Apur Panchali : a review


For someone who is a die-hard Satyajit Ray fan watching ‘Apur Panchali‘ was a treat. This is a story within a story and a journey within a journey. But, for the most part, it is the tale of a man who earns fame as a child artiste and as life progresses, gets lost into obscurity and decline, in a life that is full of unfulfilled promises, heartbreak and despair! You’d be wrong if you thought this is going to be another sad story. In fact, although it deals with all the elements that make it a perfect tear-jerker for the likes of us who are moved by the human propensity to stoically face the blows that life slings upon us, it remains far from depressing. It is the story of the human spirit that dwells in irony and yet, remains stoically reticent and withdrawn in the face of adversity, to quietly face the wrath of fate and yet not give in to defeat, to accept what life has to offer and yet move on with grace and dignity till the end.

But before I delve further into the film, let me tell you a little bit about the background against which this story is set. ‘Pather Panchali’ was Ray’s directorial debut, made in 1955, based on Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s famous story by the same name.  Ray’s film, which was the first part of the trilogy, is now considered a classic and is counted as one of the ten greatest in the history of world cinema. Known for its’ stark realism, simplicity and soul-stirring humanity, ‘Pather Panchali’ has always been considered to be a turning point of Indian cinema. It was instrumental in bringing about the parallel cinema movement, ushering in social realism, naturalism and authenticity, steering away from the dance-and-song numbers that used to be typical of the mainstream commercial cinema at the time.

In Kaushik Ganguly’s film, the main protagonist is Subir Banerjee – the little boy who played the role of Apu in Ray’s iconic film. It traces the parallel between the reel and the real as he progresses through youth, adulthood and later life.

The film unfolds almost like a poem, with such pathos and empathy, that it touches the innermost core of the viewer moving one to tears! (I did succumb to it a couple of times, I have to admit!) In a style that is more like a documentary, the parallels appear both striking and heart-rending at the same time, in the most gentle and subtle way. What emerges is a form of story-telling that now establishes Ganguly’s forte, as a film maker today.

As time progresses, Subir’s ‘tale’ (the Bengali word for it is ‘panchali‘) unfolds before the viewer and reveals the ironic turn of events in his life which appear to mirror that of Apu, the protagonist in Ray’s film. Moments from the trilogy – Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar are constantly brought to the fore, and placed alongside, to parallel the events that occur at each critical juncture in Subir’s life.

In a particular scene, during a conversation with Arko (the film student who comes to bring him back into limelight at the behest of an invitation from German sponsors who wish to felicitate him) Subir says of Ray – “Baad to dilen, kintu baad gelam koi?” (Subir meant that Ray never gave him another film to work in, having other actors in mind to essay the roles of Apu in his youth and adulthood respectively in the second and the final part of the trilogy. And, yet, the irony was, that in real life, miles away from the limelight and the grease-paint, Apu’s fate stuck onto him forever, nailing his future, something which never ever left him!)

To me, this line seems to sum up the very essence of the film, in a nutshell. The pathos, the pain and the haunting familiarity of events in Apu’s life is perfectly echoed in Subir’s life too, leaving him reticent and bitter, as he grapples with loss, pain and a heart-wrenching loneliness, resembling Apu’s fate in the story!

The film excels on many levels. Not least for the subtlety of narrative and the juxtaposition of colour and black-and-white to switch across time zones and between reel and real. I loved the excellent cinematography – particularly the way each shot was framed and for the regular references to the trilogy, which is a treat for all those who have grown up with the ever familiar character of Apu, an unmistakable part of the Bengali sensibility. In a way, Ganguly’s protagonist also haunts us as much as Pather Panchali’s Apu does, and in much the same way.

This film is a must-see for those who enjoy good cinema. It is the kind that lingers with you long after you’ve left the movie hall!

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