Movie audiences in India tend to classify cinema into two neat categories. There are the mainstream ‘masala’ potboilers – the lighthearted comic capers of bumbling fools and mistaken identities, the melodramatic family sagas of evil step-mothers/daughters-in-law/mothers-in-law, the self-righteous dramas with the upright hero fighting the corrupt policemen who are hand-in-glove with the scheming politicians and the classic Bollywood favorites – the taming-of-the-shrew, boy-loves-girl-but-parents-oppose or boy-loves-girl-who-loves-another kind of romances.
Then there is the so-called ‘serious’ or parallel cinema movement, the Satyajit Ray or Govind Nilhani movies that are generally spoken about in such hushed tones of reverence as to scare away a majority of the movie-watching aam junta. Which should explain why I, a hardcore Bollywood fan who does not miss watching Partner, Heyy Baby and other such gems of their ilk that are churned out with alarming regularity by Bollywood every Friday, had not watched a single Satyajit Ray movie until last night. I cannot explain why, but Satyajit Ray movies, in my mind, were supposed to be long, brooding and boring treatises on poverty and misery, meant strictly for western audiences in search of Indian exotica and critics/students of ‘serious’ world cinema.
So I was naturally very apprehensive when the husband brought home a DVD of Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar’ from the library last week. (The husband studies in the library during my music classes every Tuesday. I had written about them sometime back, remember?) I had been putting off watching it the entire week, but it was due back in next Tuesday and I feel guilty returning borrowed stuff without having read/watched it. Plus after a long and tiring day of skiing, we had no energy for anything except to heat up some of last night’s leftovers, snuggle together on our warm and comfortable couch and stare blankly at the television screen in front us.
Thus two sleepy and exhausted people finally got around to watching their first Satyajit Ray movie last night. Five minutes into the movie and all our drowsiness seemed to have flown out of the window! To say we were hooked onto the deceptively simple yet enchanting narrative would be a major understatement. I think I was scared to blink lest I miss out on even a micro-second of the wonderful magic unfolding on-screen! An added bonus was one of my favorite Bollywood heroines from the sixties – a lovely fourteen year-old Sharmila Tagore – delightfully innocent and ‘mishti’ (as a matronly neighbor declares in the movie) in her first role as the shy young bride.
‘Apur Sansar‘ is the third movie in the Apu trilogy of which ‘Pather Panchali’, the most famous Ray movie perhaps, is the first. (The husband, incidentally, had enjoyed reading ‘Pather Panchali’ a few years back, which might explain why he picked up the DVD from the library in the first place.) While the first two movies in the trilogy deal with Apu’s childhood and early youth, ‘Apur Sansar’ which picks up from the second movie finds Apu as a poor but happy-go-lucky young man in Calcutta, struggling to make ends meet while enjoying his simple and care-free bachelor life.
Intelligent and sensitive, Apu aspires to be a famous writer and channels all his creativity and passion into the one great love of his life – the semi-autobiographical novel he is writing. (In a beautiful tender-hearted love scene later in the movie, Apu claims to loves his wife even more than his novel, and this statement seems all the more striking since we’ve witnessed first-hand his overwhelming passion for his novel earlier in the narrative.) It’s evident there’s no room for romantic entanglements or marriage in Apu’s life at that point, but a series of chance events later he ends up getting married to a friend’s cousin during an impromptu visit to their village.
On the wedding night, Apu, who has been coerced into marriage against his wishes, lays bare his dilemma in front of his bride. ‘Are you ready to be poor with me?’, he despairingly asks. The dewy-eyed bride shyly murmurs her acquiescence, setting the stage for perhaps the most delightful and heart-warming depiction of young love and marriage I’ve ever seen on-screen. These scenes are also perhaps the most enchanting part of the movie and definitely the ones I enjoyed the most. I’ve seen some beautiful depictions of married relationships in movies like Saath-Saath, Yuva and Saathiya before, but I think Aparna and Apu’s relationship as seen in Apur Sansar is by far the best. It’s difficult to explain why though, the innocent tenderness of their love has to be seen to be believed.
Just as I was happily lost in the lovers’ idyll and beginning to wonder where the movie was heading, along came a rude jolt that shattered the couple’s world forever. In a heart-breaking scene, all the more shocking since it comes right after we see an obviously madly-in-love Apu trying to hide his smiles while reading his sweetheart’s letter in a crowded bus, Aparna’s brother breaks the news of her death and a stunned Apu reacts as only a broken-hearted young man would, slapping his brother-in-law for daring to utter what is truly unthinkable for him. Shattered, Apu shuns his newborn son, blaming the child for the mother’s death, and leaves Calcutta, drifting aimlessly from place to place, mourning the loss of his love.
The true measure of his loss is evident as we watch Apu stand on a mountain top, calmly watching the pages of his beloved novel float gently down the valley. At this point I felt convinced he had lost all capacity for feeling and his very passion for living and I had a sinking feeling the movie would end right there, but Ray leaves us with a happy ending after all. The sparkle is back in Apu’s eyes as he finally drags himself to meet his young son and convinces the boy to come away with him to Calcutta. ‘I can tell you lots of stories’, he eagerly promises the sceptical lad and as the movie ends we leave the two with the happy assurance that all is well in Apu’s world again.
As the titles rolled, I was surprised to think how normal, even ‘ordinary’, the movie’s basic storyline was. If you ignore the various layers and sub-texts to the narrative, it was a simple tale of a young newly-married couple getting to know and love one another until misfortune strikes and tears their happy world apart. I cannot recall an example off-hand, but there surely must be at least a dozen ‘masala’ movies with a similar storyline. Yet, what made ‘Apur Sansar’ stand apart from the rest, I felt, was the ‘naturalness’ with which the story unfolded and the wonderful subtle performances that made me forget that it was really an ‘act’ I was watching on-screen.
It was also ironical to think how unfounded my fears had been. Far from boring me with its lack of pace, the narrative was calm and unhurried, yet gripping. Even the silences spoke volumes, adding a lot to the tone of the movie. Unfortunately, I have a feeling I might have lost out on half it’s beauty relying as I was on the English sub-titles rather than the actual Bengali dialogues. I have half a mind to learn Bengali just so that I can appreciate this movie better on second viewing! Now I’m not sure how practical that idea is, but Bengali or no Bengali, one thing is for sure – I’ll definitely be ransacking our local library for more Ray movies in the months to come!