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60 years of Apu’s world

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May 1, 1959. Satyajit Ray is all geared up for the release of his third and last chapter of the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar, his fifth film. His genius as a filmmaker has already been established internationally: debut Pather Panchali has won The Best Human Document prize at Cannes; his second venture, Aparajito, has walked away with the Golden Lion of St Mark, the top award at the Venice Film Festival, besting the Kurosawa classic, Throne of Blood; and his fourth, Jalasaghar, has captured the hearts of film buffs and filmmakers alike in Europe and the US.

“Many in the movie fraternity in the city and overseas had heard there was a fair stretch in Pather Panchali, the book, which Baba had not converted into a film,” says Sandip, the maestro’s son. “He would confront this question often, both in Kolkata and abroad — why he had not made a third film from Pather Panchali. It could make for a great trilogy, he used to be told.”

Sandip says that his father decided to go for a movie with a “musical” theme, after making two profound ones like Pather Panchali and Aparajito. So, he chose Jalsaghar. But that, too, turned out to be a very serious movie. Sandip says the shoot of Jalsaghar — intended to the third movie — had to be halted for a while because Chhabi Biswas, who was playing the protagonist, was temporarily unavailable. So, in the interim, he finally did make his “light-hearted” movie, Paras Pathar.

After Paras Pathar, Ray was faced with that same question: why not make an Apu trilogy? Finally, this time, he found sense in going for the third: Apur Sansar (The World of Apu).

“This time, he decided to return to casting fresh faces again, after directing two famed actors, Tulsi Chakraborty and Chhabi Biswas,” says Sandip. “Soumitra Chatterjee had approached Baba during the making of Aparajito, but Baba had thought him too old for Apu. However, Baba thought he would fit Apu’s character in Apur Sansar. So, Baba sent for him, while Ma suggested Sharmila Tagore as Aparna. Both were debutants.

“We used to then live on Lake Avenue. Based on Ma’s recommendation, Baba had Tagore over at our house and tried her out in sarees on the balcony. There was no formal screen test. But both Baba and Ma felt she would fit into Aparna’s character.”

The main cast having been frozen, Ray and his crew went scouting for and picking the other actors. Swapan Mukhopadhyay, who was selected to act out Pulu, Apu’s closest friend from college, and Alok Chakraborty, who played Kajol, Apu and Aparna’s son, brought off marvellous performances.

“Apur Sansar was not made back-to-back with Pather Panchali and Aparajito, but the thread of continuity that runs through the three films is incredible,” Sandip says. “In fact, after Apur Sansar was completed, the trilogy was shown one after the other in several movie locales, especially internationally.”

When Ray had set out to shoot Pather Panchali, he was still coming to grips about the complex art of filmmaking, by his own admission. But by the time Apur Sansar went on the floors, Ray had mastery over the medium. So, he was in total command and control, unlike during Pather Panchali, when he often forgot to shout “Cut!”, and Bansi Chandragupta, Ray’s close friend and his earliest art director, would often nudge him to do so, says Sandip.

Besides, sitar legend Ravi Shankar happened to be in a position to devote more time to compose the music. “So, every aspect of the film fell into place more smoothly,” Sandip feels.

Sandip also talks of the sets of Apu’s Tallah being constructed “at a slight elevation” in Technicians’ Studio. “This was done to match the backdrop of neighbouring houses, which were adjacent to Apu’s room. Of course, Baba also shot exhaustively on location at Tallah and the railway yard there, where Apu’s residence was actually based. I was also present in Maheshgunj in Krisnanagar, where Aparna’s home was situated. It was a wonderful house, but I don’t know what has come of it now. And, of course, Chirimiri, where Apu had wandered away to and taken up a job in a colliery after Aparna’s death. That’s where Pulu tracks Apu down, and urges him to return to his son, Kajol, who was growing up in Maheshgunj at his grandfather’s home.”

Having completed 60 years, it’s worthwhile to take a look at how Apur Sansar was received after release. Although it was shown in various locations overseas, the US hogged the bulk of the screenings. “We would be mailed advertisements and reviews which raved about the movie. This pleased Baba hugely. He was happy that audiences were reacting to Apu Sansar so overwhelmingly. Besides, the film was screened on several occasions in Kolkata, especially at the India Film Laboratory, even for guests from within the country and abroad. India Film Lab was equipped with a very efficient projection system and a comfortable screening room. After all, this was Baba’s first film released under the banner of Satyajit Ray Productions,” remembers Sandip.

Apur Sansar was released in Kolkata across the theatrical chain of Rupabani, Aruna and Bharati. An additional attraction was a booklet that went with the film. That was the experience with all Bengali films those days. Word about the film spread through these booklets, an early form of “social networking”, according to Sandip. The booklets were in Bengali. But, for Apur Sansar, Ray came up with bilingual booklets in Bengali and English. This was like a “memento”, which one could carry home.

“Baba was extremely satisfied working with Soumitra and Sharmila. Therefore, the film gelled in every way, whether it was the pacing, mounting, sets, lighting, editing or any other aspect one could dwell on. It all fit like a jigsaw puzzle. It doesn’t always work that way,” Sandip says. “Besides, the movie was tremendously profound and moving and every relationship was woven in a unique manner.”

Ray had a great fascination with trains, and they are a recurring theme in the movie. Apu’s home is beside a railway yard in Tallah. A train brings people home. In the same breath, a train takes them away from their near ones. A pregnant Aparna leaving for her parents’ home lends an ominous twist. Apu doesn’t have any clue that she would never return. Somehow, there seems to be a premonition of a tragedy.

“Apur Sansar is packed with subtleties. One views it in different ways as one ages. It grows on you,” Sandip says.

To mark the 60th year of Pather Panchali in 2015, the American company Criterion, which owns the American DVD rights of Ray’s films, staged a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) through its parent distribution outfit, Janus Films. Over the next few days, the Janus-Criterion combine fielded a back-to-back showing of the Apu Trilogy in New York.

“Criterion had scheduled a month’s shows of the trilogy. But they later informed us that the audience response was so immense that the release ended up stretching over two months, despite DVDs of all the films in circulation. And there were reviews in every form of media, both print and online,” Sandip says.

As everyone who has watched Apur Sansar is aware, the final sequence shows Apu embarking on a fresh journey in life, his son Kajol on his shoulder. Apu’s father-in-law looks on with the hint of a smile, a toy locomotive in his hands. In the corner of the frame, the boatman’s sails are full. Sixty years on, Apur Sansar’s sails still remain unfurled.

 

Source: Times of India

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