Apur Sansar, the third instalment of Satyajit Ray’s masterwork 'The Apu trilogy' marks the growth of its protagonist into a man who finds love, loses it tragically, suffers from morbid depression and who finally overcomes it to become united with his own son. The journey of life which began in Pather Panchali (1955) and continued through Aparajito (1956) culminates perfectly in Apur Sansar with Apu finding salvation in self-realisation. Although being the third part of a trilogy, Apur Sansar is an independent film in its own right and can be appreciated without previous knowledge/viewing of the other two films. In fact, Ray after the box-office failure of Aparajito took a break from his beloved Apu and made two completely different films – Paras Pathar (1957) and Jalsaghar (1958)- before returning to the concluding part of his trilogy.
Apur Sansar is a film structured in three distinct acts and a prologue. The brief prologue which comes before the title sequence shows Apu has to quit studies because of poverty. The principal’s certificate precisely establishes the fundamental personality traits of the film’s central character – 'sensitive, conscientious and diligent.' In a distinctive Ray style, the prologue alludes to the milieu of Kolkata in the 1930s through incessant protest chants in the background soundtrack.
In the first act, the adult Apu is a struggling writer living in a dingy rented room. Poverty however has failed to dampen his joie de vivre and Ray captures his undying spirit through his bath in the rain and the way he uses his smooth talking skills to fob off his landlord who asks for three month’s due rent. The resilience and nonchalance with which he sells off his books and looks for jobs indicate innate confidence in his abilities as a writer to make it big one day. Ray also hints to romantic urges of more physical kind when like the proverbial Lord Krishna he light-heartedly plays the flute to charm a young girl living next door. When his old friend Pulu treats him to an unexpected visit to the theatre and a hearty dinner afterwards Apu’s confidence reaches its zenith – in the manner of an eternal dreamer he derides the concept of security as an enemy of great art. The life of an ordinary clerk is not an option for Apu; he is completely dedicated to his 'amazing novel.' Ray elegantly sums up the story of the Pather Panchali and Aparajito through the plot summary of the autobiographical novel that Apu narrates to Pulu. His euphoria is undercut with a wry sense of humour – a hallmark of Ray’s dialogue writing skills - Pulu reminds him that just a few years back he was a 'country bumpkin' who got his first taste of literature in his college days from the very Pulu who’s 'materialism' Apu is now ridiculing.
Apu’s sudden wedding constitutes the dramatic high point of the first act. Apu reacts furiously when Pulu requests him to marry the bride Aparna because the intended bridegroom has turned out to be a half-wit. Apu’s irate speech against the backwardness of the village folks is an expression of the liberal urban values he has imbibed but his conscientious self is revealed in his sympathy for the girl, who would otherwise, be condemned to a life of spinsterhood, which makes him agree to the proposal of marriage.
The second act is a love story that portrays the evolution of Apu’s marriage with Aparna - from their beginning as perfect strangers, to the discovery of marital bliss, Aparna’s pregnancy and the terrible finale. Ray’s depiction of the charms of intimacy in Apur Sansar stands among the one of the restrained yet cinematically imaginative explorations of the subject. Like all masters Ray is able to overcome the limits of cultural censorship into a celebration of artistic allusion. The changes of a curtain on a window in Apu’s room become the signifier of the growth of the Apu-Aparna conjugal life. In the beginning of the film, rain pouring from the torn curtain had disturbed Apu’s sleep. In the scene of Aparna’s arrival in the room, Ray in one memorable close-up of her eyes framed through the same hole observing a poor mother playing with her infant, wonderfully captures her anxiety and sadness of leaving a life of luxury and starting a new life with a stranger. But now the camera pulls back from a new curtain to reveal the couple lying chastely on the bed. Aparna wakes up and as she moves away she discovers that her aanchal is tied to Apu’s dhoti. She unties the knot, gives Apu a playful smack and sets about her daily chores. Apu wakes up, slowly turns and gazes at her dreamily and contently as she sets about lighting the chullah. There is a silent exchange between them as Apu picks out his pack of cigarettes for his habitual morning smoke only to find she has inserted a note to remind him of his promise to restrict himself to a cigarette after his meal. Next, he picks up a hairclip that had slipped out of Aparna's hair during the night and wistfully turns it around between his fingers. The cigarette would later feature as an index of intimacy – Aparna would indulgently light up Apu’s cigarette in a hackney-carriage which Apu, in a flash of extravagance, had hired to steal a moment of intimacy before she would leave to give birth to their child in her parents’ house. The ethereal glow of the matchstick that lights up Aparna’s face for a fleeting moment becomes the metaphor of the transient nature of their happiness – the slow fade out of the glow is a subtle omen of the tragic future.
