Migration, Modernity, and Loss in The Apu Trilogy

The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali | artwork by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Apu runs behind his older sister, Durga, in a vast field. The camera tilts upward; their bodies begin to look like specks moving around on a board. Marsh and coconut trees surround them as they travel farther from the village they call home, the ancestral land of their poor, high-caste, Brahmin family. When Apu finally catches up to Durga, she pauses in front of a monstrous metal contraption, wired, planted into the ground, unmoved by the wind swinging through the grass and the siblings’ hair. 

With a straw of sugarcane sticking out of her mouth, Durga stares up at the foreign object, moves closer with suspicion, and then embraces it. Apu follows her lead, as he has his entire life. The power lines, ubiquitous in our 2020 world, interrupt the tranquil landscape that surrounds the children. Durga takes shelter under the familiar high grass. “Where are we? What are those?” asks Apu. 

Before he can continue, Durga puts her hand over his mouth. Her eyes widen, and she shoots up from her seated position. We hear the chugging of an engine, and then we see a black train carrying a blacker cloud of smoke appearing behind them. Apu, adorned with a foil crown, runs to approach the heavy machinery. It disappears before he can study it, leaving only exhaust behind.

The siblings revel in their newfound discovery on the journey home. Their joy shatters quickly, however, when Durga finds their beloved elderly auntie alone and dead in the jungle, crouched between the few possessions of her old and poor stature. Here, we get the first glimpse in Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy that moments of beauty must come with a reminder of brutality. 

After its release in 1955, Pather Panchali quickly won the recognition of international audiences, earning the Best Human Document prize at Cannes Festival in 1956. Pather Panchali’s success turned what was meant to be a single film into a trilogy, expanding from its original source material of the Bengali novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. The sequels, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, won equal levels of praise. Audiences have consistently returned to the films, considered one of the best cinematic works of all time, for their realistic, tender portrayal of Apu’s coming-of-age. 

Pather Panchali introduces us to Apu and his family in rural West Bengal. The family barely makes ends meet. Harihar, Apu and Durga’s father, is a kindhearted priest, but often absent and naively optimistic. Sarbajaya, their mother, inhabits a constant state of stress over how the family will get its next meal. Over three films, we follow Apu on his journey from his home village to the cities of Benares and Calcutta and back. The films are scarce in plot, but we fall in love with short bursts of characters, only to feel their heartbreaks as our own. As a protagonist, Apu changes alongside a changing India, experiencing the cruelty of leaving home and struggling for a future. 

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I watched The Apu Trilogy during the start of my coronavirus quarantine. For the first time in years, I was living with my parents, Bengali immigrants from India who arrived in the United States in 1988. My father and mother both have distinct memories of watching the Apu films as kids. For all their international acclaim, the movies were arguably even more popular at home. “We watched at the theater,” my mom recalled from her childhood in Calcutta, “and when television came out, it was played again and again and again.” My father read the source novels as required texts in high school. 

By the time of my mother’s birth in 1965, Satyajit Ray was a cultural giant. He had already directed 13 films since the premiere of Pather Panchali and was working on his first book of the Feluda series, soon to become a pillar of Bengali children’s literature. Every time I mention The Apu Trilogy, my mother tells me to watch Ray’s 1970 film Aranyar Din Ratri, in which my grandmother makes a short appearance as a party attendee. 

My father and I watched The Apu Trilogy together in Bengali, our mother tongue. Like Apu, we’re Bengali Hindus centered by the city of Calcutta. While we’re not high-caste Brahmins, our mixed, yet solidly upper-caste status means we can relate to the experience of caste privilege with class struggle.  

A scene from Pather Panchali | Criterion
Criterion

Our screenings were a new experience for both of us. It was my first time watching the films, and my father’s first time watching them in our suburban home in New York. I imagined it felt different from watching Ray as a student in Calcutta, where the musings on loss and leaving home were still foreign.

Like Apu, my parents completed a drastic journey as young adults, leaving their families in Calcutta to accidentally begin a new life in the United States. I say “accidentally” because my parents didn’t decide to leave their families forever, they instead fell into their new life. As 21-year-old graduate students, my parents studied, managed to find jobs with work visas, got married, and had children. And suddenly, they had spent more of their lives in the United States than in the country of their birth. In a similar fashion, Apu’s journey displays the accidents of migration. Apu did not know when he bid his mother farewell in Aparajito that he’d be seeing her for the last time. While characters enact agency in moments of departure, what they find when they arrive becomes a matter of chance. Apu’s family moves to Benares, hoping for better economic success. Harihar finds work, and the family sees a brief moment of stability. But when Harihar dies, the remaining family must again move and search for a future. The journey away from home reaped few rewards.

