Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa once wrote – is like existing in the world without having seen the sun and the moon. While Apu trilogy rightfully remains Ray’s most noted work, a lot of argument has happened over which of the three is Ray’s best work. I had written a series of articles on why Panchali is not – at heart – neo realist. The second film of the set Aparajito, which also happens to be my favorite of the trilogy, is indeed neo-realist.
Ray’s strength in storytelling lies in his ability to take you to different exotic places, a quality you’ll see in almost each of his Feluda stories – from Jaisalmer, through Darjeeling, Haridwar, Hong Kong to London – Ray writes about the beauty and charm of different places and transforms his narrative into an inquiring travelogue. In Aparajito too, the initial cinematic experience of Benaras takes you to the place – you tend to belong there – running up and down the staircases of the ghats and playing hide and seek through the congested streets of Kashi.
The mother-son conflict in the film is developed into the central theme through a succession of scenes of great emotional depth and complexity. Unlike Hitchcock’s unusual treatment, here the conflicts are far more realistic. Apu’s mother is surprised when he wants to go to school at a time when she thinks that they are settling down at last and when she foresees a future for him as the village priest. But, defeated by her love for him, she lets him have his way. Back home during a vacation, Apu finds the village has lost its charm for him. His mother’s company cannot compare with the attractions of the city. This was also the reason why Aparajito was never a big hit with Bengali audiences, who were used to sugar-coated portrayals of the mother-son relationship. How could a boy of fifteen be so unfeeling towards a widowed mother who has sacrificed her whole life for him? The truth is that Bengali audiences were not ready for the kind of psychological relationship that Aparajito depicted.
One more reason which makes Aparajito special is the handing of death scenes. In all the three movies, there is at-least one death in Apu’s family. In Aparajito, the handling of both death scenes is exemplary. Both use different techniques and both are winners. Agreed, the handling of Durga’s death in Panchali is more dramatic but here it reaches new heights, especially due to the neo-realist treatment of the mother’s death, which puts an end to the mother-son conflict in the film, and fills Apu with a sense of liberation. Due to the harsh treatment of the mother-son conflict, Aparajito loses out on some of the lyricism of Panchali and also lacks the light-hearted appeal of Sansar. However, in Panchali, Apu comes to focus only in the end, and in Sansar, he becomes a loser. It is only in Aparajito, where he captures full attention, and hence stands the richest in characterization and treatment.