Even if you live in the same city or town your whole life, the place you came from is always a distant country: Old trees are cut down to be replaced, one hopes, by new ones; shops and businesses change ownership or, worse, are torn down; landmarked buildings may stay approximately the same, but even then, new dust settles on them every day, to be swept or washed away and replaced by yet more dust. You begin saying goodbye to where you’re from the moment you’re born; you may come back for a visit, but you’re never coming back to exactly the same place.
Maybe that’s why the experience of watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy — movies adapted from two works by Indian novelist Bibhutibhushan Banerjee and set in a country many of us will never even visit — can be both a source of great joy and the catalyst for a deep wistfulness that can take hours, maybe days, to shake. These three pictures, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and Apur Sansar (1959), follow a boy named Apu as he becomes a teenager, a promising student, and then a grownup with a wife and son. The trilogy seems to be held dear by nearly everyone who sees the films, beginning with the first audiences for Pather Panchali in Cannes in 1955; it won a then-newly introduced prize there, for Best Human Document.
Ray, who drew inspiration from the Italian neorealists and Jean Renoir (the latter a friend and adviser), hadn’t planned to make a sequel; he decided to follow Apu’s journey further only after Pather Panchali was so warmly received. But there’s even more to the story than that, a narrative that pits the permanence of great film artistry against the fragility of celluloid. The Apu Trilogy has survived against all odds.
In 1992, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was preparing to give the ailing Ray a lifetime-achievement Oscar (he would die less than a month after receiving the award, at age seventy), researchers gathering prints of his movies were alarmed at their poor condition. In 1993, as part of an initiative to restore the films, original negatives were shipped to a film lab in London — only to be severely damaged, seemingly beyond repair, in a fire at the lab later that year. Until now, most of us who have been lucky enough to see the Apu Trilogy have had to peer at its extraordinary and delicate black-and-white imagery through scratches and murky shadows. But the Criterion Collection — with the help of L’Immagine Ritrovata, a restoration facility in Bologna, Italy, that put in nearly 1,000 hours’ worth of hand labor — has almost miraculously returned the Apu Trilogy to its original, glorious state.
Our protagonist is not yet born as Pather Panchali (its English title: Song of the Little Road) opens, and that gives us an advantage: We see what Apu’s world was like before there was an Apu. He has an older sister, Durga (played as a little girl by Shampa “Runki” Banerjee and as a young teenager by Uma Das Gupta), and a harried mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee, “little” Durga’s mother in real life), who is beginning to lose patience with her husband, Hari (Kanu Banerjee). Hari comes from a long line of writers and has failed to make a comfortable living for his little family. They live in rural Bengal, near an orchard they owned in better times; it has been sold off to a neighbor, but Durga keeps getting herself in trouble by sneaking in to steal guavas. She gives the fruit directly to her adored and aged live-in Auntie, a mischievous, bent-over wraith who appears to be somewhere between eighty and 110.
That’s the setting into which Apu (Subir Banerjee) arrives — an ordinary prince among men, and certainly a prince among his family, who adore him even when his impishness exasperates them. In Aparajito (The Unvanquished), a tragedy has prompted the family to move to the city, but this small metropolis isn’t enough to hold Apu. Now an eager teenage student, he goes off to school in Kolkata, leaving his mother to pine for him. For every child who doesn’t call home enough, Apu’s entwined thoughtlessness and ambition are like a universal pin-stab.
And in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Apu becomes a husband — a surprise to everyone around him, including himself. He isn’t exactly what his young wife, Aparna, expected, either, but their love grows at a steady, tender pace. We see that they’re going to be okay when Aparna, attempting to rise from bed one morning, needs to yank the tail of her sari free; it has been pinned beneath the heavy form of the sleeping Apu, who, it turns out, is not really sleeping at all. The glance of a joke that passes between them, telegraphed by Apu’s wicked, half-awake smile and Aparna’s mock annoyance, is one of the most wryly charming depictions of young married life on film.
Movies aren’t life. They’re a filmmaker’s conception, they’re art, they’re craft, they’re commerce. Yet for me, the Apu Trilogy is inseparable from life. If these aren’t the most beautiful movies ever made, they’re the most beautiful ones I know. They’re comedy and tragedy, joy and grief, old age and premature death. They’re hello and goodbye, so artfully conjoined that you can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins. You can go home again — just not back to your own.