Culture

The Apu Trilogy: Revival of the Finest

Satyajit Ray’s eloquent humanity restores faith in the movies.

When Indian director Satyajit Ray was given an honorary Academy Award in 1992, the presentation included a clip reel representing his films. It was totally inapposite: The montage — supervised by a famously mercenary American film critic — emphasized kinetic, violent scenes, as if Ray, India’s most celebrated director, was no more than an action hack, the subcontinent’s William Friedkin or James Cameron.

Another insult, perhaps worse, came in 2009, when Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a coarse, sensationalistic thrill ride set in poverty-stricken Mumbai, won several Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year. This was a slap in the face to Ray’s sensitive, authentic masterpieces on Indian rural and urban, poor and middle-class and Brahmin life. The acclaim given to Slumdog Millionaire proved Hollywood never really understood the filmmaker it had dutifully honored.

Our equally insensitive contemporary film culture has pushed aside Ray’s films (critics trashed Wes Anderson’s homage to Ray, the marvelous The Darjeeling Limited). Ray’s first three features, comprising The Apu Trilogy, were globally admired upon their premieres in the late 1950s, then forgotten until their restoration and reissue this month.

Ray’s Apu films — Pather Panchali (“The Road of Life”), Aparajito (“The Unvanquished ”), and Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”) — matter as art. Dramatizing a rural boy’s birth, his path as a scholar, a writer, and then a husband and father in heart-stirring increments, they comprise what may be the greatest trilogy in film history, rivaling and surpassing Bergman, Wajda, Scorsese’s two troikas, maybe even Coppola’s and Antonioni’s multi-part film series — and for the simplest, deepest reason: Ray’s humanist vision enshrined universal experiences.

Ray’s narrative purity and graceful realism reprove Slumdog Millionaire’s demonstration of how coarse modern cinema has become. Ray was not the last great humanist director (his influence can be seen in the best work of Steven Spielberg, Martin Ritt, Charles Burnett, and many others who responded to his visual and spiritual clarity), but his films showed humanism at its peak.

Ray’s narrative purity and graceful realism reprove Slumdog Millionaire’s demonstration of how coarse modern cinema has become.

Life’s basic events — birth, love, ambition, confusion, death, and love again — are depicted with elegant contemplation. Ray’s actors radiate his empathy. Despite the Third World setting, the trilogy is our collective epic of that post–World War II period when cinema globally flourished with innovation, using the medium’s aesthetic potential to confirm experiences that are the substance of human existence, but that are ignored by today’s mostly shrill flicks.

Films of the Slumdog era are committed to commercial calculation, pledged to attracting audiences through cynicism and sensationalism — the thrill-ride principle that links Slumdog to the Marvel Comics franchise and now the brain-dead Fury Road. So the big question is whether the trilogy’s rerelease will captivate a modern audience that has been debased by years of vulgarity.

“Don’t you love your son?” Apu is asked in one of the trilogy’s high points. The estranged young father’s answer — “No. How can I love him? I’ve never seen him. To me he is unreal, untrue.” — reverberates 60 years later with secular skepticism and our knowledge of the Third World and urban crises. Human obligation has been overwhelmed by the momentary faithlessness of Ray’s wounded-intellectual hero, Apu.

Forsaking his youthful optimism and surrendering to despair caused by inevitable tragedies (unforgettably illustrated in a devastating shot of discarded manuscript pages floating in the wind), Apu remains a quintessentially modern figure. Whether he is happy or sad, his behavior differs from the self-congratulation of today’s movie cynics. This openness to experience — to feeling — is what makes Ray’s films so powerful. His sophistication (having apprenticed on Jean Renoir’s The River, following the Italian Neorealists, and surpassing Bresson’s and Ozu’s studied artifice) is understated, with straightforward yet abundant naturalism.

Apur Sansar

It will be fascinating to see if the CGI, 3-D era still has the capacity to respond to human truths as Ray so eloquently presents them. Ray’s beautiful reminders of our humanity contradict the current apocalyptic, dysfunctional, dystopian, politically polarizing films that insist we are doomed. Our pseudo-sophistication — a form of solipsism and spiritual selfishness — has betrayed us. Few movies deal with life’s passages these days. Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali and later masterpieces such as Devi, Days and Nights in the Forest, The Middleman, and The Home and the World exemplify the kind of movie Richard Linklater’s Boyhood should have been. Critics who praised Boyhood showed their ignorance and untrustworthiness. They don’t consistently appreciate the ennobling truth of the restorative way Apu regards his family and beholds his bride, then his child, then the world.

#related#It’s nice that the trilogy has been remastered with Criterion-quality slickness, but its beauty has long survived despite deteriorating prints. The film’s substance (such as Apu’s overlaughing when a friend’s surprise visit breaks his loneliness, or Apu’s finding his wife’s hairpin between bed pillows), its quality of feeling and perception is what matters. In Aparajito, Apu’s object lesson in metonymy and synecdoche outsmart today’s showoffs.

A recent international film critics’ poll trumped Citizen Kane, the exuberant, long-standing favorite, with the newly embraced, reconsidered nihilism of Vertigo. But the Apu trilogy didn’t make the poll’s cut — a symptom of the same decadence that causes some people to praise the Godfather movies but leave out the third, cathartic film that completes the trilogy. Our standards of narrative comprehension have slumped along with the moral and emotional requirements that used to be inherent in edifying popular culture. Each film in the Apu trilogy is a test of the modern humanities. Each one must be savored. They cannot be binge-watched. Otherwise Slumdog prevails.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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