The World of Apu
a.k.a. Apur Sansar
The World of Apu Bengali language. India, 1959. Unrated. 106 minutes.

Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Swapan Mukherjee, Alok Chakravarty
Writers: Satyajit Ray from the novel Aparajito by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

Cinematographer: Subrata Mitra

Music: Ravi Shankar

Producers: Satyajit Ray

Director: Satyajit Ray


Grade: A Review by Jeff Vorndam

The World of Apu is my introduction to the films of Satyajit Ray, and if its power and humanity is indicative of the quality of his other films then I am overjoyed to make their acquaintance. In The World of Apu I was in the hands of a master filmmaker from start to finish. The film is the third installment of the widely regarded Apu Trilogy (preceded by Pather Panchali and Aparajito). As a stand-alone film, The World of Apu still works remarkably, despite references to events that are not so much acknowledged as felt in the character of the movie's protagonist. If you don't want key events from the first two films "spoiled" I suggest watching those films first before reading further or seeing The World of Apu.

Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a young man who has recently graduated from college. He lives alone in a small apartment, intermittently working on a novel. Apu doesn't have a job or a family, and his landlord, who has been very understanding in allowing him to be three months late with the rent, can hold out no longer. The poverty of Calcutta lingers on the fringes of each scene, never dominating the story but always present. Ray takes his time with these early scenes, establishing the character of Apu in a few wordless poetic passages that house a great deal of detail. His trusting and open nature is depicted in a scene where he soaks up the summer rain with a broad grin, and his frustration at not finding work is shown in a shot of Apu in dejected repose, playing his flute. Apu thinks he has the makings of a decent novel on his hands and that working as a clerk is beneath him, but his friend Pulu (Alok Chakravarty) chastises him and tells him that he still lacks the life experience to know what he's writing about.

Pulu convinces Apu to come with him for a few days to East Bengal where a relative of his is getting married. The wedding goes awry when the bridegroom develops a sudden mental illness and leaves the bride in the lurch. The bride's family panics–it is their belief that her life will be cursed if she does not get married to someone on that day. In steps Apu, reluctantly, almost as if he has nothing better to do (though he views it as an act of nobility to save the girl). The plot at this point may sound like some wacky comedy, but it's handled with more gravity than levity. The ceremony is beautifully portrayed as a meaningful cross-pollination of souls. The intensely wary yet wondrous gazes between Apu and his new wife Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) convey their anxiety as well as hint that deep down they are not displeased at the turn of events.

When Apu returns with Aparna to Calcutta and his humble abode, the film enters its second and most lovingly rendered act. The scenes in which Apu and Aparna feel each other out as human beings and man and wife are utterly convincing and breathtaking in their simplicity and lyricism. Their progression from awkwardness to quiet closeness is almost entirely rendered visually. An edit shows a lapse of time with a shot of a window adding a feminine curtain. Apu and Aparna play possum in the early morning, stealing glances at each other when the other's eyes are closed. When Aparna gets up to do so some cleaning, she playfully raps the still sleeping Apu on the backside.

Aparna assuages Apu's worries that he cannot financially support her when she confides to him that she'd be happy if he quit the job he does have, because it would mean he would be home more often. She eagerly learns to read, which Apu teaches her. I should mention at this point that the actress playing Aparna, Sharmila Tagore, is surpassingly beautiful, and Ray photographs her adoringly. When she leaves by train to visit her parents while she gives birth to their child, Ray wallops us with a stunning close-up of Aparna. The unexpected hugeness of the picture, and the feelings we've grown to associate with her character, converge with overwhelming force to finalize the bond between Apu and Aparna. The shock and loss are all the greater then, when we learn that Aparna has died giving birth to their son Kajal. The news devastates Apu and he reacts angrily, striking the messenger. He then turns his anger toward his child, whom he has not met. Blaming Kajal for killing his beloved, Apu refuses to see the boy and instead leaves Calcutta to wander the land.

The third act of the movie consists of Apu's wanderings and his eventual epiphany. It's not easily arrived, and for a long time I wondered if Apu would ever come back. Apu walls himself in a cell of grief. He cannot find peace in a life that has repeatedly knocked him down. Hope and life spring from setback, though. When Pulu comes to convince Apu that he needs to see his son, now four years old, Apu finally relents. The closing scenes of the film avoid sentimentality and cheap emotional heart-tugging with their precise observational qualities. A great deal of pain has yet to heal, and the ending is certainly more of a beginning than an ending. Ravi Shankar's musical score, which beautifully accompanies without intruding, finally comes to the forefront as Apu accepts his new life once again.

Ray manage to create a magical film from this familiar storyline in a way that cannot be duplicated, though it seems many after him have tried. The World of Apu has that kick, that unseen but felt dimension that translates into something more than mere dialogue and moving pictures projected on a screen. It's one of those films that makes our world seem a little larger, even as we now know a little bit more about life. I wish Ray had made more Apu films. I would like to know where Apu goes from here. Does he finally attain peace and happiness, or does it flutter away again, like it always seems to do? I hope, at least, that it lasts a little longer this time.

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1959 Technika. All Rights Reserved.

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