The World of Apu (Ray, 1959)

It’s amazing how each film within Satyajit’s Ray’s Apu Trilogy has it’s own tone and pace. Each accords itself to where Apu is in his life: the childhood lyricism of Pather Panchali, the hard realism of Aparajito, and finally the romantic devastation of The World of Apu. It is in this final film that Ray uses a more traditional narrative scope, i.e. Apu gets married, Apu loses wife, Apu feels sorry for himself, Apu returns a changed man. But none of this feels traditional, or melodramatic, or pat. Ray has given the viewer so much back-story, a lifetime of subtext to take into account, that Apu’s reactions/decisions make perfect sense. He’s never made the right choice the first time around, whether it be his disregard for his mother in Aparajito or his breakdown in The World of Apu, but this complexity is what makes him human. In The World of Apu, his ideology changes so many times, even more so than in Aparajito. At the beginning, Apu rides high on the idea of writing a novel about his life, flexing his individuality and creativity. Then he falls in love, then he loses that love. Apu is Ray’s ping pong ball in expressing the back and forth, push pull relationship of life, and this dichotomy makes The Apu Trilogy one of the most humane and crucial parts of film history. Without a shred of violence, false pretense, or self indulgence, Ray reveals more about Apu than we can see at first glance. For the first time in The World of Apu, the motif of the train has gone completely audible, the screaming of the whistle heard but not seen. When the dynamic story shift finally hits, the train becomes physical again, both what carries Apu’s wife away from him the final time and also a means for Apu to attempt suicide. It’s as if Ray is telling us we can never escape the physical and spiritual components that have played such an important role in our development. Apu is often flanked by an endless backdrop, a train in the distance, or vast cityscapes that confuse and explicitly reveal his psychology. In one breathtaking shot, Apu is caught between the smoke of the train and the smoke of the coal burning fire his wife has just built. It’s a brilliant foreshadowing to the complications his life is about to experience, and it’s just one of the many times Ray uses visuals to compliment Apu’s thinking. The World of Apu is indeed more literal and classic than the previous films, but it’s style fits this particular segment in Apu’s life. The film ends on a two-shot of Apu and his son, an image that fills the screen and completes the cycle Ray has explored. Unlike the countless long shots of Apu by himself, this ending dares to show how the mistakes, the successes, the trials and tribulations of a life, can finally lead you back home toward happiness.

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