One of international cinema’s crowning achievements, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, had a near-miraculous birth in the 1950s. When he started shooting the first of the three films, Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Ray was a graphic artist working in advertising who had never directed a movie before. Though his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, went on to become a world-acclaimed cinematographer, at the time he was a still photographer and had never shot a movie before. They met while working on Jean Renoir’s The River, Ray as a location scout and Mitra as a production assistant.
And yet the very first scene that the pair of greenhorn filmmakers ever shot – a sequence in which the Bengali boy Apu and his sister Durga run through a field of waving wheat to see the newfangled train that is passing their village for the first time, in the 1920s – is regarded as a masterpiece of cinematography. It caught the eye of John Huston, who was in India working on The Man Who Would Be King at the time of the scene’s completion, which had already exhausted Ray’s meager production budget. Huston and Renoir both helped to get the word out, and with small infusions of financial help from many sources, over a period of three years, Ray got his first feature finished.
Finally released in 1955, Pather Panchali wowed audiences and reviewers and won major awards across the globe, including Best Human Document at the Cannes Film Festival. Financing to complete the saga of Apu as a youth and a grown man, based on two semi-autobiographical novels by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, flowed more easily once Ray’s reputation was established, and Aparajito (The Unvanquished) was released in 1956 and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959.
Separately and together, the films in the Apu Trilogy are routinely named to lists of the greatest films ever made anywhere, and they put India on the map as a wellspring of serious cinema. “Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture,” wrote Roger Ebert of Satyajit Ray in 2001. And the three movies’ gorgeous musical scores served to establish the fame of then-unknown sitar master Ravi Shankar. Aparajito is also renowned amongst film students as being the first instance of the use of “bounce lighting,” a technique invented by the resourceful Mitra to simulate daylight. It’s a standard tool of the lighting technician’s trade now, used in both motion and still photography.
In the estimation of Japan’s greatest movie director, Akira Kurosawa, “Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon.” But for several decades now, the only prints available for screening have been old and deteriorated. Then, in 1992, tragedy struck. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was planning to award Ray a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, and wanted new prints made from the original negatives in order to edit a montage for the awards ceremony. But a fire broke out at the London facility where the work was being done, and most of the original footage was soon toast.
Then came the second near-miracle in the life of Apu (third, if you count the bizarre circumstances of the character’s wedding in the third installment): In 2013, the Criterion Collection and the Academy Film Archive took the remnants of the negatives and the best-preserved archived prints of the three films to a facility called L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, which used new restoration technology to piece together a reasonable facsimile of the original. It’s reported that degradation of image is barely noticeable in the new restored prints, and the good news for mid-Hudsonites is that Upstate Films in Rhinebeck is going to be screening the three parts of the Apu Trilogy between May 15 and 21. If you consider yourself a cinema buff at all, you really owe it to yourself to see these beautiful movies whose universality of appeal never fades with time.
For the total immersion experience, come to Upstate this Sunday, May 17, when the entire trilogy will be shown in sequence: Pather Panchali at 12:15 p.m., Aparajito at 2:45 p.m. and Apur Sansar at 6:15 p.m. There will be a 90-minute dinner break between the second and third parts, and ticketholders will be entitled to a 15 percent discount at the Sunday buffet at Cinnamon Indian Cuisine just south of Rhinebeck. Individual screenings of the three components of the series are scheduled as follows: Pather Panchali, Friday, May 15 at 6:15 p.m. and Monday, May 18 at 5:30 p.m.; Aparajito, Saturday, May 16 at 3:50 p.m. and Tuesday, May 19 at 5:45 p.m.; and Apur Sansar, Wednesday, May 20 at 5:45 p.m. and Thursday, May 21 at 7:45 p.m.
Tickets to screenings at Upstate Films cost $10 general admission, $6 for members. For more information, call (845) 876-2515 or visit www.upstatefilms.org.
Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy restored, Friday-Thursday, May 15-21, $10/$6, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, www.upstatefilms.org.