DVD Review Of Aparajito
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/25/08
The first film of Satyajit Rayís Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali, was such a great film that, naturally, the second film in the series was bound to suffer a bit of a let down. Thus, Aparajito (The Unvanquished)- based on the novel Aparajita, by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, is not the unadulterated great piece of art that Pather Panchali is. Like many middle films of a series, it suffers from the infamous middle filmitis; when films that are not first in a series rely too heavily upon an audienceís memories of earlier films to inform them of the traits of characters, the chronology of prior events, and a general knowledge of the world the film series is set in.
Aparajito falls into this trap, however, in a way different from your average Hollywood blockbuster film. Whereas most middle films feel a need to fall back on what already passed in a first film, Aparajito spends too much time ignoring the traits and actions that occurred in Pather Panchali; almost as if Ray wanted to sever connections between the two films. He achieves this by having the filmís lead character, Apu, not being played by the child who portrayed him in the first film- Subir Banerjee. In this film, Apu is first played by Pinaki Sen Gupta, when ten; and later by Smaran Ghosal, when in hi slate teens. Two of the actors from the first film were retained: Kanu Banerjee as Harihar- Apuís father, and his wife Sarbajaya- still played by Karuna Banerjee. However, there has been a major personality shift in Sarbajaya- likely the only evidence of the death of Durga- Apuís older sister, from the first film. Whereas Sarbajaya was bossy and condescending in the first film- while also being loving, in this film sheís timid and letís life play her; whereas in the first film she was restive, and dissatisfied with what life brought.
The film opens, still in the unspecified early 20th Century (although the film states it is the Bengal year 1327), with Apuís family getting settled in to an apartment in the city of Benares, near a ghat- or steep set of stairs, that leads down to the Ganges River. Thus, it must be only a few weeks since the events that closed the first film. Although a few years had passed since the shooting of the first film, the actor who plays Apu- Pinaki Sen Gupta, is clearly a few years older than Subir Banerjee was; so switching actors must have been because the other boy was not available. It is an unfortunate choice since Gupta looks nothing like Banerjee, even down to his Cindy Crawford-like lip mole. Worse, heís not nearly the actor Banerjee was. His range of expressiveness is virtually nil, whereas Banerjee could convey diverse and complex feelings- quite a feat for a child actor. Midway through the film, when a swift ellipsis brings us forth five or six years, to the time Apu is to enter college, the new actor to portray Apu- Smaran Ghosal, is only marginally better Gupta. Add to that the fact that Ghosal has an odd facial tic that makes him appear as if he has suffered a stroke, and the choices for the filmís lead are odd, to say the least. That said, the appearance of Ghosal is when the film takes off, narratively and stylistically- despite the actorís limitations.
But, as the family settles in to their new urban digs, Harihar accepts a post as a priest, and spends his day selling medicines and leading devotional classes by the river. Apu (who is now called by his parents the nickname Khoka) gets into mischief with his new friends, and Sarbajaya retreats into her own world, while fending off the none too subtle advances of a lecherous neighbor. About a half hour into the 105 minute film, Harihar gets a fever, takes ill, and soon dies. Ray shows a superb touch in having his death moment coincide with the raucous release of pigeons from between buildings, as well as slipping in a sly criticism of religion, for the scene not only coincides with the flutter of many pigeonsí wings, but with Harihar dying almost immediately after imbibing so-called Ďholy water. Interestingly, Rayís ongoing criticisms of the hokum of his native countryís religion is, as far as the dozens of reviews Iíve looked over online, almost nonexistent. Artistically, however, and despite the fact that this second film, narratively, is a lesser film than the first film, Rayís mastery of cinematic technique, however basic, is still excellent, and more so- it has improved. Such an effective and poetic quick cut does not exist in Pather Panchali. Sarbajaya has taken work as a servant for a rich family, and, upon his fatherís death, Apu starts earning money as a priest. Soon after getting her post, Sarbajayaís employers decide to return to their home village, and she takes Apu back to the countryside- although it is likely nowhere near Apuís home village. It is, however, within visual distance of a railroad track, which was such a powerful symbol in the first film, when Apu and his sister needed to trek to see tracks and the trains that ride upon them.
