Apur Sansar is the third installment of the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray and in many ways the best of the three. It is very obvious how Ray has improved over the years in his filmmaking and getting more adequate resources to do so. Where his earlier movies were a tad uneven this one has a very high production value. That Criterion has had it under their wing did no harm to it either.
Despite this excellent quality Apur Sansar is no walk in the park. Ray is continuing the bleak story along much the same lines, which essentially means that whenever things seem to righten themselves for Apu someone close to him will die and throw his life up in the air again. In the first movie it was his sister, in the second his parents and in the third one it is his wife. Yes, the movie does end on a happy note, but had there been a fourth movie I know exactly what would have happened and that boy is just too sweet.
Additionally it is not a glamour side of India we get in Ray’s movies, but instead the pervasive poverty and social injustice that is so glaring when you go there even today. I suppose that makes his movies important and all, but I find it rather depressing. Recently I found out that I am scheduled to go to New Delhi in April next year and frankly this is not my favorite destination.
Apur Sansar starts where the second installment ended. Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a promising academic who leaves college rather than continuing at university to live a free an untroubled life pursuing a career as a writer. We get hints that his writing is very good and there is real hope that although he is only scraping a living he might get successful as a novelist.
His friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) shows up and want him to join him for a family wedding. Pulu is clearly from a wealthy family and the wedding is taking place at the family palace in the countryside. Unfortunately the groom turns out to be a madman and Apu with his pretty face and likable demeanor is coaxed into marrying the girl instead cause married she must be. Apu is at first upset about this but the girl, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is a very sweet girl and it is soon clear that they fit each other very well.
Then disaster strike again. Aparna return to the family home to give birth and dies in the process. The child survives, but Apu is devastated and throws his life out the window. He begins a wandering, aimless life and avoids taking charge of his son. It takes his friend Pulu to make him go back to face his now five year old child in a heartbreaking encounter.
I find Indian culture quite incomprehensible, it is so alien to anything I am familiar with, and so I get the feeling that there are elements and aspects in Ray’s movies that I am entirely missing or only scratches the surface of. An example is the obvious difference in status between Apu and Aparna. In any society a rich girl marrying a poor boy is a matter of concern, but in India these people would belong to very different castes. That has to imply some added difficulties and it bothers me a great deal that I am clearly missing something. The same goes for moral codes and cultural subtexts. The idea that Aparna must be married at this celebration is from a western perspective slightly comical and that Apu obliges is almost incomprehensible. They do not know each other at all.
What I do understand is the complete devastation Apu feels when he loses his wife and his torn feelings toward his son. And that meeting of father and son touches me very deeply. My own son is not much older than Kajal and I can see him in this boy.
Of the three movies this final chapter is my preferred one. Not just because of the technical improvements, but it simply works better for me. I never found it dull and it does contain enough elements that I understand that I can follow it. It also help that Ray did excellent casting for both Apu and Aparna.