Ray’s 1956 Aparajito (Unvanquished) enters triumphantly the collection of my best loved films, and effortlessly so. It’s been some time I’d watched Pather Panchali and I don’t remember everything about it, but I do recall enough to connect it with Aparajito’s anything-but-naïve innocence and simplicity. But once you’ve said that, the difficulty is how to account for it. Where and how does Ray get it? Same question as always! This time I think I have a concrete answer: young Apu’s face. Whatever happens behind it, it’s set. No expression, it seems. Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) runs along the streets of Benares with his friends, Apu runs along the ghats, Apu runs in and out of home, barely caught by a still-worried mother who wants to feed him, but Apu’s face shows nothing. It’s like a statue, where one and only expression has been carved, to be used in all situations. There are one or two exceptions:
This face for me belongs to a timeless art, where masks represented one passion on each actor’s face, always the same so that spectators would recognise them when they came on stage. Apu’s mask is seriousness, his face is always grave. Because childhood is a serious age, an age when even games and fun are serious, when running is serious. And yet… perhaps there’s another interpretation: perhaps Apu’s face has no expression; perhaps in fact he has a blank face. His apparent seriousness would then be an absence of guile, either negative or positive. He’d simply be who he is, a simple Bengali 10 year old, living with his parents in Benares after having moved from their village. Nothing to turn him into anything special. He would only express things when necessary. The thought of using expressions to gain an advantage on others wouldn’t have crossed his mind
Now of course, there’s Apu’s older self in the second part of the film, and obviously things cannot be said in the same way. When at high school in Calcutta, the older Apurvar is almost the opposite: a very expressive-looking young man. Apart from certain shots when one catches half a squint, he’s a fine Indian youth, with very warm and intelligent eyes. We see him intently involved with the people he deals with, his mother of course, his teachers, his friends. Yet I’d say he has retained the honesty and the straightforwardness of his younger persona. You know by looking at him that he’s incapable of any harm, not because as a bright student he’s too intellectual, or because as a country boy he’s impressed by the city and the sahib school. He’s simply a fine and noble heart. He’s evolved from a loving and free family where grownups do not oppress their children and let them grow like the leaves on the tree, according to their own nature.
Apu’s nature belongs to the world of knowledge, just like others have a gift for salesmanship or military command. One day he brings back a little globe which has been gifted to him by one of his teachers, and he rushes to show it to his mother. The love of the object makes him all excited, as all children are when they own something they love! But of course his mother sees nothing but him; for her the object of fascination is the growing boy:
And this is the moment when he has to tell her he’s been offered to leave her and go off to study, so there’s the simple yet poignant symbolism of the little globe representing the distance all children will one day make their parents suffer with. One word while I’m at about the beautiful role played by Karuna Banerjee: Apu’s mother is the other focus of the movie, the polarity to which Apu comes back, and from which he will go, towards “his destiny”, as the saying goes. Her dependency on him is beautifully and sensitively shown. Apu is clearly her son and all his qualities come from her. He has her politeness, her feminine care, her dogged determination, and her generous disinterestedness. In short, her passion.
Aparajito’s imagery, often reminiscent of Pather panchali (the train on the horizon, the little tame animals around the lives of men) goes beyond it because it centres on urban life more. Thus some fascinating characters appear within this orderly world, signs perhaps of realities to come that will weigh more heavily in terms of strangeness or evil. Cities contain representatives of humankind who have absorbed a greater dose of sophistication than in the country. But these apparitions are only witnessed; they do not alter the inner world. And the little boy who wetted the fat inspector’s bespectacled eyes in class one day, by reading out patriotic stanzas, is now crying himself because he’s been caught sleeping in class (he works night shifts to pay his rent) and expelled as a result. Here are a few examples of the faces which blink their existences through Apu’s youth:
Now to the main question: what’s Satyajit Ray doing in this movie? Is he reminiscing his own childhood? That’s what some commentators say: the film is autobiographical, Ray has put a lot of himself and his own youth in the story. This can be said, of course, but it doesn’t answer the question. We aren’t interested in Aparajito because it somehow shows Ray’s youth. Is it because it’s a beautiful vision of childhood growing into youth? The passage from boyhood to maturity? Of course, that passage is always a kind of mystery, but then all passages are mysterious, perhaps. The movie could also be described in terms of opposition between urban artificiality and simple countryside, the quest of knowledge and the familiarity with immediate life-forms. This would be supported by the fact that it is in the city that the father (Kanu Bannerjee) dies, and that it is because Apu leaves his mother for anther city that she dies… But the two cities are shown, perhaps thanks to Apu’s transforming eyes, as life-centres as much as the countryside where Apu and his mother gather after the death of the father.
I think that Apu’s eyes are the key to the movie’s magical simplicity. Apu looks at the world around him, observes people and things, and moves on, lifts them on other objects, other faces… He is the event happening to that world: some new eyes are looking at it, receiving it within their serious scope. We are made to witness that moment of grace of Apu neither observing nor watching, but looking, simply looking. Apu is opening his eyes, and we see him do that. And it changes everything, because it makes him part of that world fully, absolutely, and at the same time, he doesn’t belong to it, he’s the passing witness; he’s moving on, running even. Our world is seen, When, as a grown boy, Apu’s eyes are open on the world of learning, he’s mesmerized:
But he continues to retain that curiosity, and what has become a self-conscious and joyful gravity. Is this joy guilty? After all, the film does allude to the fact that, locked up in his studies, he somewhat forgets his mother, who’s too proud to order him back. Anybody who’ s seen the movie knows that this cannot be true, that even if Apu does forget his mother a little, neither she nor anybody can hold him accountable: his path is away from her, they both know it. The distance between them is not a question of love or not love, and in fact their relationship is deeper than love, it’s life itself. Everything that concerns Apu is life, life itself passing on our Earth, unconquered life walking with immense strides from mountain to mountain, valleys and hills, rearing its head to the wandering stars, its eyes open on our unquenched thirst.