John Huston and Satyajit Ray. One might not think these two major directors had similar taste in movies. In the 1950s, Huston made “The African Queen” and “Moby-Dick”; Ray made the three films generally known as the Apu Trilogy: the epic story of Apu, a boy born in a village in India who struggles for education and recognition as a man in the cosmopolitan city of Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Yet when I was writing a biography of Ray in the 1980s, Huston sent me a letter about Ray and his work. “I recognized the footage as the work of a great filmmaker,” he wrote. “I liked Ray enormously on first encounter. Everything he did and said supported my feelings on viewing the film.”
The footage was from Ray’s maiden venture, “Pather Panchali,” the first entry in the trilogy. In 1954, Huston saw part of this film in a silent rough cut in India. He strongly recommended it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where “Pather Panchali” received its world premiere the next year, before it was released in London in 1957.
When eventually released in New York in 1958, “Pather Panchali” ran for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Cinema. Two years later, “Pather Panchali”; “Aparajito,” the middle installment, which had won the Golden Lion at the 1957 Venice Film Festival; and the final part, “The World of Apu” — all with music composed by Ravi Shankar — together entranced audiences, including a teenage Martin Scorsese.
Akira Kurosawa once said of “Pather Panchali”: “I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it. I have had several more opportunities to see the film since then, and each time I feel more overwhelmed. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.”
Just before Ray’s death, at 70 in 1992, he was given an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, at Scorsese’s prompting. Now, a new generation of filmgoers has a chance to discover Ray’s humane genius in a re-release of the Apu Trilogy after a lengthy and painstaking restoration by the Criterion Collection in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Each installment will play for one week at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, starting with “Pather Panchali” on Friday.)
Like all enduring works of art, the Apu Trilogy turns the particular into the universal. What makes it almost unparalleled in cinema is its fusion of poignancy, humor and poetry with remarkably little resort to the spoken word.
Huston’s crucial support came 10 years after Ray first contemplated telling the story. In 1944, he was a 23-year-old graphic designer in a British-run advertising agency in Calcutta, when a publisher asked him to illustrate a children’s edition of a classic Bengali novel, “Pather Panchali” (“Song of the Little Road”). As he worked on the illustrations, he became hooked on Apu and his elder sister, Durga. The publisher intrigued him by saying that the main story would make a very good film.
As the decade wore on, Ray became more and more interested in movies — chiefly European and Hollywood films, rather than the theatrical song-and-dance output of Indian cinema (today known as Bollywood). As a hobby, he began to write Bengali screenplays; with friends he founded the Calcutta Film Society; and in 1949 he was extremely fortunate to help Jean Renoir in his search for Bengal locations suitable for his forthcoming Hollywood film, “The River.” When Ray told Renoir the story of “Pather Panchali,” Renoir warmly encouraged him, even though Ray had neither filmmaking experience nor financial backing. Later in life, Ray would regard Renoir as his principal mentor.
A spell in London in 1950, working for his advertising agency, proved decisive. Here Ray was captivated by Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” closely followed by Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game.” The first film “gored” him, he later recalled. “I came out of the theater my mind fully made up. I would become a filmmaker. As soon as I got back home, I would go all out to find a sponsor for ‘Pather Panchali.’ I would make my film exactly as De Sica had made his: working with nonprofessional actors, using modest resources, and shooting on actual locations.”
Certainly, Ray’s resources were modest — like those of the film’s hero, Apu. Having failed to raise any interest from producers, Ray took the plunge and borrowed money against a life insurance policy and from relatives and friends. After he shot some footage in 1952, a producer came forward with financing, including a small salary for one cast member and one crew member, but the producer soon went bankrupt. Ray pawned his wife’s jewelry, but that just won him three or four more days of shooting. Production was suspended for almost a year, until mid-1954, when the government of West Bengal reluctantly took over the financing.
Most of the film, except for night scenes, was shot on location, a much-derided idea among Indian movie professionals at the time. A village only 6 miles from the center of Calcutta served as the atmospheric setting for Apu’s childhood encounters with, for example, neighbors both kind and mean, a grimly comical grocer-schoolmaster, an itinerant seller of sweets and a hungry stray dog. A field of swaying white pampas grass beside a railway line provided the memorable backdrop for perhaps the film’s most famous scene: Apu and Durga running after a roaring black steam locomotive.
But the cast didn’t consist entirely of nonprofessional actors. Apu’s priestly Brahmin father, his wizened and unforgettable auntie, two female neighbors and the schoolmaster were all played by film professionals, while Apu’s mother and sister were played by actresses with stage experience. Only some smaller roles were given to villagers. As for the young boy chosen for the role of Apu, after a long search, Ray’s wife spotted him playing on the roof next to their flat in south Calcutta. He looked perfect for the part. Later Ray discovered that the boy “couldn’t act at all” and required constant direction of his every gesture and spoken word.
You would never know this from watching “Pather Panchali.” So natural is the character Apu — and indeed almost every character, major and minor — that the film appears to be the work of a highly experienced director. That said, the cinematography and editing of the first half of the film lacks polish, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther pointed out in a decidedly mixed review, and as Ray himself acknowledged. By the time of “Aparajito” and “The World of Apu,” Ray was in total command. For all the rawness of life and emotion on the screen, these are works as sophisticated in technique and sensibility as the Indian civilization that produced their maker.
On Ray’s 70th birthday, Scorsese wrote of his first memory of the Apu films: “I was 18 or 19 years old and had grown up in a very parochial society of Italian-Americans and yet I was deeply moved by what Ray showed of people so far from my own experience.”
The Apu Trilogy put India on the map, cinematically speaking. It concerns a poor boy growing up in India nearly a century ago — and yet, miraculously, it concerns us all.