Once there, Apu decides he wants to go to a local school, and his mother agrees to help pay for it. There is a quick montage of the young Apu learning all sorts of things, enthralled by knowledge and encouraged by his teachers, and the last portion of that montage contains the ellipsis in time, which leaves the viewer with the third Apu, and second in this film- a young man ready to go to college, and having won some scholarships. But the scholarships are in Calcutta, and his mother is reluctant to permit him to go, despite his insistence. Here, we see the growing neediness of Sarbajaya, as she is slowly morphing into the sort of person she despised in the first film: old Auntie Indir. But, she gives in. Then, the film hits a lull. Apu is seen at school, then returning home, back at school, then going home, etc. In one sequence, his mother lets him oversleep to deliberately miss a train back to school, and he is upset, does not properly say goodbye, but still makes it, only to have a change of heart. He comes home, a tacit acknowledgment that he loves his mother. Many films would have exploited the moment for a Hollywood sort of feel; but the film quickly moves on, and Apu returns to his life at school and work in Calcutta. Later, he again is to return home, but when finally on his way home he learns his mother is dead; but only after calling out for her with no answer. She had hidden her ills from him. It is never detailed what she died from, but in ye olden days it would have been called melancholia; in one scene we see her almost drowning in the ennui and gossip that surrounds her life. Her death, like her husbandís, is wonderfully noted in the physical world by a scene with animals- in this case fireflies whose lights dim, one by one, until the screen is black, and Sarbajya is dead. One of the older servants asks if Apu will stay on, in his motherís place, but he says no, and packs up the next day and leaves. There, the film ends rather abruptly, with Apu rejecting the silly religious ideas of death rituals that so enthralled his father. In this way, we see his connection to his mother; not as she was at death, but earlier, in the first film, when she barely tolerated her husbandís fealty to his beliefs. Apu, perhaps because he is male, is allowed to fully reject such nonsense, in his culture. Again, Ray seems to be leveling a devastating critique of the religion his own country practices.
Like its predecessor, Aparajito was lauded in film festivals around the world, winning the Golden Lion at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, among many other awards. The Region 2 DVD, put out by Artificial Eye, contains all three films, and will only play on Region 2 or Code Free DVD players. The film is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The second disk, with Aparajto on it, has no audio commentary, and has a brief selection from a BBC television show called Omnibus, an episode called The Cinema Of Satyajit Ray. There are storyboards, still photos, production notes, and a biography and filmography of Ray. The actual print used in the DVD transfer varies from reel to reel. Some are almost perfect, while other have major wear and damage to both the sound and visuals, including flecks and blanching, as well as some really bad sound quality- which sounds like the thump of a drum. The white subtitles, on the black and white background, also are a distraction. Gold should be used for all black and white films, especially if no English language dubbing is used. As with the Pather Panchali disk, there are a number of instances of missing letters from words- mostly Iís and Nís. As noted, the cinematography, by Subrata Mitra, is excellent, but the filmís score, by Ravi Shankar, is not quite as memorable and emotionally evocative as in Pather Panchali- yet another instance, out of a dozen or so facets, that, taken one by one, lend no significant dropoff in quality, but, as a whole, make this film definitively a notch or two below its predecessor; owing mainly to middle filmitis- it does little to make it stand on its own, and mainly seems to set up the final film. The abrupt and disappointing ending is merely the most manifest sign of this tendency to rely on the fact that the viewer will have seen Pather Panchali. If coming to Aparajito on its own, most viewers will be a) lost, or b) more likely simply not as prone to care for either Sarbajaya nor Apu.
That stated, this is an excellent film which, asides from the death scenes, contains excellent poesy and metaphors- such as a scene where Apu enters Calcutta on a train, holding a small globe, given to him as a gift by the headmaster at the school in his motherís employerís village. The film also makes good use of humor, such as scenes where the young Apu plays around with monkeys and bells, and later, as a student, in an English class, where he falls asleep (due to working a job and his studiousness) during a lecture on synecdoche and metonymy. It also has moments of universality, such as when the mother and son reacquaint after a long stay at school, and the first thing Sarbajaya says is that Apu has grown taller and doesnít appear to be eating well, despite the fact that neither is true. But, the filmís greatest strength is its depiction of fortuity. Despite its flaws, Aparajito is a great what if? movie- had his sister and father not died early, would Apu have ended up in college? Had his mother not been emotionally devastated by both losses, would she have domineered her son into submission when he wanted to go abroad? All of his familyís losses, and deaths- his auntie, his sister, his father, his mother, all serve Apuís benefit. In short, death has been very, very good for Apu- both in allowing him to grow and removing obstacles to his own self-fulfillment, which may be the most damning (and tangential) criticism of religion (and its fetishizing by religion) that Ray makes in this whole film (as well as in the first film).
Like the domestic troubles and idiocies that abound in a typical Yasujiro Ozu film, which almost always transcends to the universal, Satyajit Rayís films seem to likewise contain personal and comic moments that all viewers, from any background, can relate to. The problem with Aparajito- especially in relation to Pather Panchali, is that- as far as domestic troubles go, the first filmís were more existential and deeper in nature, making those suffered in Aparajito seem trivial by comparison. But, that is the trouble with comparing excellent art to great art- it always suffers by the comparison. On its own, Aparajito is an outstanding film, and, hopefully, provides merely a relatively weak link to a final film that is the equal of Pather Panchali, and one that shows Apu finally taking center stage in his titular trilogyís plight.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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