In the past year, my parents saw the deaths of their only remaining parents, their strongest connections to their homeland. Last August, my grandmother passed away in Calcutta, four weeks after doctor’s discovered a terminal cancer that had spread through her body. In reckoning with the death of our family’s beloved matriarch, I knew my grandmother had lived a long, loving life; she died at the age of 86. But the pain of her death still felt inconsolable. Throughout those 86 years, I only knew her for tiny chunks of weeks during occasional summer visits. And my mother had spent the majority of her life living 6,000 miles away from the woman who raised her. Thirty-five years of distance were marked with periodic encounters and phone calls, always cherished but brief. Those years added up in my grandmother’s final weeks, when the toll of an accidental decision, lost, finite time, presented themselves in coming to terms with death. 

In the death of his mother, Apu confronts a similar dilemma of time lost. Sarbajaya spends her last months alone as Apu explores the new, modern world of Calcutta. His visits become more and more infrequent, and only when she dies does Apu acknowledge that the seemingly inconsequential decision he had made to stay in Calcutta during a long weekend ultimately sacrificed his last moments with his mother. Apu leaves the village where Sarbajaya’s ashes were burned, where he spent his adolescence, presumably forever. What becomes of a home when your loved ones are no longer there?

The loss of home after the loss of family is a tragic pillar of migration, exemplified by Apu’s movement in the films. Each time a death hits his family, the remaining members leave. “There’s nothing left for me here,” says Harihar, after Durga dies and he makes the decision to move the family to Benares. Once Harihar dies, Sarbajaya brings Apu to the rural village of an elder uncle. After Apu loses Sarbajaya, he knows he has no place to return. For a moment, he gains the      freedom to move where he wants to, but he ultimately realizes he has a lonely life ahead.

Apu’s departure from the village embodies the mass rural to urban migration that India has experienced since before independence. That migration has continued into the 21st century, with cities in India seeing a massive boom in population. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of India’s migrants have been starved and prevented from returning to their homes; recent viral videos show police beating and spraying migrant workers with bleach as they attempt to walk their ways across the country. The Apu Trilogy, without overtly mentioning political events, reminds us to dignify the story of the individual migrant, who is so easily depicted as part of a monolith.  

Only in Apur Sansar do we get a glimpse of international emigration that has also shifted the subcontinent’s population flows. Pulu, Apu’s friend who becomes responsible for his marriage to Aparna, moves to an unknown “abroad.” Dressed in Western business attire, he tracks down Apu after a number of years in order to convince his old friend to be a father to his son. And then there’s the looming fact of Partition, the slicing of the subcontinent which led to war, displacement, and thousands of deaths in Bengal and Punjab. Ray makes no mention of the Bengali refugee crisis or the independence struggle, which likely coincide with the latter part of Apu’s fictional life.  

Three forms of migration—rural to urban, Partition, and emigration—have shaped South Asia’s postcolonial history. Thousands of families have their own experiences of these overlapping movements, but many stories go untold. My grandfather, who passed away in February, traveled east to west during the Partition, his family to never return to their ancestral land in present-day Bangladesh. Our family speaks little of the connection to East Bengal. No, we are Indian. My parents were born in a newly independent India, in a newly Indian West Bengal. As they moved to the United States, their Indianness became solidified by their passports and their minority statuses. Now they are U.S. citizens; now we are Americans, too. 

In Apu’s narrative, Ray offers a glimpse of how the flows of migration intrude on the life of a young boy. The journeys of Apu are two-fold: the first is the “coming-of-age” story where Apu shifts to adulthood and independence, and the second is the movement between the village and the city, where Apu attempts to secure a place in an overwhelming mass of strangers doing the same. The psychological depiction of these journeys can extend to forms of migration across the world. Migration is not just looking for new opportunity, for serving a state-sponsored model of economic productivity. Migration affects one’s identity and disrupts the sense of a homeland. This massive decision can be hastily made or even forced, leaving in its wake an unknown loss. 

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Not everyone loved Pather Panchali. After a screening, French director Francois Truffaut reportedly said, “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.” The response to this ignorance has instead praised the films “universality.” Ray makes Western audiences care about the life of a young, poor, barefoot boy in rural India, an experience foreign to their own. Michael Sragow stated, “Ray’s achievement rested on moviemaking artistry that was as universal as music.” Many credit Italian neorealist films for inspiring the cinematic work in The Apu Trilogy. It should be noted that an appeal to white people grounds this acclaimed “universality.” 

