REVIEW: অপুর সংসার [Apur Sansar] [The World of Apu] [1959]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: May 1st, 1959 (India)
Studio: Janus Films / The Criterion Collection
Director(s): Satyajit Ray
Writer(s): Satyajit Ray / Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (novel Aparajito)

“How do you know I’m happy?”

After beginning his career in filmmaking with the first two installments of his famed Apu Trilogy, writer/director Satyajit Ray shot two standalone works before rounding out author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay‘s world with অপুর সংসার [Apur Sansar] [The World of Apu]. This decision is felt as his saga capper feels much more accomplished cinematically as a result. There was an obvious progression between Pather Panchali and Aparajito, but the jump here is astronomical. It’s not just in visual style either as the writing shows maturity in his voice as a storyteller too. This can be seen in his effective use of humor to depict Apu’s (Soumitra Chatterjee) changing fortunes and congenial nature as well as to help deflect the tragedies his life could never be complete without.

Adapted from the last two-thirds of Aparajito the novel, we meet Apu at yet another important moment in his evolution. He’s completed University and achieved the Intermediate degree his scholarship worked towards upon leaving the childhood village that took his mother. For once there’s an era of freedom set before him and he’s ready to enjoy it unencumbered. Late with the rent, tutoring to earn extra money his job won’t supply, and eating what he can with what’s left—it may not be a wealthy life, but he’s smiling nonetheless. He commences writing his first novel, a semi-autobiographical tale of tragedy and love. But as his old friend come to visit Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) explains, he hasn’t experienced love in order to write about it.

Apu retorts that a grand imagination is all a writer needs. Even so, he agrees to accompany Pulu on his buddy’s journey home to attend his cousin Aparna’s (Sharmila Tagore) wedding for research. Unbeknownst to everyone, however, the groom promised isn’t quite of sound mind to follow through with the nuptials. Due to a local custom where a young girl has only until the “auspicious” hour of a certain day to marry before being labeled a life-long spinster, it’s proposed that Apu’s newcomer step in. The latest unexpected development in his life to wring hands against before taking the plunge, it joyously appears the boy may finally have found his happily ever after. As love blossoms, pregnancy looms and Apu finds a family’s embrace once more.

It’s a testament to Ray’s skills—and those of Bandyopadhyay—that I actually thought Apu escaped what seemed a cursed existence for no reason other than fatefully bad luck. Alas, it wasn’t to be. His conclusion may ultimately reveal itself as bittersweet and hopeful, but the path there proves as emotionally ravaging as any he’s taken during the course of his first two chapters. Tragedy inevitably strikes and you can’t help believing Apu’s decision to exile himself as far from anyone he’s ever cared about or ever could the only logical answer. The one constant in his life has been the trail of bodies left in his wake; the dark mines of hard labor and a damaged soul the self-imposed prison of loneliness he was destined to accept.

I think my favorite part of Apur Sansar is watching Chatterjee’s Apu smile. This has been a tough commodity throughout the series, even when roaming the fields to gaze at trains with his sister Durga as a boy. His new disposition calls to mind Kanu Bannerjee as Apu’s father Harihar, a poor man who always looked on the bright side of things with an optimistic grin while his pragmatic wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) looked to inject realism into the equation. Also like his father, Apu yearns to write and putting those words down is when he’s happiest. If living off 7 rupees a month rent tutoring is enough to potentially evolve into one of the great artistic minds gracing his apartment wall, it would be worth the struggle.

Like his father again, though, he’s okay settling down in the day-to-day grind because it’s what his family needs once this whirlwind marriage enters the equation. Tagore’s Aparna provides him a genuine love he hasn’t experienced in so long, one inspiring enough to put his novel aside and be with her when not at work. You wonder if maybe Apu’s adolescence would have been a rough and tumble journey after so much heartbreak, but his parents were always able to be strong and ensure he didn’t get bogged down in emotional devastation. When Durga passed they moved to start anew and give him everything he needed. When Harihar passed, Sarbojaya held it together and found a way for Apu to dream big and achieve his goals.

But this time tragedy strikes with no one to prop him up. In a great time-lapse sequence saying a lot with nothing but a growing beard on Apu’s face, we watch as mourning depletes him. His in-laws are far out of consciousness, Pulu abroad for work, and sitting at home only ensures the pain he feels remains permanently on his mind. Retreat is to some extent the coward’s way out, but to look at Apu is to understand he could barely care for himself let alone someone else. You have to believe, though, that the memory of his parents’ fortitude will eventually dissolve the cloud surrounding him. A nudge from the likes of Pulu will remind him of that life, but only his heart can truly revive him.

[1] Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu, Sharmila Tagore as Aparna (Apu’s wife)
[2] Sharmila Tagore as Aparna (Apu’s wife)
[3] Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu

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