Let me start with the extras on this Criterion DVD.
The first segment is an interview of film critic, Ujjal Chakraborty, who explains the symbolism in the film through its various scenes and motifs. He draws from Ray’s storyboards, his cover designs and illustrations to explain Ray’s visual style though some of the examples of symbolism seemed a little stretched.
That is followed by a conversation with Satyajit Ray recorded in August 1958, when he visited USA. The interview is about his early filmmaking career, followed by a fairly detailed description of the making of Aparajito. Ray talks about composing his visuals and adding on music in great detail, confessing that “I like a bit of a rough edge to my films”.
After that, there is a video-essay with narration by Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer. If you are a Ray aficionado, you’d probably have read much of this (in Robinson’s biography itself) but there is still a lot of charm to hear it in Robinson’s voice.
The final piece is an absolute gem – a half-hour documentary made for Canadian television in 1967. Part of a series called ‘A Creative Person’, the short film shows him talking extensively about his though process during the filmmaking process and also shows him shooting with Uttam Kumar (on Chiriakhana), with him actually operating the camera and instructing actors. There are some extremely valuable scenes showing Ray location hunting and composing for (for Gupi Gayin Bagha Bayin) and explaining his choices. He is also doing something that later became a trademark – collecting props from a classmate’s palatial house for use in his films. The documentary also has his chief technicians – Subrata Mitra and Bansi Chandragupta – talk about their experiences of working with him. His actors are interviewed including Madhabi who speaks in Bengali, with Soumitra translating it to English (both of them on sets and in costume for some period drama). The film gives an idea of Ray’s celebrity status (even when he was just a decade into making films) when he is mobbed by a huge crowd as he comes out of a location.
Ray’s very articulate self is intercut with scenes from Calcutta of that times (including some shots of browsing books on College Street). About Calcutta, he says, “[it is a] rich and dense and complex city… intellectually alert… people are constantly reacting to things… and as a filmmaker, that’s what interests me…”
The extras are a sumptuous, juicy dessert after the feast of a film.
The restored version of Aparajito brings alive the dazzling power of the Kashi Vishwanath temple aarti, the aging elegance of Varanasi, the crumbling walls of the city, the intricate carvings inside mandirs and the dramatic light and shadow of the night scenes.
And yet, the enhanced visual delight is just a support to the wonderful screenplay – of what is essentially a rambling story – that brings a certain pace to the proceedings. In his usual unobtrusive way, Ray paints some cruel pictures that are distressingly real. The casual ease with which a young boy leaves his sick father to burst Diwali crackers or gets over his father’s death is something picked up from real life and yet, something commercial cinema has never been able to depict.
Even the small characters like the lecherous Nanda Babu and the idealistic school Headmaster are so well-written and lovingly detailed that there is never a boring moment. (And yes, the caricature of the headmaster on the school wall was done by Ray himself.)
Karuna Banerjee’s performance as Sarbajaya is surely one of the finest acting performances in Indian cinema. Apart from her speech and facial expressions, even her body language evolves in the film as she goes from being a sheltered wife to a strong single bread earner to a neglected mother. The dark circles under her eyes, the roughness of her hair, the frailness of her gait, the gradual wilting of her voice all add up to a towering performance.
While Hindi cinema is about the bombastically sacrificial mother, Sarbajaya exemplifies the ‘strong silent type’ who sacrifices a lot because she is determined not to let her son become a rich household’s minion. Her limited world view makes her want her son to become a priest in the family traditions but when the son’s strong ambitions are made clear, she is the one who finds the funds to make it possible. When the young Apu says “Maa, ami schooley jabo” (Maa, I want to go to school) and asks her for money, her helplessness gives way to a resolve, one that only mothers are capable of.
She is obviously not keen on her son going away and her argument with Apu about his future in Calcutta is a distressing one because it is the sort of argument that parents always lose, or maybe they want to lose. Again, her grief gives way to resolve and the scene in which Sarbajaya packs Apu’s suitcase is so well-written and well-performed that you don’t realise that both the writer and actor are just two films old.
When Apu comes back home from Calcutta, Sarbajaya recounts her fears of disease and death to him while – oblivious to all that – a tired Apu drifts off to sleep. One is reminded of a similar scene in Pather Panchali when Sarbajaya rambled to Harihar and her husband too drifted off to sleep. From son to husband (and maybe her father before that), Sarbajaya is the Indian Everywoman.
In the final scenes, when she resignedly says “Shey jodi ashey to nijei ashbey” (He will come on his own if he has to), it just brings a heartbreaking curtain down on her life of struggles.
To bring this to an end, I will link a letter Mrinal Sen’s son wrote to his mother about the impact Aparajito had on a group of Indian students in the US in mid-1980s. I think it brings alive at least a part of what I felt during this viewing of Aparajito.
The last time I watched Aparajito, I was on Apu’s side. This time, I had shifted over to Sarbajaya’s. I think this is what distinguishes a master’s works from those by lesser mortals. The work has a new relevance and a new meaning every time you watch it.
[Frivolous Footnote: In one scene, Apu gleefully tells his friend that he has ‘managed’ to wriggle out of going home for the vacations by sending a money order to his mother. His belief that his mother would be satisfied with the money reminded me of Deewaar, where another son tried to buy his mother’s support for his wrongdoings.]