Critics Corner: Two Contemporary Filmmakers on THE APU TRILOGY

Read two critical perspectives on The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1956-59) by Ritesh Batra and Deepa Mehta. The Apu Trilogy opens on May 22, 2015 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. The films will also play at the Smith Rafael Film Center in July.For release dates in other areas, click here. Any DVDs currently for sale and rent are from very poor materials and are a bad way to watch these movies. Please see them in a theater as the director intended while you have the chance. The Criterion Collection will eventually release them on DVD and BluRay.

THE APU TRILOGY: … and the Story of the World

by Ritesh Batra

A year ago I was a little surprised to learn about the near-loss of the prints of Satyajit Ray’s great works The Apu Trilogy . Just a few years before that, I was a little surprised to learn that the house of the most well-known and perhaps greatest Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib had become a public toilet in Hyderabad. The East’s relationship with history is very different from the West’s. Though we can be equally proud of our history and heritage, we seldom take extraordinary measures to preserve it. Growing up in India, I knew that everyone around me, myself included, was more engaged in securing a future than preserving the past. But these differing attitudes towards the past perhaps create a much-needed balance in the world.

Subir Banerjee as Apu and Uma Das Gupta as Durga in Pather Panchali . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Subir Banerjee as Apu and Uma Das Gupta as Durga in Pather Panchali . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

The irony is that the interplay between the future and the past, the East and the West, the old and the new, is at the very center of Ray’s works. So maybe it is the order of things that prints destroyed by a fire in Calcutta would be restored to their full splendor thousands of miles away, painstakingly, frame by frame, bringing them back to how they were intended to look. The schoolteacher in Three Daughters , the protagonist in The Big City , and even Apu himself had to navigate the winds of change, the collision of Western and Eastern ideas, traditional relationships in a changing world, and figure a way to get on with their lives.

Smaran Ghosal as Apu in Aparajito . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Smaran Ghosal as Apu in Aparajito . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

When I was growing up in Bombay, I remember watching the nightly news on the sole TV channel, Doordarshan. National news every night, and world news once a week—every Friday night on a show called The World This Week . But anyway, on the national news one night, a member of parliament was on a tirade against Satyajit Ray, accusing him of showcasing and in effect ‘packaging and selling’ India’s poverty for Western audiences. Since our movie theaters only gave us our regular Bollywood fix and months-old Hollywood blockbusters, I had not seen any of the great master’s works. I remember wondering, who is this man? Putting up India’s poverty on display for all to see, in place of our glorious history? A small detail we had forgotten was that the homes of our best poets were already public toilets. And then finally, when I discovered Ray’s works in my teens, I realized that he was concerned with the winds of change at a time and place, while everyone else was concerned with where the winds were going to take them.

Karuna Banerjee as Sarbajaya in Aparajito . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Karuna Banerjee as Sarbajaya in Aparajito . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

This is the only function of storytellers, perhaps—to capture a time and a place, and show how ordinary people were getting on with their lives. Less impactful than a baker, perhaps. And yet, in every generation, there are only a few brave men and women who have done this. No matter if their homes became public toilets, or the prints of their masterworks got destroyed in a fire. Sometimes they will be painstakingly restored, frame by frame.

Horizontal RuleRiteshBatraRitesh Batra was born and raised in Mumbai, and is now based in Mumbai and New York with his wife Claudia and baby girl Aisha. His feature script The Story of Ram was part of the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs in 2009. His short films have been exhibited at many international film festivals and fine arts venues. His recent Arab language short Cafe Regular, Cairo screened at over 40 international film festivals and won 12 awards. His debut feature The Lunchbox , starring Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddique, and Nimrat Kaur, was shot on location in Mumbai in 2012. The Lunchbox premiered at the Semaine De La Critique (International Critics’ Week) at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival to rave reviews and won the Grand Rail d’Or Award. He is currently working on the film adaptation of of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, starring Jim Broadbent. Batra has previously written about multi-generational cafes in Mumbai for EatDrinkFilms and his short film Café Regular, Cairo has been featured on our site. Find them and more here.

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THE APU TRILOGY: Discovery, Humanity

by Deepa Mehta

I grew up on Indian cinema. Way before its reincarnation as Bollywood fare. Way before pelvic- and breast-thrusting dance numbers became popular in the west. Way before Slumdog Millionaire caught the fancy of folks world over.

