By Subha Das Mollick
On reading Pather Panchali one cannot help feeling that Bibhuti Bhushan’s construction of Apu has given Ray an understanding of child psychology. Most importantly, Ray imbibed from Pather Panchali, the leitmotif of his body of films. This recurring motif is Apu. We encounter Apu not only in Apu trilogy but also in Pratidwandhi, Seemabaddha and his last film Agantuk.
“Whenever Apu stands by the window, he has visions of Bishalakshi Thakur, the radiant goddess in a red saree, adorning a flower garland and a flower bracelet.
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Apu’.
‘You are a good boy. Ask for a boon.’
Apu lies down on the bed. The breeze brings in a bittersweet fragrance of the creepers. Far away, an albatross gives out a plaintive cry from the top of a shimul tree, hovering over the past and the future, the joy and sorrow of Apu’s Nishchindipur – a lonely traveler in the clear noon autumn sky.”
That was an excerpt from Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali, a book whose cinematic adaptation made Satyajit Ray famous and catapulted Indian cinema to the league of world cinema.
Pather Panchali is the story of Apu, a creation of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay from the core of his heart. In the words of Jitendranath Chakrabarty, “A spark from the flame of creation fell on the pristine greenery of Nishchindipur and took refuge in the heart of a child. This spark has made Apu’s life luminous, extraordinary. This spark has ignited Apu’s consciousness and made him the unvanquished celebrant of life.”
Satyajit Ray lived with Pather Panchali for more than two years – first to illustrate the abridged version of the novel for children and then contemplating making a film on the novel. In these years, Ray absorbed many qualities of the novel, qualities that have defined Ray the filmmaker – a humanist with a sharp eye for details, a filmmaker who could see the universe in the convexity of a dewdrop and could construct a complex world with everyday insignificant details. Last but not the least, Ray was a filmmaker with a profound understanding of child psychology. Ray’s children behave like children and speak like children, unlike most children in mainstream Indian cinema. On reading Pather Panchali one cannot help feeling that Bibhuti Bhushan’s construction of Apu has given Ray an understanding of child psychology. Most importantly, Ray imbibed from Pather Panchali, the leitmotif of his body of films. This recurring motif is Apu. We encounter Apu not only in Apu trilogy but also in Pratidwandhi, Seemabaddha and his last film Agantuk.
Like Bibhuti Bhushan’s Apu, Ray’s Apu is untouched by the worldliness. He is incorruptible, pure, innocent and a little aloof. But unlike Bibhuti Bhushan’s Apu, Ray’s Apu is more forward-looking, more touched by modernity. In Pather Panchali we see him mesmerized by the train – a metallic monster cutting its way through the flaky white soft landscape of the kash bon. In Apu Trilogy, the train is the harbinger of modernity, of change, of a way of life different from the cesspool of Apu’s Nishchindipur. In the last scene of Aparajito, we see Apu turning his back to the village forever. With his mother’s death, his last tenuous link with his pastoral home is severed and he does not have the patience to stay back and complete his mother’s last rites at the place where she breathed her last. Apu gathers his mother’s sparse belongings into a bundle and moves on to take the train to the city. His grand uncle’s arm rises in blessing. Apu does not look back and acknowledge.
Satyajit Ray has written emphatically in his book Our Films Their Films, that he is a city boy. He is not lured by the idyllic romanticism of the village. He did not complete his studies in Shantiniketan. He came back to Calcutta to catch up with his western music and Hollywood films. This urban-philia has got rubbed off in Ray’s construction of Apu. Ray’s Apu has become a symbol of a newly independent nation’s march towards modernization.
Bibhuti Bhushan’s Apu, on the other hand, is torn between the pull of the outer world and the pull of Nishchindipur. For him, Nishchindipur is his microcosm – the place where he spent his wonder years, where he learnt his letters and had his first stirrings of manhood. In Nishchindipur, Apu spent hours sitting under a tree or perched on a fishing scaffold and reading books from his neighbor’s library. While the gentle breeze of Nishchindipur nurtured his body, his mind raced to the snow-capped mountain or the dreary desert.
“One day he opens his father’s trunk and discovers a book titled Sarva Darshan Grantha or ‘The Book of All Wisdom’. He opens the old book gingerly and a colony of silverfish escape in different directions. Apu brings the book close to his nostrils and fills his lungs with the smell of an old book.”
Another day, “Apu’s father secretly spends two rupees to buy a newspaper.” Apu is mesmerized by the newspaper – the real stories it carries of distant places and great people. “Apu’s father is a collector of rare books. Apu reads these books and wants to become like the characters of the books – Rosko who solves algebra problems on a leather surface using a blunt stick as his stylus, or the shepherd who studies maps when his cows happily graze in the meadows.“
In Aparajito the book, as well as the film, Apu, insists on joining school and quench his thirst for knowledge through the rigour of academics. In Bibhuti Bhushan’s Aparajito, in between his school hours, Apu continues to perform his task as the village priest. But in Ray’s Apu Trilogy on the other hand, we never see Apu performing his priestly rites. As a matter of fact, we do not see his father performing these rites either, even though we know that priesthood is Harihar’s livelihood. Perhaps Ray’s aversion for rituals has been reflected in this absence.
All the films of the trilogy end in a journey. In Pather Panchali, the family uproots itself from the ancestral home and moves on in search of greener pastures. In Aparajito, Apu serves his ties with the pastoral past and in Apur Sansar, Apu finally wins the confidence of his son and shoulders his responsibility. Father and son move on towards an unknown destiny.
