There is a middle section of Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) that is so exquisitely joyful and romantic that it almost erases all the heartache that has otherwise defined Satyajit Ray’s landmark trilogy.
After meeting Apu as a boy in Pather Panchali, where he lost his father and sister, and following him into adolescence in Aparajito, where we witnessed the death of his mother, we finally see Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) experiencing happiness. Following a hasty, unexpected marriage to a wealthy young girl named Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), Apu brings her back to his hovel in Calcutta, where he works hard as a tutor while striving to complete a novel. After a rough start, the two eventually find themselves perfectly matched, something Ray captures in a lovely montage of bare-bones domestic bliss.
Not that Ray has to do much more than let the camera rest on the actors as they take turns fanning each other. Chatterjee and Tagore have an electric chemistry from their first moments together, a tentative wedding night scene that takes place in an elaborately decorated bedroom. She stands still, expectant, on one side of the bed, while Apu paces back and forth on the other, asking across a sea of expensive fabrics and beads, “Can you live with a poor husband?”
Note that I said this romance takes up only the middle section of Apur Sansar, for it will return to the subject of grief before long. In fact, the movie seems less interested in the grand themes of the previous two films – modernity vs. tradition, patriarchy vs. feminism – than it is in burrowing into the personal experience of Apu, particularly once loss greets him again.
Apu’s eventual exile, interestingly, returns him to the woods – that place he had fled so often as a young man in search of the progress of the city. Apur Sansar is something of a lament over that decision, especially in the way it inverts the symbolic significance of trains. Previously a promise of modernity – especially the siren song of their whistles – here they carry negative connotations. Looking out over the rail yard from his apartment, Apu wrinkles his nose at the smoke the trains belch into the air. When Aparna hears their screeching, she covers her ears. And, in a moment that echoes Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., of just a few years earlier, the train tracks also nearly become the site of suicide.
And so Apur Sansar, like its predecessors, will ultimately wring you out, even if it manages to end on a note of hope. The final moments bring things full circle in a deeply satisfying way that I won’t fully reveal here. Suffice it to say Apur Sansar concludes as another boy – a bit naughty and very curious, much like Apu at that age – leaves behind the way of the past for a promising, unpredictable future.