‘Indian cinema’ then didn’t just translate as Hindi movies from Bombay. Rather, the term embraced films made in the regional languages of India’s provinces. In Amritsar, the city where I grew up, years after their initial release, films in Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, and Punjabi played in morning shows to near-empty movie halls. Not dubbed in Hindi, nor subtitled, they were pretty much unintelligible. But for some reason I was fascinated by them. Perhaps because they were at once so accessible and yet so completely alien. I remember a feeling of satisfaction when the films ended. These quick-fix cinematic geography lessons about our vast country invariably left me feeling slightly smug. As if I had singlehandedly discovered a secret portal into India’s various provinces.

Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu in Apur Sansar . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu in Apur Sansar . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Years later, I cannot remember the titles, the contents, the directors, or the actors of any of the films I had so feverishly consumed, except one: Apur Sansar . The World of Apu left an indelible mark on my nine-year-old mind. I fell in love with Apu. His flute-playing, his beautiful bride, the tenement he lived in next to the railway tracks, his smile, his happiness, his tragedy. His world. All this without understanding a word of the film’s Bengali dialogue, which to my Punjabi ears was akin to double Dutch.

My dad was a film distributor and exhibitor, and seeing movies back to back during the long summer breaks was ‘normal.’ So it came to pass that I saw Apur Sansar three times in the space of three days. And I knew with the unvarnished certainty of a child that I was watching something really, really special. Magical, in fact.

Sharmila Tagore as Apama in Apur Sansar . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

Sharmila Tagore as Apama in Apur Sansar . Credit: Courtesy of Janus Films.

That magic has not vanished as I’ve revisited Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece during different stages of my life: as a teenager, as a young adult, and as a mature woman. Each time I’ve walked into the world of Apu I have discovered something new. Not only the mastery of Ray and his storytelling—the nuanced performance of Soumitra Chatterjee, the breathtaking cinematography—but perhaps, in my opinion, its essential humanity. Apur Sansar continues to be one of the most compassionate films I have ever seen. And it makes sense that my nine-year-old self, aeons ago, sat watching this film, popcorn untouched. Unheard of, my mom said.

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Deepa Mehta is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and producer whose films have been called “courageous”, “provocative” and “breathtaking”. Her movies, which often focus on controversial aspects of Indian culture, have received significant awards and recognition at major film festivals, and have been distributed around the world. Though she has been at the helm of English language features  (and two episodes of George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) it is her works about India that she is most well-known for writing and  directing. The internationally successful “Elements Trilogy” consisted of Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and the Oscar-nominated Water (2005).  Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) is a lighthearted movie that pokes fun at traditional Indian stereotypes and Bollywood.  In 2012 she directed Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children from a screenplay adapted by the author. That year Mehta received a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for Film from the Governor General of Canada. In 2013, she was appointed to the Order of Canada for her work as a “ground-breaking screenwriter, director and producer”. Her next feature film, Beeba Boys, is an action packed Indo-Canadian gangster film through a feminist gaze, set on the west coast of Canada. It is slated for a Fall 2015 release. For more information visit her website. The National Film Board produced the insightful six minute short Deepa Mehta, In Profile on the occasion of her 2012 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.  Watch it here.

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Satyajit Ray, photographed by Marc Riboud. Credit: Courtesy of Marc Riboud/Magnum Pictures/Janus Films.

Satyajit Ray, photographed by Marc Riboud. Credit: Courtesy of Marc Riboud/Magnum Pictures/Janus Films.

Horizontal RuleMore on Satyajit Ray and THE APU TRILOGY:

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The Janus Films official website is rich with articles and information.

To view Ray’s sketches of some directors, and poster art connected to his films, click here.

Satyajit Ray authored many books (including mysteries and science fiction/fantasy stories) and is the subject of many others. To read about them and purchase them, click here and here. Among the best are Our Films, Their Films; Childhood Days; My Years With Apu; Satyajit Ray (edited by his son), the screenplays for The Apu Trilogy; Andrew Robinson’s look at the making of the trilogy; and the graphics collection Looking Beyond.

To view more original poster art connected to Ray’s films, click here.

Satyajit_Ray_postal_stampRead Anne Thompson’s excellent article on how “it took a village to restore a masterpiece many thought destroyed.”

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