In Bibhuti Bhushan’s Aparajito, Apu finds fulfillment in taking Kajol to the broken down hut, the place he calls his ancestral home:
“Kajol came and stood by the jungle beside his grandfather’s broken down-home. A sudden breeze welcomed him – and the breeze brought with it the spirit of his grandfather Harihar, his grandma Sarbajaya, his aunt Durga. They all smiled at Kajol and said, ‘welcome home. You are the bearer of the family torch. You have our blessings.’”
By taking Kajol back home, Apu resolves the dilemma in his mind – the dilemma between being rooted and being on the move. Thus Bibhuti Bhushan completes the cycle. Pramathanath Bishi writes in the preface to Pather Panchali, “A snake is the metaphor for time. A snake can have two forms – the straight form and the coiled form. Time too can be linear or cyclic. In our everyday life, we are used to the linearity of time. But the eternal child resides over the coiled figure of time, where time winds up to a point. Bibhuti Bhushan has been able to transform time into a point – an eternity. There lies the mystery of the timelessness of Pather Panchali.”
Ray’s treatment of time in Apu trilogy is linear – like an unwound snake, its energy unleashed. Apu moves on in life. After Apu Trilogy, Ray’s Apu recurs in several later films, each time in a different name, but having the same qualities of being untouched by the complexities of life, unvanquished by its challenges. So Apu lived on even after its original creator Bibhuti Bhushan died in 1950.
But did Apu die a peaceful death on 23rd April 1991?
Pramathanath Bishi writes that Apu is an eternal child. Apu is not a being of flesh and blood. Apu is an idea – not an apparition, but a luminous spirit – a spark from the flame of creation that had fallen on the pristine greenery of Nishchindipur many years back.
Twenty two years after Satyajit Ray’s death, Kaushik Ganguli brought the luminous spirit out of the bottle in his film Apur Panchali. Apur Panchali begins in a documentary style, with the protagonist Arka, an SRFTI student, looking for the guy who had played the role of Apu in Pather Panchali. The reason for the search is to deliver a letter from the Government of Germany, who have chosen Apu to be the most celebrated child character in world cinema.
And why did the protagonist take up the search for Apu as his personal mission? In his own words, “It makes me feel a part of the Pather Panchali team.”
Arka finds Apu in 32/27 Chandi Ghosh Road, a small house in a by-lane of south Calcutta, recluse and slightly bitter with life. Just as Apu’s eyes were opened by Durga through the tear in the bedsheet, Subir Banerjee’s gaze was turned outer world by Arka’s knock at the door – as if it was a cue to the spectator that Apu’s new journey is about to begin.
If Ray absorbed the qualities of Apu during his two years of companionship with Pather Panchali, how much of Apu was brushed off on the tender shoulders of Subir Banerjee during the four years spent on the little road?
The innocent-looking child that Bijoya Ray (Satyajit Ray’s wife) had spotted on the terrace of her neighbours, is now a weather-beaten, ‘vanquished?’ widower. Above everything else, he is strongly resentful of being called Apu. At one level, Apur Panchali is about how Apu’s fate was transferred on his impersonator Subir Banerjee. Like Apu, Subir has a friend and confidant in Moloy, who is instrumental in sealing Subir’s wedlock, like Apu, Subir is woken up from his sleep/ reverie when his father’s condition gets critical and Subir’s mother’s stoic stance in keeping the family going is reminiscent of Sarbojoya’s daily struggle in keeping her hearth warm. Apu’s wife Aparna had died of childbirth, leaving behind Kajol whom Apu did not want to face for five years. Subir’s wife died of grief having lost her child in childbirth. Both Apu and Subir were grieved by their wives’ death and both withdrew from the worldly life. Apu left Kolkata and took up a job at a colliery. He destroyed the manuscript of the book he was writing. Subir stayed on in Kolkata and withdrew into a shell. He took voluntary retirement and thrived on his meager pension and paltry house rent.
The spirit of the unvanquished had temporarily deserted both Apu and Subir. In Apur Sansar, Apu’s son Kajol was the catalyst that brought back the spirit of the unvanquished in Apu. In Apur Panchali, Subir’s new friend Arka was the catalyst. In Arka’s company, Subir slowly begins to relive his years as Apu. He takes Arka to Boral and shows him around, “this is the room my sister died, my aunt used to sit here in the evenings and this is the broken-down wall from where we came and went.”
Through much of the second half of the film, we see Arka gradually transforming into Subir’s son. First Arka brings his father’s clothes for Subir. Then they become close buddies on the night they drink together and Arka decides to spend the night in Subir’s home. Finally, the airport duty officer mistakes them for father and son. They do not deny the relationship imposed on them. In the penultimate scene of the film, we see ‘father and son’ – Apu and Kajol, climbing the escalator on their way to board the aircraft. For Apu it would be his first plane journey. For Kajol, it would be his first plane journey in business class. The plane has replaced the train of Apu trilogy. But like the Apu trilogy, the arrow of time continues to point forward.
Or does it?
In the last scene of Apur Panchali, Subir finally says ‘yes’ to a little boy’s query whether he is Apu. Subir is finally at peace with the Apu in him. As the little procession with the Durga idol passes him, he continues his journey along the dust track of the village. It is an inward journey, celebrating the spirit of the unvanquished.
Thus, in skilfully juxtaposing two journeys – the outward journey to Germany and the inward journey to ‘the cave of one’s heart’, Kaushik Ganguly has brought out the dual nature of time. While time is linear and forward-looking, it is also coiled to an eternity. The eternal child Apu dances on this coil.
Apu is the recurring motif not only of Ray but of Indian cinema. Let us wait for his reincarnation.
- Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali, Mitra & Ghosh Publishers
- Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay, Aparajito, Mitra & Ghosh Publishers
- Preface to Bibhuti Rachanabali Part 1 by Pramathanath Bishi
- Preface to Bibhuti Rachanabali Part 2 by Jitendranath Chakrabarty