these films aside for a few years, I am more convinced than ever that a great injustice has been done. Ray's career was NOT defined by Pather Panchali or the Apu Trilogy--these films only launched it. But in appreciating his body of work, it is necessary to refer to the Apu Trilogy as the accomplished, lyrical, poignant, and astute social commentary on a profoundly changing culture that Ray wanted to capture.
Pather Panchali: The film follows the birth of Apu and his early life in the village of his ancestors: playing with his older sister, attending traditional school, reading the holy scriptures with his father. It is happy, nurturing homelife, but also one of poverty. His father is a struggling scholar and traditional priest, and Apu seems destined to follow in his footsteps. When tragedy strikes, they decide to leave the village and seek a better life in the city.
Aparajito: The film follows the Ray family as they settle in the city of Banaras. There is no school for Apu to attend and continue his education, so he spends much of his time roaming the streets. When another tragedy befalls the family, they are given the opportunity to move in with Apu's great uncle in another small village. In order for Apu to continue with his traditional education, the family accepts the invitation. However, when Apu hears of another school in the village--a "western" school--he asks to be enrolled. In the end, he must either choose the traditional path of his ancestors, or forge his own destiny in the city of Calcutta.
[Apur Sansar: The film follows an adult Apu as he is forced to drop out of the university for financial reasons. Without a college degree, he is unable to find a job. A wealthy college friend invites Apu to his cousin's wedding, and in a humorous twist of fate, becomes the unexpected "substitute" bridegroom. But misfortune strikes once again, and Apu, unable to reconcile with his grief, begins to wander the land.
Satyajit Ray's ability to move the audience without melodrama or emotional manipulation is a precise art. In depicting the life of a simple village boy in the early 1900's, Ray presents: the emotional struggle between cultural tradition and modernization, the vestigial effects of imperialism, the inescapability of social class. But there are also some sublimely beautiful moments in this life of poverty: the waterlilies bending with the wind, the open fields leading to the train crossing, the ominous birds flying over the Holy Ganges, the traditional marriage ceremony. The Apu Trilogy is a truly beautiful and extraordinary achievement in the history of film. There are not enough words to describe it. The Apu Trilogy, like life, needs to be experienced in all its joy and pain.
Columbia/Tri-Star has a number of covetable Satyajit Ray films, including Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar, Charulata, Devi, The Middleman, The Big City, and Jalsaghar, which have been restored by the Merchant/Ivory Foundation. One can only hope that Sony will, one day, see the light and release Ray's films on DVD.