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Satyajit Ray’s 'Apu Trilogy,' now restored, is a masterpiece

Satyajit Ray’s trilogy about a Bengali boy's life is the greatest extended achievement in movie history. Through the efforts of restorers, a marvelously reconstructed digital restoration is now opening theatrically around the world.

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    Apu (the late Smaran Ghosal) arrived in Calcutta, India, to study in ‘Aparajito,’ the 1957 film that was the second in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy.'
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Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy,” consisting of “Pather Panchali” (1955), “Aparajito” (1957), and “The World of Apu” (1959) – originally “Apur Sansar” – is, for me, the greatest extended achievement in movie history. The films follow the life of young Apu from his rural Bengali childhood through his university days in Calcutta, India, to his marriage and fatherhood. The entire range of human experience is poetically palpable in these luminous films to such a degree that seeing them is instantly life-changing. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said that “not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”

Although the films have been available for viewing on DVD or in often substandard 35-mm prints, the original negatives of the trilogy (along with several other Ray masterpieces) were burned in a South London warehouse fire in 1993. Two decades later, due to the incredible persistence of a team of restorers, some of whom rehydrated the charred reels frame by frame over thousands of hours, we have a marvelously reconstructed digital restoration that is now opening theatrically in cities across the United States and around the world. 

Special thanks for the restoration goes to Criterion’s Peter Becker; Janus Films; L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy; and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, which for decades has been restoring many of Ray’s movies, ever since he received an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, shortly before his death.

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The best way to experience this masterpiece, in Bengali with English subtitles, is all in one sitting – more than 5 hours in total. But even if the films are seen one at a time, over several days, the cumulative effect is overwhelming. (Of course, they must be seen in order.)

“Pather Panchali,” which was based, as were portions of its sequels, on two books by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, was Ray’s first film, and it expresses the ecstatic openness of a film artist newly discovering his medium. Ray, who loved Hollywood movies, had been working as an ad man in Calcutta, but a stint in London exposed him to the classic Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” that were to become major inspirations. When Jean Renoir came to India to film “The River,” Ray became his location scout. Hearing of the young man’s desire to film “Pather Panchali,” Renoir encouraged him to make it happen – which meant, for Ray, shooting on weekends, with an inexperienced cast and crew, whenever money could be found. But such is the intensity of this film that its hardscrabble origins in no way undercut its achievement. Quite the contrary. It is a wholly created work of art, graced with a peerless Ravi Shankar score, that reaches far beyond the merely ethnographic. Like many great films, especially by first-time directors, it has an almost predestined quality. This is a film that had to be made.

I had the extraordinary opportunity six years ago of being invited to Calcutta to lecture on Ray’s movies, and the trip gave me a unique insight into how the Bengali culture infused every aspect of his art. Ray was the first great Indian film artist, and his movies announced to the world the vast mother lode of material available to an artist’s eyes. Ironically, Bollywood-steeped Indian audiences could not subsidize Ray’s vision. Without the support, meager though it was, of Western audiences, Ray might not have had an ongoing career at all. 

His movies have a meditative languor, the stillness of deep contemplation, that audiences sometimes find too painstakingly slow. But stay with it: Entrancement is sure to follow. His movies bear reseeing just as great novels bear rereading. Whenever I find myself despairing that movies cannot reach the same pinnacles of achievement as literature, I remind myself of Ray. 

It’s not just “The Apu Trilogy.” Ray has probably made more great films than any other director. If these three capture you, here are some others that will also stay with you forever: “Devi,” “Three Daughters,” “Charulata,” “Days and Nights in the Forest,” “The Music Room,” “The Adversary,” and “The Home and the World.” But really, you can’t go wrong seeing just about any of his many movies. I hope this new restoration incites a clamor for his entire body of work. No film artist deserves it more. Grade: A+ (These films are not rated.)

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