Neorealism has always owed more to melodrama than some of its purveyors and admirers are willing to admit, but Satyajit Ray unreservedly acknowledged the influence of the latter in his Apu Trilogy. Starting with 1955’s Pather Panchali, his feature debut, the director crafted a stark vision of India’s transition into the modern age that nonetheless offset its most unvarnished observations with a sense of poetry that lent classical grandeur to intimate storytelling.
When, for example, the protagonist’s father, Harihar (Kanu Banerjee), catches fever and perishes near the start of Aparajito, Ray initially focuses on the banality of such a commonplace, senseless death in the priest’s ragged breathing and futile attempts to rally himself. When Harihar asks for some water from the Ganges, however, Apu’s sprint to and from the river lurches the film into opera, culminating in a dying breath matched to the sudden flight of scores of birds outside. By framing the verisimilitude of neorealism around the emotional beat of a scene, Ray leverages pseudo-objectivity to make his subjective tragedy all the more poignant, leading an audience while letting them think they’re simply seeing reality.
The director’s control of tone is so great that the films can often juggle two or more conflicting emotions and explore how antithetical moods can complement each other. The most famous of these would have to be the scene in the first film when Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his older sister, Durga (Runki Banerjee), spot a train in the distance while out in a field. They chase after the locomotive with pure joy, rushing through reeds taller than them, only to return after their merriment to discover their kind, aged relative, Indir (Chunibala Devi), has died. Pather Panchali is generally a story of the loss of innocence, but Ray doesn’t structure the scene as a mere sucker punch to the glee and wonder that precedes it. Instead, he places the tragic with the idyllic to grapple with the contradictory nature of life, never ceding fully to any one emotion to better study natural responses to multiple stimuli.
Ray’s approach extends to the relationship of each film in the trilogy to each other. Criterion doesn’t always release linked films in the same set, but the Apu films work best when viewed together to examine how aesthetic and tonal choices in one film deepen and contradict those of the other two. Watching the entire trilogy in quick succession makes it easier to see how the horizontal expanse of Pather Panchali’s open-space optimism gives way to the vertically crowded frames of Aparajito, whether in the overpopulated crush of the city or the claustrophobic miasma of the depleted family’s trip back to the countryside.
The mother (Karuna Banerjee) who seems so resentful of her poor husband and rambunctious children in Pather Panchali becomes hardened by loss into a furiously protective shell of her former self, ceasing to exist in the absence of her only remaining child. The varied casting of Apu (Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali, Pianki Sen Gupta and Smaran Ghosal in Aparajito, and Soumitra Chatterjee in The Wolf of Apu) is an obvious necessity to track the character’s growth over a short filmmaking span, but the different leads further mark the films as distinct from one another and allow each iteration of Apu to exist in his own space: the beaming naïf, the reserved student, and the hopelessly traumatized and listless adult.
The greatest benefit of including the films together, however, is to see the incredible leaps in technical skill between each installment. Ray’s debut is undeniably assured, but it favors uncluttered shots with few actors and fewer props. Though it confidently manages its symbolism, naturalism, and tone, the film does so by ensuring nothing is in the frame that can overly distract from what Ray intends in each shot. By comparison, the subsequent Aparajito employs crowded, deep-focus images that incorporate not only the family’s activities, but those of the people around them, compounding the sense of modern Indian life being a part of a teeming, overlapping whole. The World of Apu, including the masterful domestic drama The Music Room, finds Ray in total control of the frame, even using objects and people that exist independent of his direction to deepen the sense of Apu’s wanderlust and conflicting desires for isolation and belonging. The Apu Trilogy isn’t just a foundational text of international arthouse cinema, but also one of the best showcases of an artist’s swift maturation.
Criterion's restoration work is always worthy of praise, but in the case of Satyajit Ray's films, they have been showcases for the company's preservation efforts. As with prior Ray releases, these three films come to us from horribly dilapidated negatives, yet the Blu-rays look pristine, with stable blacks and whites, consistent detail, and healthy grain. Audio has also been salvaged from scratchy, pop-ridden tinniness, and Ravi Shankar's scores in particular can now be fully appreciated for the depths to which they comment and contrast with the images. Future restorations will be judged by this standard.
To match the quality of the restoration, Criterion overloads their set with extras. The bulk of the newly commissioned material consists of interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore, as well as writer Uijal Chakraborty and camera assistant Soumendu Roy. The subjects largely speak of their projects in broad terms, and always centered on anecdotes of watching Ray work, but they're most engaging when stacking their experiences working on these foundational texts of Indian cinema against the subsequent explosion of that nation's domestic film industry. For a deeper dive into the films themselves, a 43-minute analysis from filmmaker Mamoun Hassan is so minutely observed that even actors' body language and orientation to the camera is fodder for discussion. The set also includes a video essay from Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, as well as a 1967 documentary on the director and a clip of him receiving his honorary Oscar in 1992. An excerpt of a documentary on Ravi Shankar details the musicians work scoring the three films, and though the segment is brief, it's revelatory for Shankar insisting that even on his first film, Ray displayed a keen understanding of music and worked in close collaboration with the sitarist to achieve the sounds he imagined for his images. Finally, an accompanying booklet features essays from Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
In a fallow year for memorable Criterion releases, the company rallies to put out one of its all-time best packages in its masterful restoration of Satyajit Ray’s most famous films.