Aparajito, the second film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, opens with the camera looking out the window of a train, that symbol of modernity from Pather Panchali. As it races across a bridge and steel beams flash by, we leave the country for the city. Aparajito will go on to eloquently dramatize similar oppositions: tradition versus invention; religion versus science; adolescence versus adulthood. All square off in the life of Apu, and indeed in his heart.
Now settled in the city of Banares, where his father (Kanu Banerjee) earns occasional money as a priest for hire and his mother (Karuna Banerjee) keeps an apprehensive eye on their close-quarter neighbors, Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) has turned the shrines and alleys, river and stairways, into his personal playground. Ray’s camera is always in search of the boy, managing to find him even when he’s peeking from corners while playing a game of hide and seek.
The most remarkable shot in the film, though, is one involving not Apu, but his mother. After the family’s fate is altered once again, she must decide whether to remain with her employers as their cook or move back to a rural life with her uncle. As she walks down a stairway distracted by her thoughts, each tentative step bringing her closer, the camera patiently holds. Then, just as she comes close enough for her face to fill the frame, there is a whistle and a swish pan into a shot of a train racing across the tracks.
As Apu’s mother, Karuna Banerjee strikes such a chord that Aparajito becomes her film as much as it is his.
Here and elsewhere, you can sense Ray experimenting even beyond the intricate camerawork he exhibited in Pather Panchali. In a sense, Aparajito offers a formalistic maturation that somewhat mirrors the thematic maturation of Apu. The music, once again by Ravi Shankar, similarly stretches. There are still traditional Indian arrangements – largely reserved for the scenes of religious ceremonies – yet also impressionistic flourishes of the kind you would hear in a contemporary film score. (Notice the ominous, wavering hums when Apu’s mother falls ill.)
As Apu’s mother, Karuna Banerjee strikes such a chord that Aparajito becomes her film as much as it is his. She takes three of the central strands of motherhood – joy, longing and sadness – and manages to weave them together in almost every scene. The moments near the end, after Apu has left her to pursue his studies in Calcutta, are sorrowful and doom-laden. Is her future that of aged auntie (Chunibala Devi) in Pather Panchali, whose family abandoned her to a lonely death in the woods? Another callback to the first film takes place when Apu tells his mother about his desire to leave. There is a close-up of her crestfallen face as we hear the scream of a train in the background – reminding us of the excited gleam little Apu used to get in his eyes whenever a train passed by his village when he was a boy.
Aparajito charts Apu’s growth from boy to young man, at which point he’s played by Smaran Ghosal. A lanky, smiling presence – often comical in his Western dress shoes and traditional robe – Apu throws himself into his studies while making occasional trips back home. These are delicate, touching scenes, as mother and son – though in agreement about his future – tiptoe their way around the reality of it. Apu’s final visit is a heartbreaking sequence, one whose emotion – once again – is fostered by Ray’s perfectly placed camera. As Apu rushes into the walled courtyard of their home in search of his mother, the camera remains outside, eventually tracking to the right in order to capture the desperate Apu coming out of another doorway. The camera doesn’t enter, because Ray (and we) know what Apu will eventually come to admit: he no longer belongs behind those walls.