Saturday, October 21, 2017

Three Characters who need to be understood between the lines – A review of Apu Triology

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, its sequel Aparajito and the final instalment Apur Sangsar, which form the famous Apu Trilogy based on the works of Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay, is not the story of Apu but everything and everyone around him that makes him possible. 

Set in early 20th century colonial Bengal and Banaras, the story set forth a canon of films which were later catalogued as Parallel Indian Cinema. Even though Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen were already making original socio-political commentaries by the time Pather Panchali came out, but it launched the movement to a global audience.  

Every story is larger than life if it is told in that way. Pather Panchali was made on a shoestring budget of Rs 1.5 lac on real locations outside studios. Both path-breaking for the period. After a long struggle to find a producer, Satyajit Ray got the money from the West Bengal state government, which produced the movie. It was a time when digital media was not even thought of, and even retakes in film reels cost a lot. 

Even though it apparently looks like a story of the boy Apurbo Kumar Roy. Yet, the story has many characters which need to be taken into consideration. All of them remain central to the development of the plot. 

Harihar was a Brahmin, albeit a poor landless one. He learnt the Vedic rituals and customs and also studied Brahmanical literature extensively, but ended up being jobless. Thus, he had to move out to Banaras in search of income leaving behind his family to their fate. And this is set in the pre-Gandhian Indian society (the early 1920s). The notion of class and caste interplays here. It is one example, even though in fiction, that clearly depicts that in India class and caste need to be analyzed together. An upper caste Brahmin might be poor and oppressed too.   

To me, however, the central character remains Sarbajoya, not Apu. The story is about her struggle to keep her family alive and well in a late colonial rural society. Harihar represented that rural Indian class which couldn't get out of the Brahmanical structure even when modern education had reached the length and breadth of the country. But Apu did, but only because of the fight that Sarbajoya fought, against a patriarchal world which left no stone unturned to let her and her insignificant family perish. She moved on from all the deaths that came in her way and let her son do as he wished. As a reward, Apu turned into an educated young man in modern Calcutta breaking all ties with his 'purohiter chele' stereotype. The story is about Sarbajoya's journey, not Apu's. 

Everyone who has seen the movie would say that the tragedy reaches its peak with Durga’s death. Maybe it does, but we grossly ignore one very important aspect of the story which has been invoked by Bibhuti Bhusan very subtly and Satyajit Ray portrays it brilliantly: Senior Citizen as a social class. 

Indira Thakrun, who was fondly called Pishima by the kids was representing that class of the society which lives and dies in dilemma. Her life becomes like that of a parasite hopping from one home to the other at the mercy of her younger generation. Even though she was dead old and behaved mostly like a kid, Sarbajaya doesn’t even think twice to turn her away from the home when she got a chance. 

It is not surprising to find her singing “Hori din toh gelo, shondhe holo, paar koro amare…

During Shoot : Satyajit Ray working with Chunibala Devi, who played the role of Pishima

Even though the patriarchs are treated with a sense of revere, the elder retired women are not even considered for advice in our society. We can see it unfolding in the story too. The only people who consider the old woman’s words seriously are the kids. But ironically Sarbajaya argues that Pishima should behave and be less demanding for the future of kids are at stake and they need to be taken care of first. Maybe somewhere Sarbajoya was convinced that Pishima was a useless burden while the kids were her future pillars. But in Karmatic justice, even Sarbajoya dies alone as Apu could not make it in time to attend her on her deathbed. 

In the trilogy, Apu remains the most visible character. Durga and Aparna remain the characters which attract a lot of sympathies. But, to me, Pishima and an old and dying Sarbajoya remain the most important and engaging characters. These characters got me into thinking if we are doing moral justice to the senior citizens as a society.