Satyajit Ray is probably the most acclaimed Indian filmmaker of all time, and was part of a film movement created in response to Indian popular cinema (the sort that eventually became known as Bollywood films). Known as Parallel Cinema, it was inspired by the Italian neo-realism of the 1940s, which in turn had a heavy influence from key Jean Renoir’s films. Ray also took much direct influence from Renoir but Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was the film that got him the filmmaking bug. In India, the Bengal region where Ray comes from has remained better known for artistic, independent films, in contrast to the broad, big-budget movies made in and around Mumbai on the country’s west coast.
The Apu Trilogy is Ray’s best-known film series, centred on a guy called Apu. There are definite parallels with the Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films starting with The 400 Blows: the first two films in the trilogy arrived before Truffaut’s film, the third in the same year. As the first, Pather Panchali, won a major award at Cannes in 1955 and Truffaut was a film critic, he surely would have seen it.
The films are based on a pair of popular Bengali-language novels by Bobhutibhusan Bandopadyay, and tell the story of Apu’s life from early childhood in a Bengali village to adulthood. In the first, Pather Panchali, you see Apu’s village life with a poor family that has to move around a lot. It’s about the circumstances they live in more than being a plot-driven film. In the second film, Aparajito, Apu’s family moves to the larger city of Varanasi, and the film follows him through school and college. By the third film, the story becomes a bit existential as adult Apu tries to make a life for himself in Kolkata.
All three films are very well shot – cinematographer Subrata Mitra was a still photographer, and Ray chose him on the basis of his photography. The budgets were not large, as Ray refused funding offers from anyone who wanted to mess with the script and so had to rely on his own savings and some small grants from the regional government arts fund. He ended up getting some extra money via the New York Museum of Modern Art on the recommendation of filmmaker John Huston, whom he met while Huston was looking for film locations in India.
All three films are very good. It’s interesting to see a very different side of Indian cinema, which has generally been hard to see in the UK. Some of Ray’s films have been released previously by Artificial Eye, but they kept going in and out of print, so it’s nice that Criterion has released a very good restoration. Scorsese is a big fan, so the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project was actioned via a collaboration between his Film Foundation, the Merchant and Ivory Foundation, and the Academy Film Archive.
If you like neo-realist films, The Apu Trilogy delivers a different take on that type of movie, one that has not been seen as widely as it should be. All three films also feature a score by Indian classical music virtuoso Ravi Shankar, long before he had been discovered by Western hippies. The films were critically acclaimed at the time, but not huge international hits.
This is a port of the 2015 Criterion box set. The restorations are fantastic, although there are some rough edges due to the when they were made, and the way they were made—they certainly look as good as they possibly could. There is a massive array of extras with the set, including archival footage with Ray, who died in the early 90s. Audio recordings of Ray reading an essay; an audio interview with him; audio conversations with film historian Gideon Bachmann and Ray; various interviews with cast, crew, film historians; video essays; various new and old documentaries; footage of Ray picking up his honorary Oscar in 1992 and documentary footage about the restoration project are all included. A booklet with essays, storyboards and more rounds off the set.