Wednesday 21 November 2012

1,001 Films: "Aparajito" (1957)

The midpoint in Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy - following Pather Panchali, yet ahead of The World of Apu - Aparajito, a.k.a. The Unvanquished, deals with a particularly tricky period in its young protagonist's development. After his father dies, Apu (played as a boy by Pinaki Sengupta, and as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) is forced to retreat with his mother from the city to the countryside, where they take menial jobs to get by. As ever a bright and independent spirit, Apu has an eye on going to school and making a man of himself - at the risk of severing the last remaining bonds that tie in to the woman who brought him into this world.

It's infused by Ray's usual detail of character and place: practically the entire opening half-hour is devoted (and that is the word here) to one household's routine, and to dramatising what happens when a family member dies. Yet even in the presence of death, these scenes - with their frequent interruptions from upstairs neighbours and passing neighbours - have a rare sense of life; these are the three films that, whether taken together or separately, best show up Ozu's much-lauded humanism as stiff and starchy. Where the latter gets hung up on frames and (patriarchal) structure, Ray here makes a film that is all about the ways Apu comes to fill such spaces (a developing mind, a suddenly empty courtyard), and how his own absence leaves a vast void in the lives of others.

It's always a dangerous game to try and discern national characteristics from an individual work - and I'm well aware there are those who insist Ray was merely showing the rest of the world what it maybe wanted to see. (There were, perhaps, ulterior commercial motives in packing Apu off to learn English, of all subjects.) Yet Apu's progress appears to speak to the desire for self-improvement so central to the Indian character: it would be unfair to blame Ray for all of them, but many of the derogatory jokes about Asian students being nerds in contemporary sitcoms and college comedies can be sourced back to this exceptional trilogy.

The Apu Trilogy is available as a boxset through Artificial Eye.


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