This essay on Satyajit Ray's Aparajito was written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored 4K DCP of Aparajito, the second film in Ray's Apu trilogy, will screen at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 11, at 7 p.m.
By Tim Brayton
Satyajit Ray had no plans to make a sequel to his directorial debut, Pather Panchali, but that film's enormous success both in India and internationally caused him to relent. Thus his second effort was a sequel, Aparajito [aka The Unvanquished], which bridges novelist Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee's two novels about young Apu Roy, depicting his growth from childhood to college. It begins shortly after Pather Panchali ended: Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) and his parents, mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) and father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) have recently moved from their rural home to the great city of Benares, one of the most spiritual places in India, so that Harihar may ply his trade as a priest.
Although Pather Panchali and its tragedies rest in the background, Aparajito does not require familiarity with the earlier work to appreciate its profound richness as a great humanist document complete unto itself. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, one of the few prominent Western critics who had little enthusiasm for Pather Panchali, referred to Aparajito in haunted, glowing terms: "done with such rare feeling and skill at pictorial imagery… develops a sort of hypnotism for the serene and tolerant viewer." The famed cultural critic Sigfried Kracauer ended his 1960 Theory of Film with an encomium to the film's spiritually and morally resonant universality. In more recent years, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has declared Aparajito to be the greatest leg of Ray's Apu trilogy.
The film's unique identity comes in part from its subtle but decisive aesthetic shift from its predecessor. The visual language Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra use in this film ignores the impressionistic qualities of Pather Panchali for something more directly realist. It's a keen decision, mirroring Apu's increasingly unromantic awareness of the world around him as he grows into young adulthood (at which point the role is taken over by Smaran Ghosal), while also capturing something of 1920s Benares and Calcutta—major urban centers in a moment when Indian culture was borrowing parts of its identity from Europe. It's surely no accident that Aparajito's style eschews lyricism for flat realism in tandem with Apu's decision to reject the family business of the priesthood to study English at a Western-style university.
Casting the film in such bluntly symbolic terms, however, robs it of the most important source of its greatness: the relationship between Apu and Sarbajaya, one of the great mother-son stories in all of cinema. Karuna Banerjee, already so great in Pather Panchali, returned to the role with all of the weariness and ragged resolve in place and amplified: even more than before, she's an equal protagonist in this story, which explores in painstaking, painful detail how a loving, widowed mother finds herself inexorably abandoned by the child whose bright future she eagerly supports, even while she understands that his success can only mean an ever-greater distance between them. Her performance of this tension is one of the great triumphs of Aparajito: she describes a remarkable transition from beginning to end, starting with an encouraging but openly baffled expression at Apu's energetic chatter about science, ending with an empty gaze from sullen eyes as her arm hangs lifelessly beside her body as she realizes that her son will not be returning to be with her in her final illness (it was this scene, in particular, that so moved Kracauer). Aparajito is never more moving than when it focuses with sorrow and understanding on Sarbajaya's loneliness; she is cinema's great exemplar of parental sacrifice, a figure who'll leave you anxious to call up your mother the moment the film stops to apologize for every terrible thing you've ever done to her, if only you can stop weeping for long enough to pick up the phone.
The film was a great success in America and Europe, becoming the only sequel ever to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. It also continued the dubious trend begun with Pather Panchali of leaving Ray and his austere Bengali art films as the sole Indian exports that international film audiences had much interest in watching. This success wasn't matched at home; Indian audiences that had flocked to Pather Panchali resisted and disliked Aparajito. In his 1958 essay "Problems of a Bengali Filmmaker," Ray surmised that the problem was his boldness in darkening the source material, with a confidence birthed by the first film's unexpected success. "The urban audience which was largely familiar with the plot of Aparajito was irritated by the deviations. As for the suburban audience, it was shocked by the portrayal of the mother and son relationship, so sharply at variance with the conventional notion of mutual sweetness and devotion."
There's no doubt that the family relationship driving Aparajito is stripped of both sweetness and devotion; but the rueful director (who always considered commercial appeal to be as important as artistic rigor) certainly had no need to second-guess or apologize. If Aparajito is unsentimental, it is nonetheless enormously kind, offering a great deal of tearful sympathy to Sarbajaya while also understanding Apu's desire to continue growing as an independent adult, even if it means curtly rejecting his past life and home. That there can be no happy middle ground between these two reasonable people and their emotional needs is a bitter truth, one ripped out of Apu's sobbing form in a powerful climax, as the camera pulls back respectfully to leave the young man standing under a dead tree in an empty space to fully understand what he has given up in order to pursue his future. This is not the tragedy of melodramatic suffering as seen in Pather Panchali; it is the everyday tragedy of children becoming adults and realizing what that costs them, of parents finding that they are no longer needed and thus no longer wanted. In this simple, casual tragedy, Aparajito finds incredible power, and becomes one of cinema's greatest stories of human behavior.