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Satyajit Ray's "Apur Sansar": Of Men and their Responsibilities

The Apu Trilogy is undoubtedly Satyajit Ray’s greatest masterpiece. The ability to narrate the transition from boyhood to manhood in three films surely requires effective planning and dedication.

This is perhaps why they have been continuously listed by global film institutes as some of the greatest films to have ever been made in the history of world cinema. Ray indeed proved during his illustrious career that he was a man of cinema and the arts. His meticulous attention to detail is a fundamental reason why his work is so renowned in various parts of the world.

Unsurprisingly, Ray managed to achieve this yet again in the third and final instalment of the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959).

Besides highly positive reviews from critics, the film won the President’s Gold Medal for the All India Best Feature Film at the National Film Awards that year.  Moreover, it won the British Film Institute's 'Sutherland Award' for Best Original and Imaginative Film, making Ray the first ever Indian to win this coveted prize.

Apur Sansar marked the debut of Soumitra Chatterjee, who is regarded as one of Bengal’s most talented actors. He subsequently became one of Ray’s favourites and was cast in 14 of the director's films. 

In addition, the film saw the debut of Sharmila Tagore, who went onto become one of Hindi Cinema’s leading actresses during the 1960s and 70s.  Sharmila was just 14 at the time and also became one of Ray’s favourite actresses by working in 5 of his films. Apur Sansar is a breathtaking film to watch and many consider this one to be the best out of the three films – the other two being Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956).

Set in Calcutta, Apu Sansar is based on a young man Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) who is forced to drop out of university as he cannot afford to cover expenses.  Unemployed and listless, Apu manages to narrowly get by as a result of giving some private tuitions.  His friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) invites him to visit the village of Khulna, where his cousin Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) is getting married.

However, on the day of the wedding, Aparna’s relatives discover that her husband-to-be is mentally insane. Her mother refuses to allow the wedding to take place, despite the father’s insistence that she must wed on the auspicious hour.

Playing cupid, Pulu manages to convince Apu that he should marry Aparna before the auspicious hour passes.

After some initial hesitance, Apu ultimately agrees to the marriage after being promised by Pulu that he will assist him in getting a typist job. Apu returns to Calcutta with his new wife, where they develop a genuine affection for each other.

However, tragedy soon strikes when Apu learns that Aparna has died whilst giving birth to their son Kajal (Alok Chakravarty). A grief-stricken Apu struggles to accept his son, whom he holds accountable for Aparna’s death. Does Apu finally decide to take on the responsibility of fatherhood?

Apur Sansar is a poignantly-told Bengali story about the responsibilities that a man has to undertake. Whether it is putting food on the table, supporting your wife or nurturing your child, the film intelligently showcases the duties of a man and how he must religiously abide by them. It can easily be used to reflect on the male discourse and the role of a man not just in an Indian context, but also on a global scale.

The way in which Ray managed to illustrate the chemistry between Apu and Aparna no doubt deserves the highest praise. At a time when kissing or any other form of intimacy was frowned upon by the Indian Censor Board, Ray nevertheless managed to handle the romantic scenes between the two characters extraordinarily well.

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir reportedly said of the film: “intimacy had been suggested without showing even a single embrace.” You will find very little flaws in Apur Sansar and one can say that it is a film that is close to perfection.

The direction, cinematography, the use of music for particular scenes, as well as the screenplay contributed in the successful moulding of this film.

Soumitra Chatterjee delivers a robust and sensitive performance as the iconic Apu. Having only done a small role in a Bengali stage production prior to the film, Soumitra proves that you can perform at your best without going to acting school or having any prior experience in films.

No other actor could have matched the qualities of this character better than Soumitra.  Every stage of his character's evolution is immensely entertaining and his use of expressions will make you both laugh and cry.

Similarly, Sharmila Tagore pulls off the role of Apu’s wife successfully at the tender age of just 14.  Given the fact that Tagore too had no acting experience and was still in school, she proved that she had the talent to inject the precise energy and emotion into her character. Thus, it is the splendid performances from these two actors which add to the fact that Apur Sansar is an absolute must-watch.

Apur Sansar is a film which proves that India can make superior films and that they are not just about Hindi Cinema (aka Bollywood).  Though he has already been praised during his lifetime nevertheless, Ray deserves unconditional credit for giving Indian Cinema a soul with awe-inspiring films such as this one.  It would be an absolute shame if one lived their lives without having seen Apur Sansar. The film’s beauty and social relevance makes it unmissable, irrespective of one’s background!

- Bodrul Chaudhury

The Satyajit Ray Season at the British Film Institute continues until 05th October.  For screening times and venues, visit www.bfi.org.uk.

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