In the year 1920, a young boy named Apurba Roy – or Apu – has left his home in rural Bengal with his parents, Harihar and Sarbajaya, settling into an apartment in the bustling city of Varanasi. Working as a priest, Harihar has been making a decent amount of money, and with the tragic death his first child weighing on his mind, he is determined to make as good of a life as possible for Apu. The family couldn’t possibly have known at the time exactly what plans fate had in store for them.
Originally, Satyajit Ray had no intentions of ever creating a sequel to Pather Panchali. However, because of its critical and commercial success, he found himself compelled to continue the story, thus Aparajito – or The Unvanquished. Pather Panchali, by Mr. Ray’s own admission, featured a rambling narrative. Children, regardless of their background, typically have limited freedom, so it makes sense from a narrative standpoint that Pather Panchali would be driven by random events occurring to the protagonist and his family.
Taking place shortly after the events of Pather Panchali, Aparajito begins similarly. Mr. Ray presents his audience a day in the new life Apu and his family lead. Their lifestyle is still modest and low-key, but it’s a definite step up from their former squalid living conditions. At this point, the family is content – the only thing resembling a conflict is when monkeys get into their apartment, forcing an annoyed Sarbajaya to drive them out. Apu naturally adores the monkeys and feeds them whenever he can.
However, these good times are not to last. Shortly after finding stability, Harihar catches a fever. The doctors do what they can to save his life, but it is no use. As Harihar was the family’s breadwinner, this development places Apu and Sarbajaya between a rock and a hard place. Apu’s mother begins working as a maid, but his great-uncle arrives and encourages them to return to Bengal. They then settle in the village of Mansapota.
If Pather Panchali chronicled Apu’s early years, Aparajito shows what happens when a child finally begins to grow up. The previous film ended with Apu beginning to show agency when he threw a necklace that his sister stole into a pond, thus preserving her memory. Once he and his mother move to Mansapota, however, he seeks to deviate what his family expects out of him. He apprentices as a priest at first, but what he really wants is to attend the local school. This scene is especially powerful for anyone who grew up in a country with a strong educational system. While such countries often produced media in which kids are shown to hate school, Apu pines for what they take for granted. Notably, he has to persuade his mother to allow him to attend. Shortly thereafter, he impresses the headmaster with his aptitude. A few years later, he has succeeded enough to gain a scholarship. His new school happens to be in Kolkata – one of the largest cities in India.
What truly allows this film to succeed is that Apu’s interactions with his mother are amazingly nuanced. Sarbajaya is reluctant to see her son pursue these lofty goals, but it’s not for a selfish reason. Having lived her entire life in poverty, she doesn’t think Apu’s interest in science and art will amount to anything. She has only ever concerned herself with the short term out of pragmatism. There’s no sense in learning about these abstract concepts if you don’t have enough food to last the month, after all.
Apu convincing her of the education’s merits is compelling in that it’s a real conflict, yet Mr. Ray doesn’t feel the need to make it melodramatic. He calmly and politely explains to her just how much the world is changing and that, in the long term, he could make a better life for the both of them. What helps is that, while they don’t agree on everything, their affection for each other is very real. At one point, Apu deliberately misses a train so he can spend an extra day with his mother.
Alas, even with his newfound ability to think and act for himself, Apu still doesn’t have control over fate. In the final act, Apu becomes accustomed to city life and visits his mother less and less. Eventually, she falls ill, though she doesn’t disclose her affliction to Apu, worrying his studies will falter if she does. It’s not until his great-uncle writes to him that he learns of his mother’s illness. If the audience was expecting Apu to arrive back to see Sarbajaya one last time, the look on his great-uncle’s face tells them everything they need to know. Just like in real life, death can be sudden, disallowing that one final heartfelt moment between the dying and their loved ones commonplace in fiction. With the final apron string linking himself to his childhood forcibly severed, Apu rejects the idea of becoming a priest and returns to Kolkata.
It is a true testament to the quality of Aparajito that, going into the twenty-first century, it remained the only film sequel to ever win the grand prize at Venice, Berlin, or Cannes – some of the medium’s most prestigious festivals. This is especially notable because sequels were, and still are, largely shunned by film critics. It therefore stands to reason that Aparajito managed to be something truly special. Mr. Ray must have invented some kind of new film language that overrode common critical sensibilities – if only for a moment. However, I feel the reason it succeeded is actually very simple. Whereas complacent directors – or producers chasing the dollar – seek to give their audience more of the same, Mr. Ray went in a new direction with his canon. What was once a rambling narrative now has a cohesive plot partially driven by its protagonist’s actions. It was the perfect way to show that, while Apu had grown up, there were plenty of aspects of his life he still couldn’t control. In other words, Aparajito is exactly what any artist should strive for when creating a sequel.
For that matter, Mr. Ray’s work also has the honor of being the first to win the Golden Lion, Cinema Nuovo Award, and the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Award. The takeaway is that if this film appeared at a given awards show or festival, Mr. Ray likely walked away with the grand prize. All of those triumphs were well deserved, for Aparajito stands to this day as an exemplary film of its genre. It absolutely deserves to be seen by anyone even vaguely interested in the medium. His work manages to transcend the typical slice-of-life formula, offering those who usually find them boring with a compelling narrative they will want to see through to the end.
Final Score: 8/10