*** WARNING: SPOILERS ***
The three films Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar form a trilogy, and, although each holds up well in itself, they are best viewed as a unity. Speaking on a purely personal note, I know of no greater achievement in cinema, and have certainly seen nothing that moves me more profoundly.
The twin themes of these films are progress and loss. The former implies the latter, and both are, in a sense, inevitable. This is, as all summaries must be, an over-simplification. Certainly, the loss of childhood, of innocence, of parents, is universal to the human condition. Growing up, progressing from childhood to maturity, is similarly inevitable. But Apu wills his progress: at least, he wills its direction. He always grapples with life, painful though it is. Only once, after the death of his wife (in the third film of the trilogy), does he turn his back upon life, but this crisis is temporary: the trilogy ends with Apu once again facing the future willingly, uncertain though it is.
It is this refusal to turn one's back, to stagnate, this refusal to renounce, that forms the backbone of this trilogy, and gives it a unity throughout its often disparate episodes. The central character of these films, Apu, always aspires towards becoming something greater, other than what he is. He wants to educate himself. This, in a western context, appears somewhat obvious, but, given Apu's background, education is something to strive towards, to struggle for; and Apu, despite great temptation, never abandons this struggle. It is not that he sees education as a means towards wealth or power: this is not, after all, anything so crude as a rags to riches story. But he does want to outgrow the village, to understand, and come to terms with life and the larger world outside. And in this he is, as is suggested by the title of the second film, aparajito, undefeated.
Over the three films, we see Apu progress from childhood to, perhaps, his early thirties. In this progression, we see his character develop through experience. This experience is often painful, and Apu is not always capable of rising above the pain. Perhaps no other film has depicted with such a terrible intensity the emotional pain of loss; but the vision, ultimately, is far from tragic. The last film - Apur Sansar - actually ends with a sense of joy. The joy is by no means unqualified: it has been hard won, and we, the audience, recognize its fragility. But it is, nonetheless, exhilarating.
Pather Panchali, the first of the trilogy, takes place some time early in the 20th century, and covers the years of Apu's early childhood. We see him born into a poverty-stricken family in rural Bengal. Later, we see Apu at play with his sister, Durga; we see him excited by the travelling players; we observe the uncomprehending wonder of Apu and Durga as they see a train for the first time. We are shown all those events of childhood that are apparently trivial, but which nonetheless shape the adult personality.
Apu's mother Sarbojaya (the superb Karuna Banerjee), is understandably harassed, trying to keep her family clothed and fed. The father, Harihar, is good-natured, other-worldly, and quite unpragmatic. With the family lives an aged aunt, Indir. She is a pathetic figure, helplessly eking out a meagre existence on the charity of those who barely have enough for themselves, and relying on Durga - with whom she has a close relationship - to supplement her inadequate diet with stolen fruit. Aware of her status, Indir generally speaks and acts in an ingratiating and conciliatory manner; but there is a repressed rage within her that bursts out on occasion. It is a magnificent performance from the aged actress Chunibala Devi. Sarbojaya has no patience with this old woman, and takes little trouble to hide the fact that she is unwanted. This is not out of deliberate cruelty, or indifference: it is simply that looking after her own immediate family is burden enough. The old woman, desparately trying to retain the last vestiges of her dignity, is forever storming out, attempting to find a roof to shelter under from some other relative. But she keeps returning: even a hostile roof, after all, is preferrable to none. It is a picture of desperation which moves the heart beyond mere pity. There is one particularly heart-rending scene where she sits in the dark singing of death in her old, cracked voice.
This first part of the trilogy ends in tragedy - Durga's death - and I know of nothing in cinema that delivers so powerful an emotional punch. It took me quite unawares at first viewing, and even on repeated viewings, it moves me like nothing else I have seen. Particularly unforgettable is Apu's final, quiet act of love for his dead sister, which really needs to be seen in its proper dramatic context to be appreciated. It is the end of a chapter in the family's life, and they move on. The sense of loss is overwhelming.
This is perhaps the best film ever made about childhood. I watch the entire trilogy about once every year, and wonder afresh at what cinema, at its best, is capable of achieving.