REVIEW: অপরাজিত [Aparajito] [The Unvanquished] [1956]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: 1956 (India)
Studio: Edward Harrison / Janus Films
Director(s): Satyajit Ray
Writer(s): Satyajit Ray / Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (novel)

“He will come if he wants to”

After the huge success of Pather Panchali, it would have been strange for Satyajit Ray not to continue Apu’s saga into Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay‘s second novel অপরাজিত [Aparajito] [The Unvanquished]. The only reason I could see him stopping was the fact that the boy’s coming-of-age contains as much tragedy or more as his early childhood. If you remember, the first film follows his finding his grandmother dead, watching his sister die, and being left homeless once a huge storm destroys their family estate. With so much hardship you’d hope that the Rays (Kanu Bannerjee and Karuna Bannerjee reprising their roles as Harihar and Sarbojaya) would find happiness and success in their newly rebooted life on the banks of Varanasi (Benares). Sadly reality is never so simple.

Money had always been tight with Harihar working as a priest, but this is a holy spot on the Ganges for business to be sustainable enough for a home in the near future. Currently, though, they share an apartment building with a married couple they trust and a bachelor Sarbojaya all but fears when her husband is away. So, once Harihar falls ill and passes, her staying with Apu (Pinaki Sengupta playing him as a child and Smaran Ghosal as college-aged) isn’t a suitable response. Instead she makes the tough decision of going back to her family’s village in Bengal at her uncle’s behest. It’s there that Apu begs to attend school and eventually performs well enough to earn a scholarship in Calcutta.

This is where the main themes of separation and sacrifice come into play. Apu leaves to further his education while Sarbojaya remains in Bengal alone. It’s two worlds colliding: modernism versus traditionalism with the former constantly proving victorious. As such we watch Sarbojaya put her son above her own well being at every opportunity. She may start out each argument with her son needy and overly parental as far as steering him towards a decision that benefits her, but the result ultimately delivers an easy smile and acquiescence to whatever path Apu yearns to take. We almost grow to disapprove the boy’s desire to leave the village completely behind—along with Mom in the process—by ignoring the love she gives for sadness in return. He’s still too young to understand.

Sarbojaya isn’t a martyr either, though. She’s more saint. There are missteps like willfully “forgetting” to wake Apu up the morning he’s to return to classes from vacation, but she never guilts him into staying. A string of bad luck and timing makes it so her one moment of transparency to request living with him in the city or him to return and help her heal from an unknown ailment falls on deaf ears as he sleeps. Too proud to repeat herself, she knows Apu must live the life set before him—one she can’t follow. She raised him by herself and gave him the nurturing necessary to grow into the thoughtful and intelligent man he has. It’s now Apu’s turn to take that next step whether forward.

Ray really upped his game visually from Pather Panchali—especially in the kinetic transitions. The moment when Sarbojaya decides to leave Varanasi for Bengal is stunning as the camera whips to move from her face to the rapid pace of the train facilitating their escape. He also plays with sharp movements in times anguish, punctuating Harihar’s death with an explosion of pigeons taking flight on the water. Not even Ray’s use of the train as a bridge between country and city feel contrived: seeing and hearing the locomotive authentically signaling homecoming or sorrow. The wonderful performances by Karuna and Smaran add to this motif with each possessing the longing and memories to prevent them from officially declaring their permanent resting place until the end.

The emotive quality of the story is powerful and the trajectory of mother and son resonate for every child that’s had to move on from their home to discover him/herself. I put it slightly below the first Apu Trilogy installment, though, because the drama is too consistent from start to finish with only a few short bursts of tragedy that are quickly overshadowed by plot progression in their aftermath. The death of Durga in Pather Panchali was such an unforgettable punch to the gut because it’s what we’re left to endure at the close. Aparajito‘s two losses are less climactic and more catalysts for evolution. Both are devastating and wonderfully rendered, but what their result is what’s important. The complete arc was therefore less impactful than its predecessor.

While many scenes will linger in my mind than in Ray’s debut held, the whole felt very much like a “Part Two”. It’s its own bridge from the humbling beginnings of Apu’s life to the world that awaits him on what I assume will be a journey of self-discovery to build a family of his own. There’s fantastic historical relevance to what Ray shows on the ghats of Varanasi and the campus in Calcutta as both bring a sharp contrast to the environment of Bengal as well as an expansion of what India has to offer. The boy reaches his crossroads just as his parents did after their daughter died. The love he’s been given allowing for a brighter future; his embracing it honoring that love’s memory.

[1] Pinaki Sengupta as Apu
[2] Karuna Banerjee as Sarbajaya (Apu’s mother)
[3] Smaran Ghosal as Apu

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