In Pather Panchali, Apu roams the forests and fields of his village while his hard-working mother and naive father struggle to make ends meet. In Aparajito, Apu wanders through the holy city of Benares to the banks of the River Ganges, until a family death again pushes him back to the countryside... Finally, in The World Of Apu, he dreams of being a writer, gets married and suffers the most terrible trauma of his life.
When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, Pather Panchali - Satyajit Ray's debut and the opening chapter of Apu's life story - opened Western eyes to an Indian cinema they had never seen before. This wasn't the song-and-dance, studio-set, romantic fantasy of Bollywood; this was an authentic, almost documentary-like depiction of a family's struggle against poverty in a rural Bengali village. The direct inspiration here was the Italian neo-realist cinema that had produced the likes of Bicycle Thieves.
In India in 1950, Satyajit Ray was able to meet French director Jean Renoir, who was in the country shooting The River. Inspired by Renoir's humanist touches, Ray set to work writing a script from a famous book he had been asked to provide illustrations for some years previously - Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's (yes!) novel, Pather Panchali.
In October 1952, Ray sunk all of his savings into buying film stock and hiring a camera, persuaded friends to become his crew, and began shooting with a cast of mainly non-professional actors.. But with about 5,000 feet in the can, the money ran out. Indian film producers were not interested in financing such a non-mainstream film from within their industry. It was only after a high official in the West Bengal Government watched the footage that Ray was able to receive a grant to complete the movie.
Even while Pather Panchali was triumphing at Cannes, Ray was already at work on a sequel, Aparajito (The Unvanquished). It went one better when it played the Venice Film Festival in 1957, winning the top prize, the Golden Lion. Ray directed two other films before completing The Apu Trilogy in 1959 with The World Of Apu (Apur Sansar; for some reason the third film, unlike the other two, is best known in the West by its translated title).
Basically, the films follow Apu from infancy to fatherhood. In Pather Panchali, he roams the forests and fields of his village while his hard-working mother and naive father struggle to make ends meet. In Aparajito, the country paths have become city lanes, as Apu wanders through the holy city of Benares to the banks of the River Ganges, until a family death again pushes him back to the countryside... Finally, in The World Of Apu, he dreams of being a writer, gets married and suffers the most terrible trauma of his life.
With such a simple storyline, what is it that makes these three films so special and unforgettable? It isn't plot; it's the meaningful detail that Ray pours into every frame. At first glance, some of this might seem irrelevant to audiences used to watching movies where each element is included in order to drive on the narrative. But Ray's details are the essence of his films - they convey the mood of the location and the relationship of the characters to the world around them.
The Apu Trilogy is a great work because it richly documents Bengali life in the earlier part of the 20th century, but does so using themes that are timeless and universal. These are genuinely moving films that never resort to sentiment; they're character stories where all the nuances play out on the actors' faces, not in dialogue. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa certainly had nothing but praise for his Indian counterpart: "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray,"he once said, "means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon." It's as essential as that.
These are must-see movies - humanist film-making at its best.