Apur Sansar is known as “The World of Apu” in English.
What is lost in translation is the duality of the word “Sansar” in Bengali—-it means both family as well as world.
Apu’s detachment from Nature is now complete—–the movie starts with him residing in a dingy one-room near the train lines—-the same train, which symbolized the advent of the outside world in “Pather Panchali”, has by now totally lost its wonderment for Apu for whom the incessant cacophony is nothing but an irritant.
Despite being jobless and broke, Apu is happy. He is free as he always wanted to be–from attachments and from tradition. But, in a moment of idealistic impulse, he saves a girl (Aparna) from being married off to a lunatic by stepping in as the groom—-and by force of circumstance, becomes anchored again.
A new phase of his life begins where Apu learns to reconcile happiness with the ties of “family” (sonsar).
But then Aparna dies during childbirth and his journey grinds to a halt.
Turning away from life, he shuns all responsibility for his child (whom he holds responsible for snatching away everything he held dear) and becomes a lonely, broken-hearted recluse.
And then many years later, he meets his son Kajal. Roles are reversed as Apu, for the first time, consciously wants to feel attached but Kajal rejects his absentee dad. In the final climactic scene (which again is a moment where, no matter how many times you have seen it, tears well up) Apu is walking back, unable to get his son Kajal to accept him as his father and accompany him to Calcutta. As Apu walks down the winding road, he is accosted by Kajal, who standing atop a small hill asks him
“Who actually are you?”
Apu tries to say “father” but all that comes out is ” I am your friend”.
After traversing a long and weary road, Apu has found salvation at last. His world is complete.
Undoubtedly, one of Indian cinema’s most enduring moments.
Soumitra Chatterjee, soon to become a regular part of Ray’s movies, gives a break-out performance as the adult Apu. Dreamy eyes, expressive face and oscillating between emotional extremes , Soumitra successfully brings out Apu’s essential vulnerability in a way few except him could have.
Sharmila Tagore makes her debut in this movie as Aparna. Heavily directed, she does a competent job and is mercifully without the affected Bengali and exaggerated mannerisms she subsequently picked up during her Mumbai days.
Sometimes directors in the midst of worrying about cinematic beauty, shot composition and seamless transitions lose sight of the supposedly mundane responsibility of story-telling.
Not Ray. “Apur Sansar” is the most story-oriented of all the other installments of the Trilogy and the movie stands on its own purely on the dint of Ray’s amazing capacity to tell a good story in an engaging way—–“Apur Sansar” never drags, the pace is perfect.
So even if you are not able to appreciate all the subtle nuances of a master of the craft, you can still walk out of the theatre with the feeling that you saw an entertaining movie.
And “Apur Sansar” is all about subtle symbolism. Watch the scene where the village elders come to convince Apu to become the “replacement” groom. The camera goes wide-angle as you see a bewildered, disbelieving Apu surrounded by all the village elders—— poor Apu, striving to break free of all shackles, has been caught, inescapably, in a steadily shrinking net of claustrophobic circumstance.
“Apur Sansar” is subtly humorous too (like most of Ray’s great works) . With minimalist brushes of his directorial pen, Ray etches unforgettable characters and situations—–the “interview” board for one of Apu’s jobs consists of a gaggle of ludo-playing, boisterous geriatrics, an office colleague rants to a thoroughly disinterested Apu about his submissive wife and how some amount of friction is necessary for an “exciting” marriage and a lunatic groom who ,while being led away from the marriage hall after Aparna’s mother refuses to hand over her daughter to him, asks his father uncomprehendingly :” Won’t I get married?”
Normally the lunatic husband, who was being foisted upon Aparna, would be depicted as an object of scorn. But such is Satyajit Ray’s deep humanism and compassion that you end up actually feeling sorry for the poor chap—he is as much a victim of this charade as Aparna.
Satyajit Ray later went on record saying that, in retrospect, he erred in showing Apu slapping his brother-in-law in anger after hearing of Aparna’s death because it went against the very grain of Apu’s character.
Many disagree. The way they see it, the news of Aparna’s death triggers a cataclysmic change in the overtly emotional Apu and he swings to an extreme that is a total refutation of his normal character traits —–he becomes despondent, pessimistic, escapist and hard-hearted (he refuses to even see his child for five years).
The slap is the fulcrum point for this violent change and thus is quite in tune with Apu’s new “anti-Apu” character
While the detachment between mother and son was the focus of “Aparajito”, the uneasy attempts at bonding between father and son in “Apur Sansar” are its most emotionally satisfying parts.
Kajal, as Apu’s son, wrestles with his desire to gain acceptance from a father he idolizes (note the scene where he says—“My father will come and beat you up”) and the overwhelming sense of hurt at being abandoned for no fault of his own (he throws away the toy his absentee father brings for him) and the child who essays the role of Kajal (possessed with amazingly expressive and sad eyes) admirably expresses this conflict———no small measure due to one of Satyajit Ray’s greatest skills –that of extracting awe-inspiring performances from children.
Kajal is Apu’s only source of redemption and in him he sees all that he used to be and has forgotten. Which again brings me to the genius of the final scene—–the father-son reconciliation is an emotionally evocative moment no doubt but it is not a happy, quick-fix solution (Kajal’s trust in Apu has to still progress from friend to father) .
Yet it holds out the promise for a better tomorrow thus crystallizing perfectly, in “Apur Sansar”‘s final frame, the theme of the Trilogy —– that regardless of death, poverty and separation, life always holds out hope.
In my opinion, the greatest celebration of life ever captured on screen.