Apur Panchali is a three-layered film. Two layers are framed within the anchor story that is located in the present depicting the interaction between two men, Arko and Subir, distanced in age, ideology, lifestyle and social class. One layer is comprised of flashbacks into Subir Banerjee as a young man (Parambrato Chatterjee) and the other is the constant cutting back and forth between the younger Subir Banerjee and clips from Satyajit Ray’s original classic Pather Panchali. "I do not know why but Apu has been haunting me all my life though I have tried to strip myself of him. It is very uncanny," says the old Subir to Arko. Each time he flashes back into his past as a young man, struggling with a father lying in a vegetative state, his meager source of income from a noisy press, his exams taking a backseat to doing odd jobs from his mother, the narrative cuts back to a similar event in Apu's life either in Pather Panchali, or in Aparajito or in Apur Sansar. For the lay audience, the constant intercuts between and among the three layers of the narrative might create confusion
The editing lives up to the challenge. The art direction is outstanding. What pricks the viewer is that since the life of Subir Banerjee is pure fiction created by Kaushik Ganguly, the co-incidences between incidents in his life and incidents in the life of the screen Apu are so frequent and similar that after a point of time, one actually predicts what is going to happen next and this makes turns them into clichés. For example, the young Subir is asked by his dead wife's grandmother to take a dip in the pond. As he waits to enter the water, the camera cuts back to little Apu throwing the bead necklace Durga had stolen into the pond. Subir takes a look at an amulet his wife had tied to his arm for good luck. He takes it off and casts it in the pond. Why? Apu threw away the bead chain because he wished his sister’s secret to die along with her. But for Subir, it was a token of love from a wife who is no more.
Ganguly has extracted extremely low-key performances from his entire acting cast and they have fulfilled the demands of the script almost to precision. Ardhendu as the senior Apu is cynical, restrained, reticent and bitter. Gaurav Chakrabarty as Arko displays acute powers of observation when he comments that he has seen around 300 empty liquor bottles under the stairs, or, very slowly lets out that his father will not need the suits any more. Parambrato sometimes appears to be out of his comfort zone while Parno as his wife has a brief role but offers a glimpse into her versatility.
Shirsa Ray's cinematography slips smoothly from colour in the present to Black andWhite in Subir's 'young' past to the intercuts to original clips from Pather Panchali and the other two parts of the trilogy as if it is the same camera at work and not the great Subrata Mitra. It is fascinating to journey with Subir who played Apu and the original little boy Apu through the film. Indradip Dasgupta’s music keeps mainly to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s original theme for Pather Panchali and the movements are seamlessly achieved. The closing shots of the young Subir walking along the village path as the idol of Durga arrives from the other side backed with the sound of drums to herald the coming of the festival is touching.
Apur Panchali perhaps is the first glimpse into how within Indian cinema, the term auteur is being redefined with the advent of modern technology that consists of the fading away of 35mm, and the advent of digital technology that demands new styles in filmmaking, new approaches to technique in cinematography, editing, sound design and also projection for theatrical audiences.
It also leads to a consideration of what is commonly known as 'Creative Commons' that in a manner of speaking, though not yet implemented within Indian cinema, is slowly and steadily changing our approach towards 'copyright' of original works like the frequency with which the archival clips from Ray’s trilogy are used to add a third dimension to Apur Panchali. Creative Commons is described as being in the forefront of what is called the 'copyleft' movement. This seeks to support the building of a richer public domain by providing an alternative to the automatic, 'all rights reserved' copyright. Ganguly insists that he has used only ten minutes of archival footage from Ray’s films. The footage does not raise questions about the authorship of Ganguly, true but it does not appear to be limited to just 'ten minutes' of screening time.
The questions that bog us down after the film is over are – is this a tribute to the Ray trilogy? Or is this a celluloid tribute to Subir Banerjee who is both object and metaphor for all the child actors who have disappeared from the horizon of cinema history? This is something the audience must decide.