“Aparajito” (Unvanquished), the second part of the Apu Trilogy and thematically the most nuanced, is about Apu’s aspirations.
Apu is now in the cusp of boyhood and manhood–gawky, dissatisfied and increasingly feeling constricted by his rural surroundings. On one hand is the strong pull of tradition—–his mother and his elders want him to continue the family profession of priesthood and stay in the village. And on the other hand is the desire to break free.
As his headmaster at Arboal (the village where he stays) tells him while encouraging him to read books—
“We may be rooted in a remote corner of Bengal but that does not mean our mind should be confined here.”
“Aparajito” chronicles the awakening of Apu’s mind and the conflicts it brings in its wake.
While “Pather Panchali” depicted Apu as an intrinsic part of his pastoral surroundings, “Aparajito” marks his gradual detachment from nature and from the things that used to enthrall him previously. The entertainers in the village fair bore him, he grudgingly performs the priest’s responsibilities (note the scene where he comes back from Puja and rushes off to play—though you cannot see it you can hear the loud sound of him dumping the “Narayana Sila” with singular lack of veneration), and once he goes to Calcutta for higher studies becomes increasingly disinclined to come back to the village even for a few days.
“Aparajito”‘s depiction of the mother-son relationship came for some criticism when the movie was released—-many Indians, used to picture-perfect familial bonds on-screen, could not come to terms with the gradually increasing aloofness on the part of Apu from his mother.
Sarbojaya is petrified of losing her son to the city. Widowed and alone, she clings to Apu as her only support and the more she does that, the more stifled does he feel and moves way.
To Apu, his mother’s dotingness symbolizes the constriction of village life—paradoxically feeling more claustrophobic in the open spaces of Arboal than in the dingy printing press in which he works in Calcutta.
It is this growing distance between mother and son which is , in my opinion, the most heart-rending part of the movie.
Alone in the village, Apu’s gradually infrequent visits become Sarbojaya’s only lifeline. But for Apu it is just a duty he has to discharge. In one memorable scene, Sarbojaya talks about wanting to see Calcutta and of how her health has been failing—-only to turn around and find that Apu has fallen asleep.
In another unforgettable scene which shows that Apu also loves his mother but just is not comfortable expressing it, Sarbajaya pleads with Apu to stay, Apu brushes her off rudely, goes to the train station and cannot bring himself to board the train, comes back and tells his mother not the truth…..but that he missed the train.
Karuna Banerjee as Sarbojaya gives a tour d’force performance —–in one evocative scene , dying and alone, she hallucinates that Apu has come back. Her eyes light up with joy and she rushes out to the empty village path and the light that shone in her eyes gradually dims out as she realizes that noone is coming.
As an aside: Bibhutibhushon Bandopadhyay’s depiction of the growing distance between mother and son in the original novel was even more brutal. There after Sarbojaya has passed away, Apu comes back and feels extremely happy——-happy that all the bonds with the village have been broken irrevocably and that he is free at last. Only when he sees the pickle jars and realizes that there is noone to prevent him anymore from opening and eating them, that he breaks down and starts sobbing disconsolately.
In someone else’s hand, “Aparajito” could have become morose and pessimistic. But not Ray’s. With his typical sense of understated humor, he infuses a dark movie with luminant characters and situations—-the school inspector, the college professor and of course, the devil-may-care Pulu, Apu’s best friend in Calcutta.
Darker and more disturbing than the other installments of the Trilogy, “Aparajito” is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But it’s still a masterpiece.