A young man named Apurba Kumar Roy – or Apu – has recently graduated from school. Apu is encouraged by his teacher to attend university, but he cannot afford it. After having lost his entire family due to tragic circumstances, he tries to find a job. Though unemployed, he manages to get by providing private tutoring lessons. He seeks to write a novel based off of his own life with the intent to publish it one day. Things take a turn for the interesting when an old friend, Pulu, invites Apu to attend the wedding of his cousin.
The very premise of Apur Sansar – or The World of Apu – has Satyajit Ray’s narrative take a decidedly meta turn. Apu seeks to write a story inspired by his life – much like how Mr. Ray decided to direct a trilogy of films inspired by his own experiences growing up in Bengal. It’s about the closest one can get to breaking the fourth wall without actually doing so. Apu’s grand aspirations are also deconstructed insofar that much of the reason why he is in such dire straits is because he considers manual labor and clerical work beneath him. A strange twist of fate eventually causes him to discard this mentality.
Pulu’s family immediately takes a shine to Apu and the festivities begin shortly thereafter. However, the bridegroom proceeds to have a mental breakdown. When it is determined that he is completely insane, the mother of the bride cancels the wedding. This scenario presents a problem. According to traditional Hindu beliefs, a young bride must be wedded off during the appointed hour of the arranged ceremony. If this does not come to pass, the bride, Aparna, shall remain the rest of her days unmarried. As it turns out, there is one eligible man who can save her form this fate. Despite Apu never even having been in a romantic relationship, Pulu and his family ask him to marry Aparna. He initially protests, but relents and agrees to marry her. After the fact, Apu himself notes the irony of going to a wedding only to return with the bride.
His new life ends up drastically changing his views. While he previously looked down upon the idea of manual labor, he realizes that his current lifestyle cannot support a married life. He proceeds to take up a clerical job, allowing him to support the relationship while also getting to spend much more time with his new wife. Although the two of them didn’t know each other before they got married, they quickly fall in love. Sadly, as is a reoccurring theme throughout the Apu Trilogy, these good times are not to last.
Pather Panchali weaved a narrative driven primarily by random events outside of the protagonist’s control. As Apu was a child at the time, this made sense. After all, for most children, their parents control a majority of the aspects of their lives. He made his first impactful decision at the end of the film wherein he saved his sister from being posthumously disgraced. Aparajito started off similarly, but the nature of the narrative changed drastically when Apu made the life-altering decision to go to school. For the duration of the film’s runtime, the title character actively drove the plot. There were plenty of uncontrollable elements abound, most notably the death of his mother, but otherwise, he had evolved as a character.
Apur Sansar goes in an interesting route compared to its predecessors. If Pather Panchali featured a passive protagonist and Aparajito saw him gain agency, Apur Sansar makes the argument that, no matter how much control you think you have over your life, things can still go tragically wrong completely out of the blue. eventually becomes pregnant with Apu’s child. Unfortunately, she dies while delivering the child. Medical knowledge wasn’t especially advanced in the 1930s, so Aparna’s fate likely befell countless women at the time in India.
Despite having lost his entire family, Apu soldiered on, and just when he found happiness once more, he lost it almost immediately. While he still held on, Aparna’s tragic passing is enough to make him lose his idealism. This is punctuated when Apu holds his child, Kajal, responsible for killing her. He then proceeds to wander aimlessly around India for the next five years, abandoning all of his responsibilities. To show that the once-optimistic man is well and truly gone, he eventually discards the manuscript for his novel – his story now permanently lost to the ether. When he reappears, it’s nearly impossible to believe he’s even the same person.
Apu leaves Kajal with the child’s maternal grandparents, but it’s clear they lack the capacity to care for him. As a direct callback to his aunt’s story, Kajal is seen stealing food from his neighbors. Realizing Kajal will only become worse if nothing is done, Pulu demands that Apu finally accept his responsibility as a parent. Apu eventually makes the right decision. Because this is the first time Kajal has ever seen his father, the reunion isn’t exactly ideal. Nevertheless, the child eventually accepts Apu as a friend and the two of them return to Kolkata. It’s a beautifully bittersweet note upon which to end the trilogy. Apu has had an incredibly difficult life, yet even after all everything that has happened to him, a real ray of hope exists.
Just like its predecessor, what allows Apur Sansar to succeed as a sequel is that Mr. Ray does not settle for retreading old ground. There are many developments that successfully bookend the trilogy, yet the story never completely repeats itself. Admittedly, I do feel it isn’t quite as good as Aparajito because certain elements make the drama feel a little forced and unnatural. Even so, I do appreciate that Mr. Ray never felt the need to make his narrative overly melodramatic, which is a very common trapping in films such as this. As usual, the beauty of these films lies in the director’s ability to capture life and its numerous ups and downs. There is not a single weak entry in this trilogy, and it deserves to be watched from beginning to end regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a cinematic connoisseur.
Final Score: 7/10