Pather Panchali (1955) is the first movie in The Apu Trilogy. It is India’s version of The Grapes of Wrath, or maybe Tobacco Road. Notwithstanding the emphasis given to the character Apu in the title of the trilogy, this first movie really seems to be about his mother, Sarbojaya Ray, who is so beset by grinding poverty that she has a hard time being nice to her family. Her elderly cousin, Indir, also called “Auntie,” is a poor old woman who can barely see or walk, and Sarbojaya treats her miserably, eventually driving her away and forcing her to die alone in the woods. Sarbojaya’s husband, Harihar Ray, comes across as a slacker and a dreamer (he thinks he can make money by writing plays), but maybe he is just a victim of the caste system. Her daughter, Durga, is a thief, but she is likable. Finally, there is Apu, who will play a larger role in the sequels. After his sister dies, Apu destroys something she stole so no one will know, even though everyone really knows anyway. While Harihar is away for months without sending money, a storm hits and destroys their house, because he never got around to making the needed repairs. This forces them to move to the city.
Aparajito (1956) is the second movie in this trilogy, which picks up the story a few years later. The first part of the movie has a strange subplot that goes nowhere. Nanda is the upstairs neighbor of the Ray family. The first time he shows up to give Harihar a calendar, Sarbojaya pulls her head scarf over more of her hair and leaves the room. The second time he makes an appearance, she hears him coming, pulls the scarf over her head, and hides until he has gone upstairs.
When she needs some matches, she asks Apu about him, and then tells Apu to ask him for just two matches, as if she dreadfully feared being in his debt for an entire box of matches. Apu goes upstairs and watches him surreptitiously, as if Nanda were doing something of significance, but all he does is unwrap a bottle of booze. Apu asks for just two matches, but Nanda gives him the entire box, saying he has plenty and that Sarbojaya needn’t return them.
Then, while Harihar is sick and Sarbojaya is preparing food, Nanda enters her kitchen to ask her if she has some paan, something that is chewed for pleasure in India, sort of like tobacco. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is filmed as if his approach is ominous. She is fearful, and then turns on him, furiously telling him to get out, holding some kind of utensil as if it were a weapon. When he leaves, she breathes heavily, as if she just escaped being raped.
Is she crazy? How paranoid would she have to be to think Nanda is some lascivious lecher, trying to take advantage of her on account of the matches he gave her, intending to have his way with her right there in the kitchen, by brute force if necessary? Or has Nanda violated some terrible taboo, like, “Thou shalt not ask thy neighbor’s wife for paan”? Of course, if this is such a big deal in India, maybe it would help if they had doors they could close to keep neighbors from just wandering in without knocking. Whichever it is, we wonder what the heck it has to do with the rest of the movie. With all that buildup, we expect some great climactic scene, but there is no payoff.
Anyway, once we get past that bit of confusing Indian culture, we get to something a little more universal. Harihar dies of a fever. Sarbojaya’s daughter, Durga, died in the previous movie, and soon Apu wants to do more than be a priest like his father, which means going away to be educated. Sarbojaya is terribly lonely, but she does not want to remarry. Apu, on the other hand, wants to live his own life, which means not spending as much time with his mother as she would like. He lies to her in a letter, telling her he cannot come visit her on the holidays, even though he did get a couple of days off. Hoping against hope that he will come see her anyway, she imagines hearing his voice and runs to the door, but sees only fireflies in the darkness. Shortly thereafter, he gets a letter telling him she is ill, and by the time he gets home, she has died. We feel sorry for her, but we wonder if she ever thought about how “Auntie” felt, having to starve to death, alone and unloved, after Sarbojaya drove her away.
Apu cries over the death of his mother, a death made all the more painful by the lie he told her. Oh well, we think to ourselves, at last he will now be free to live his own life. But no, an elderly relative tells him it is time to become a priest, just like his father. Apu does not let this stop him, of course, and he leaves. But it is nice to know that there is always someone in the family who will try to put a guilt trip on you.
The World of Apu ( 1959) is the final installment of this trilogy. Just when Apu thinks he is finally free to live his own life, wouldn’t you know it, he gets invited to a wedding by Pulu, a friend of his, and ends up having to marry the bride himself, because the groom turns out to be crazy, and if she does not marry by the appointed hour, she is ruined for life and no one will ever marry her. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Her parents are rich, so you figure that since this is India and everything, there should be a sizable dowry. But no, not a brass farthing. However, Apu and Aparna, for that is her name, end up being poor but happy. She gets pregnant, and so, after about the seventh month, she goes home to her parents to have the baby. When one of her relatives shows up to tell Apu that she died giving birth, Apu punches him right in the mouth. So, if you are ever in India and have to tell someone his wife died, just send a letter.
Apu writes to Pulu that because he is now free to live his own life (here we go again), he intends to travel. Presumably, he has learned his lesson about accepting wedding invitations. Of course, we wonder how free he can be, inasmuch as Aparna’s baby lived. No problem, he just dumps the kid on her parents.
Apu apparently contemplates suicide, standing near the tracks as a train approaches, but it runs over a pig instead. In the end, he settles for just throwing away the manuscript of the novel he had been working on, presumably because he realizes that love as he imagined it turned out to be different from the real thing.
After five years of wandering around aimlessly, Apu’s father-in-law is getting a little ticked that Apu is not taking care of his own son, Kajal. Pulu, who was Aparna’s cousin, goes looking for him. Apu says he cannot take care of Kajal (whose name he did not even know), because Kajal would remind him of Aparna. Of course, Kajal probably reminds Aparna’s parents of their deceased daughter every day, but Apu only thinks of his own grief, not what others may be feeling. Five years is a long time to grieve, but Apu still thinks it is a good excuse for not doing his duty as a parent when Pulu reminds him of it. Being so reminded angers Apu, and knowing how Apu has a way of punching people out when they tell him something he does not want to hear, we are almost surprised that Apu does not hit Pulu as well. I guess he has matured a little in the last five years.
He finally relents and goes to see his father-in-law, not to take care of Kajal personally, but to make arrangements for Kajal to go to a boarding school so that Apu can continue to wander around, wallowing in the great suffering of his soul. And then, just like your basic Hollywood melodrama, there is a total narrative rupture at the last minute, when Apu decides to take his son with him and care for him himself, the two of them living happily ever after.