The manner in which Ray constructs the shock of Aparna’s death (which occurs off-screen) is another example of his ability to capture intense emotions with extreme subtlety. Apu’s rapture after managing to finish reading a letter from Aparna following three attempts in three different situations is cruelly shattered by the terrible news conveyed by his brother-in-law Murari whom Apu assaults in a fit of anger and helplessness.
The third and the defining act of the film focuses on the tragedy, its aftermath and Apu’s reconciliation with his son Kajol whom he had held responsible for the death of his beloved. Ray’s portrayal of Apu’s manic melancholy is one of the cinematic highlights of Apur Sansar. In a dialogueless sequence starting of a series of same axis dissolves on Apu lying passively on his bed, Ray depicts his transformation from a handsome man to a dishevelled wreck. A close-up of his face framed in a mirror with the screech of a passing train in the soundtrack captures his state of mind that leads to his suicide attempt. The train, which in earlier episodes of the trilogy was a metaphor of hope and discovery now becomes the terrible angel of death. As the train approaches and Apu leans forward to throw himself in front of the train, a sudden squeal is heard. The camera then reveals a dying pig which people rush in to rescue – the spell of self-destruction is shattered and Apu loses the courage the take his own life. The montage sequence that follows depicting Apu wandering around the country seems to lack spontaneity although the shot of the pages of his manuscript – which Apu throws off from the edge of a hill – symbolises his extreme nihilism but the rousing background music stands as an omen of a new beginning. Thus when his friend Pulu – who is responsible for all the major changes in Apu’s life - comes to convince Apu that he needs to see his son, now five years old, Apu finally relents and goes back to Khulna.
The final sequences of the film involving Kajol’s acceptance of Apu as his friend (not father) eschews melodramatic excess. The sequence of Kajol playing nonchalantly with a dead bird which he had killed beautifully portrays the innocent cruelty of a neglected child. His throwing a stone at Apu superbly captures the little child’s intense pain and anger at his absent father. When Apu first sees Kajol lying on the same bed where he and Aparna had spend the first night of their wedded life, the soundtrack brings back the same bhatiali folk-song that had drifted in on that memorable night, as the index of Apu’s a change of heart and his realisation that a part of Aparna lives within little Kajol. The closing shot of Apur Sansar where Kajol accepts Apu as a friend who carries him on his shoulders and walks towards the camera, is a celebration of life. Ray freezes the shot to indicate there are journeys still to be made – major scars yet to be healed - but there is hope. The final freeze frame with its joyous music on the background – a variation of the Apu-Aparna theme that was used in the hackney carriage sequence – thus becomes an ending that points to the beginning of a new journey.
Apur Sansar has all the technical brilliance that is the signature of Ray’s major films. Subrata Mitra’s camerawork is the ideal compliment to the director’s lyrical vision while the art direction of Bansi Chandragupta is a landmark in the annals of realistic cinema. The background music composed by Pt. Ravi Shankar is never intrusive but perfectly captures the myriad emotions that the characters undergo. The expressive use of non-synchronous sounds creates imageries that go beyond the stunning visuals. The acting and casting is of the highest calibre. Soumitra Chatterjee – who was to become Ray’s favourite actor - in his debut film gives a multi-dimensional portrayal; it's easy to believe that he's the same Apu that we got to know in the other two films. Sharmila Tagore, who in Ray’s own words "had appeared in a dance recital for the Children's Little Theatre...She was only thirteen years old but now looked about four years older (in a red-striped sari)" is exquisite as the young bride who lights up Apu’s life. Swapan Chakraborty is also perfect as the sensitive yet pragmatic Pulu who acts as the catalyst of change in various critical moments of Apu’s life. Alok Chakraborty’s performance as Kajol is yet another confirmation of the director’s talent to extract the very best from his child actors. The casting and acting of the minor characters too is excellent and extremely convincing.
Apur Sansar was hugely popular with the Bengali audience, though Apu’s slap on his brother-in-law Murari was heavily criticised by some critics as a major deviation from Bibhutibhushan’s gentle and compassionate original. There were also grumblings about Kajol playing with a dead bird – for some this act of cruelty was unbecoming of a child. Ray, confident of his stature and ability as a filmmaker would dismiss such carping as "absence of common sense and the critic’s lack of proper understanding of the novel itself" and vigorously defend his cinematic transcreation to be faithful to the spirit of the original novel.
Apur Sansar went on to win the President’s Gold Medal as the best feature film in 1959. The international awards won by the film include Best Foreign Film, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, USA (1960) and the Diploma of Merit, 14th International Film Festival, Edinburgh (1960).