Sounds of India on Film
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Now considered to be among cinema's milestones, Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy—comprising Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959)—didn't appear fully formed like Athena from Zeus's skull. A series of events—meeting director Jean Renoir, seeing Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves while on a visit to London, showing director John Huston early footage shot with amateurs, and getting government money to finish shooting—allowed Ray to make Pather Panchali, the debut that put Indian cinema decidedly on the international scene.
Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) won a special prize at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival for Best Human Document, and it is Ray's humanity that shines through every frame of these three films, which are based on two novels by Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay that make up a Bildungsroman of a Bengali boy's coming of age. (Ray designed the cover and drew illustrations for a children’s book of Pather Panchali, which inspired him to adapt it for his debut film.)
The first film in the trilogy introduces young Apurba Roy and his family: father Harihar, mother Sarbojaya, older sister Durga, and elderly aunt Indir. Ray observes the family members' relationships without approaching sentimentality or melodrama. We first see young Apu through a close-up of his staring from beneath a blanket covering his head. Since much of the trilogy is seen through Apu's point of view, this initial shot of the young boy is particularly revealing. In one of many memorable sequences in Pather Panchali, when Apu sees a train roaring by after having heard it many times without laying eyes on it, the train's thunderous power and movement are contrasted with Apu running up a hill to catch a glimpse. Ray's genius was to shoot the sequence without cutting between Apu and the train, instead showing them in the frame together, making the small boy's discovery even more extraordinary.
The details that Ray packs into his films are filled with the grace and radiance of ordinary life and death. Even their relative roughness—the opening sequences of Pather Panchali are especially affected by a novice director and colleagues feeling their way—works to their advantage. And the films' scores by sitar player extraordinaire Ravi Shankar—he completed the music for Pather Panchali in one 11-hour marathon session—are filled with the varied rhythms, energy, and emotion that are integral parts of Apu and his family's world.
After making the second Apu film, Aparajito ("The Unvanquished")—which chronicles an adolescent Apu dealing with tragedies at home while becoming a brilliant student—Ray did not think of giving the saga a final chapter until he was asked about it at the Venice Film Festival. He finished two other films, including the acclaimed The Music Room, then returned to Apu's story with Apur Sansar ("The World of Apu"). With Ray’s customary sensitivity, this final film in the trilogy follows the adult Apu starting his own family. The trilogy can be seen as the apogee of Ray's cinematic artistry, even if he would continue to create, until his death in 1992, many more portraits of deeply felt humanism.
Directed by Jean Renoir
After his contract with RKO studio in Hollywood ended prematurely, French director Jean Renoir decided not to stay in America nor return home to France. Instead, he worked with author Rumer Godden on adapting her 1946 novel about a British family in India, The River. The resulting 1951 drama—the first color film for both Renoir and his cinematographer (and nephew) Claude Renoir—has been called by director Martin Scorsese one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Indeed, its ravishing color palette encompasses the bluish-grey Ganges River, the reddish soil surrounding it, and the deep green lawns and foliage of the riverbank villages.
Ostensibly about how the appearance of a wounded young American soldier (Captain John) affects the lives of a trio of teenagers (Valerie, Melanie, and Harriet), The River also contains sequences that approach a documentary realism, in which Renoir shows the people of India living their ordinary lives in the fertile lands around the endlessly flowing river.
Although Renoir has an outsider's perspective that never lowers itself to Western condescension—the slight plot is no match for the glimpses of India itself as both location and metaphor—some criticisms were raised that Renoir concentrated on European characters at the expense of the Indians who lived and worked in the film’s actual locations. One such critic was none other than Satyajit Ray, who met Renoir when the latter scouted locations for The River in 1949; the veteran director encouraged the young Ray in his ambition to become a filmmaker.
Still, Ray was disappointed at what he saw onscreen: “I was looking forward with great eagerness to the prospect of a great director tackling the Indian scene. I could not help feeling that it was overdoing it a bit, coming all the way from California merely to get the topography right.”
For his part, Renoir was unapologetic about making a film set in India but not about Indians: "[The] book was not concerned with living conditions in India. What [Godden] and I tackled in our script was the story of an English family, the symbol that should be described by future historians (if historians are there to remain in centuries to come) as the end of an era." An era also ended for Renoir: Following his India experience, his films traded dark, satirical wit for a more benign, ethereal spirit.
Kevin Filipski has written about the arts for such publications as the New York Times and Time Out New York.