Girish Shambu dissects the rhetoric around The Apu Trilogy’s “universal” appeal in an essay for the Criterion Collection. He argues that critics overlook Ray’s many non-Western influences, including his own family’s participation in a Bengali cultural renaissance, led by Rabindranath Tagore. For Shambu, Ray’s poetic, wordless moments draw from a tradition of Bengali Hindu artwork. I see The Apu Trilogy as a work of its time and place, situated in the political reality of an increasingly independent, modern, and complex India. But the universal to culturally specific binary falls short. As Shambu also notes, Ray clearly had both Western and Bengali inspirations. Even the love and loss pictured so elegantly in the trilogy can be considered specific to the circumstance of Apu’s life, the overwhelming tides of tragedy in a hopeful nation. Millions of Bengalis who span two partitioned nations and waves of political and economic migration, also make up Ray’s audience. It’s a disservice to position the films’ success as its appeal to the white outsider, when so much of Ray’s work was assembled and discussed at home. 

My own position as a Bengali American breaks the artificial binary between the Western and “other,” in this case Bengali, viewer. As I watched the films with the family, I was overwhelmed by tidbits of knowledge: a connection to Ray, a distant homeland, and my parents’ pasts. My father made small comments throughout our screening on the folk tunes sung by various characters as they rested in the sun, the accents in the film that have been lost to time and Partition, the resemblance between Indir Auntie and my great-great-grandmother, a widow living in her son’s house, who similarly jostled with but sweetly cared for her family. I learned about small pieces of Bengali culture that I, a child of immigrants born in Queens, had never known. Watching the film allowed me to fill in the gaps of an imagined past, using Ray as a source material for locating a lost family history. 

I soon realized that Ray’s artistic practices intersect closely with culturally-specific relics. For me, memories of India strengthened an understanding of the trilogy’s most powerful moments. As Harihar lays on his death bed in Benares, he asks a 10-year-old Apu to fetch a cup of water from the Ganges. A slowed, dramatic sequence follows, where we don’t know if Apu will make it back in time before Harihar breathes his final breaths. Apu arrives with the water as Harihar struggles to stay alive. He takes a sip, and he dies. 

I immediately thought of the holiness of the water, the symbolism of the Ganges. At my grandmother’s funeral service, our family completed a traditional Hindu service at a Calcutta ghat, overlooking the Hooghly river, a distributary of the Ganges. It was the second time I had seen the flowers of a grandmother’s service laid in the water, allowing the tide to quickly move them out of sight. I had a sense of what the Ganges water meant to Apu’s family, stemming from what it had meant to mine. But I wondered how other viewers would analyze this moment. Can this knowledge be learned? Can it be transferred, or must it be felt, seen, and embodied? I wondered if I could teach the sense of the Ganges to next generation of Bengalis in the United States, one even more removed from the evolving, disappearing sense of our homeland.  

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The train that we first see appearing above the fields of grass, and hear in the background of the chilled, quiet nights in the village, becomes a repeating motif in the trilogy. In Aparajito, Apu travels back and forth from his great-uncle’s rural village to Calcutta to study in college. A technology that once seemed alien is now mundane. Still, with its repeated presence in a life of tragedy, we know it’s deadly. Apu last sees his widowed mother before he boards a train to Calcutta; he last sees his pregnant wife as she leaves for her parents’ house in a train. But as a passenger, Apu is unperturbed by the inconveniences of commuting, squished between fellow travelers in normalized discomfort. The train plays a passive role, but as filmmaker Mamoun Hassan notes, it’s ultimately “the angel of death.” 

It then makes sense that we spend most of Apur Sansur on the border of train tracks, where Apu’s one-bedroom rental in a boarding house is located. We follow him as he crosses the tracks each day on his walk home from tutoring. On these tracks, he reads the last words of his wife. He lifts up a baby playing and brings him to safety away from large machines. And one night, walking with a friend, he muses about a novel he hopes to write about a man with nothing but a love of living life. He realizes that his idea is autobiographical. He takes on the perspective of the audience, an external viewer to his own life. We question if the story is as romantic as he makes it seem.  

These careful shots and extended scenes are meant for contemplation; they remind us to pause and notice. Ray edits his scenes alongside a legendary score by Ravi Shankar, perhaps one of the best moments in cinema music history. The score tells us when to laugh, when to revel, when to fear, when to cry. With sound and image tied together, we pick up on the small glances between characters, the joys of dancing in the rain, the anxiety of looming death. We see Apu, a young boy ready to leave home, and Sarbajaya, a mother who realizes her son doesn’t know her sacrifice, and Durga, a sister who knows she won’t be married, keenly aware of the tragedy of her life before it happens.

We leave the trilogy with Apu carrying his 5-year-old son Kajal, named after the makeup that glazed the eyes of his late mother. Apu plans to return to his village, to his home, but we don’t know where that will be, or what the pair will find once they arrive. Where can they go from here, after having lost and left so much? Maybe they’ll end up in Calcutta, a city that Kajal has already romanticized at his young age, a city that has already wounded Apu. Though Ray consistently reminds us that happiness is fleeting, that the promise of the future is marred by the brutality of modernity, we still see a speckle of joy in the eyes of father and son. For a moment, we remain hopeful.