In 1955, Satyajit Ray made a film called Pather Panchali which took the world by storm and placed Indian cinema firmly on the cartography of world cinema.
The endearing child Apu was played by a Calcutta boy, Subir Banerjee.
Apu was immortalised in the annals of cinema history and celebrated over the world. Subir Banerjee never did a film again and remained in his city carrying the burden of Apu’s fame.
Grappling with the shadow of an alter-ego, he lived a life of decline and unfulfilled promises.
To the world the man remained Apu, and even a few years ago when he was attending a wedding in Calcutta, people referred to him as Ray’s Apu.
Cinematographer Shirsha Ray (a graduate from the Satyajit Ray Film Institute) brought this information to director Kaushik Ganguly. Trying to break through Subir Banerjee’s resistance was not easy. He did not want to talk about his life and wanted nothing to do with films.
It was Ganguly’s persistence that led to a series of sessions through which the man warmed up and told his story. And it was Ganguly’s imagination that took the subject beyond an obvious documentary and shaped this eminently watchable, multi-layered drama.
Venkatesh Films-produced 'Apur Panchali' (Apu’s Song) celebrates the child actor of Satyajit Ray’s Apu.
Perhaps the last Bengali film to be shot on celluloid, it won the Silver Peacock for the director at the International Film Festival of India 2013. The film evokes the predicament of great child artists of cinema who have been lost in anonymity – Jackie Coogan, the child in 'The Kid', Henry Thomas, the child in 'ET'.
In Ganguly’s film, a young film student Arko tries to track down Subir Banerjee who has been invited for an award in Germany. Apu has been voted the most celebrated child actor of all times. Director Ganguly’s own encounter with Subir Banerjee is reconstructed through the journey of the film student.
The film offers many versions of Apu, some of Ray’s and two of Ganguly’s.
The inimitable Parambrata Chatterjee’s younger Subir inhabits a black and white 70’s narrative and the present day character is delivered memorably by Ardhendu Banerjee.
Above: A still from Satyajit Ray's 1955 original 'Pather Panchali'
As the reluctant protagonist starts to recount his life, uncanny similarities are found between Apu’s own life and the actor’s. Death of the father, a routine job in a printing press, the terraced room where romance blossoms, the wife’s death after childbirth.
There is a redemptive end as recluse Subir Banerjee finds (in Arko) the son he has lost and the two fly to Germany for the award.
Banerjee’s little anecdotes are great nuggets of film history.
How Ray cast the child actor, how he had to work through four years as Ray struggled to finish the film by selling his insurance and later his wife’s jewels.
How the present day Bachan Dhaba at Kalighat belongs to the faithful taxi driver who would drive the child to Boral and back everyday. How the child Subir would try to check the currency notes Ray handed over to his father in white envelopes.
The seamless move between archival footage from Ray’s Apu trilogy and the present narrative makes the film a cinephile’s delight and an apt tribute to a hundred years of Indian cinema.
Iconic scenes from Ray’s films play out but this time pinned to the emotional narrative of the actor Subir Banerjee. As he revisits the location of Apu’s home in Boral with Arko, the heart tugging sibling scenes between Apu and Durga are evoked.
Apu’s wedding, his new found romance, love in the terraced room ( those immortal scenes from 'Apur Sansar' between Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore) run parallel to the young Subir’s marriage to Ashima (a deglamorised Parno Mittra).
The perennial favourite train sequence from Pather Panchali is evoked when the young Subir returning to his wife’s village stops by the telegraph poles to listen. Beyond the parallel sequences are the suggestive ones (the torn curtain in the terrace window, the talisman thrown into the murky pond) the surreal scene of the child’s burial and the lingering shot of lonely Apu walking by the river as the Durga immersion procession passes by him.
The complex intertextuality with Ray is a delight for any cineaste. For the uninitiated, this is still an emotionally gripping film with a great heart and the viewer may be persuaded to access the original Apu trilogy.
Cinematographer Shirsha Ray faced a daunting task as he had to match the frames of Ray’s cinematographer and his film school teacher Subrata Mitra. Music composer Indraadip Dasgupta had to scale the enormous challenge of reinterpreting Ravi Shankar’s signature music for Pather Panchali.
He delivers a credible task with a beautiful but over-repeated sarod/flute phrase.
It is a tall claim indeed to pitch a narrative against Ray’s Apu. But Ganguly approaches this with warmth, empathy and a great deal of heart which endears the film to the viewer.
In the post screening discussion with Kaushik Ganguly, I asked him about the sourcing of archival footage. This was the most difficult aspect, as he had to gather prints from three different distributors. In the absence of negatives, the CGI department has rendered a marvellous restoration of the damaged prints.
Although the archival footage is of eight minutes duration they loom large in public memory and seem very long sequences. He also talks warmly about Subir Banerjee and how he was a friend now.
Apur Panchali will remain a poignant tribute to Ray and Indian cinema. More importantly it is a human document that put a name to a lost actor.
Finally it offers redemption in the film as well as in real life. It has helped Subir Banerjee once again embrace his alter-ego Apu instead of fighting him. As he proceeds towards the aircraft, Subir smiles wryly and tells Arko, “So at the end we have Apu to thank for this, it is for him that I am boarding the first flight of my life!”
The film's screening at BFI on Sunday was special for several reasons.
It marked the best of neo-Bengali cinema heralding a new generation of filmmakers. Ray is regularly celebrated at this venue which was a great favourite of the filmmaker. It was also an occasion to felicitate Pam Cullen and her legendary contribution to promote Indian cinema internationally. Sadly it also marked the closing of the Satyajit Ray Foundation who partnered the short film competition with the London Indian Film Festival.
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