‘Where most of Godard’s detractors wouldn’t dream of missing a new Godard film, there is a general sense among Ray’s that Mahanagar and Charulata wouldn’t be worth the time and bus fare. The corollary is that Ray’s admirers (in print at least) tend to be critics of the conservative Establishment. Film enthusiasts who don’t know Ray’s work well at first hand probably build up a mental image of it as the sort of primitive and literary cinema that has a solid, dull worthlessness but is difficult spontaneously to enjoy or get excited about’. (p. 6)
Robin Wood’s appreciation of director Satyajit Ray’s most famous work, the Apu Trilogy, has been long out of print. Wood’s groundbreaking study, first published in 1972 in the UK, was one of the first serious critical readings of the Apu Trilogy. It is almost impossible to find a copy of Wood’s book today or overstate its worth. More baffling is the fact it has never been reprinted since 1972. Robin Wood has always been one of my favourite film writers and the Apu Trilogy features some of his sharpest writing. Since 1972 the Apu Trilogy has been written about in many different ways. A rich critical discourse has appeared around Ray’s most popular films. Robin Wood like Marie Seton and Andrew Robinson were some of the first writers to bring the work of Ray to the attention of film academia: ‘Ray has himself stated unequivocally that the best critical writings on his films have appeared in the West’ (p. 8). I’ve read a lot of books and articles on Ray, and have also published some writings on Ray. Having finally read Wood’s book I feel somewhat horrified that I have written about Ray without using Wood’s work as a point of reference. Wood’s analysis of The Apu trilogy is still one of the best, if not the most profound I have come across. There is no doubt that Wood’s study is a key and definitive text on not just the Apu Trilogy but also on director Satyajit Ray.
It certainly has one of the best introductions you will likely to come across arguing for the need to take Ray’s work seriously, comparing him to both Renoir and Rossellini, arguing his ‘desperately old fashioned’ (p. 9) approach to filmmaking, redolent of classical Hollywood cinema, showed an unparalleled economy to storytelling. At the same time Wood describes Ray’s work as both ‘literary’ and ‘innovative’. A point of literary comparison Wood pinpoints The Rainbow (1915) by D. H. Lawrence: ‘Apu’s progress through the trilogy to some extent corresponds to the movement from the comparative stability of the Marsh farm’ (p. 17). Furthermore Wood recognises the ‘musical aspects’ of Ray’s cinema and how this clearly shaped the rhythm of his films. The role of music in communicating themes and telling the story in Ray’s films is an area of scholarly interest that is still ignored. Wood’s approach is a predominately text based study of the Apu Trilogy (old fashioned film analysis at its finest), elucidating the complex relationship between mise-en-scene, camerawork, sound, editing and performance that marks Ray as the most astute of directors to be able to articulate the most multifarious of designs in an often misunderstood simple film style.
The first section on Pather Panchali analyses four extended sequences: ‘the quarrel over the stolen necklace, the children’s first view of a train, the death of Durga, the preparations for departure’ (p. 20). It is the minutiae of the three films that Wood describes and scrutinises with such wonder and intent, demonstrating Ray’s staging is constantly linked to the realisation of ‘psychological impulses’ (p. 26) interconnected through the trilogy. What he also brings to light in all three sections of the book is the centrality of the ‘death-in-separation motif’ (p. 26), a unifying thematic, arguing Ray refuses to descend into morbidity when compared to cinema in the West:
‘For Ray, death is not so much a mystery as a terrible fact, something one has to learn to live with rather than a final judgment and challenge that abruptly and mystically changes one’s whole perspective’ (p. 83).
Unlike Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, which is awarded more respect and greater analytical engagement, the same cannot be said for Aparajito, ‘the least completely satisfactory of the three films’ (p. 40) and ‘more than adequate considered as a transition to The World of Apu’ (p. 41). Nonetheless, Wood still takes a measured look at Aparajito, suggesting:
‘the justification for the very slow tempo is that Ray is not trying to tell us things but to communicate a total experience: the film invites us to steep ourselves in the characters’ feelings and live-through their conflict to its outcome rather than take an intellectual ‘point’ (p. 50).
In fact, Wood is suitably impressed with the second half of Aparajito especially the last act when Sarbojaya and Apu return to the village, arguing ‘the universality of Ray’s concerns is nowhere more evident’ (p. 51).
The World of Apu, ‘one of the most moving films ever made’ and ‘the crowning achievement of the trilogy’ (p. 61) forms the last section and is my favourite since I’m in complete agreement with Wood’s reverence for the film. It is surely Ray’s most complete film, a masterwork. Wood begins by discussing the ‘exceptional people’ populating the Apu trilogy who ‘remain intensely real’ (p. 62), arguing the ‘essence of Ray’s humanism’ (p. 62) is reflected in his propensity to ‘grant a grace or dignity beyond the demands of the function in the plot’ (p. 63) to even the minor characters. Here Wood uses the sequence where the landlord visits Apu to clarify Ray’s vivid faculty, depicting an interaction between the two characters with just the right degree of sensitivity through the mastery of performance, framing and exchange of dialogue. The charge of humanism may seem a little outmoded now when discussing Ray’s films. It is a term often associated with directors like Renoir, De Sica, Rossellini and Kurosawa who made films with universality to them. Humanism also meant the abjuration of pretentiousness and the valorisation of humility; qualities that are all but absent from much of cinema, the Dardennes a likely exception. Something often talked of is Ray’s imagining of the train, a symbol of life, death and progress, and relatedly Wood succeeds in tracing the iconographic use of the train, analysing its place in the overall narrative schematics. This is finely summed up in relation to Apur Sansar:
‘the train, once magical objects of wonder, are now commonplace, a part of the city’s squalor’ (p. 64).
The analytical focus in Wood’s final section concerns ‘Apu’s decision to marry Aparna’ (p. 65), studied in detail, considering Apu’s personal reasons and his friendship with Pulu. Time and time again it is Rossellini more than Renoir whom Wood uses as a point of authorial comparison:
‘The cumulative effect of Ray’s films is somewhat like that of Rossellini’s – felt especially at moments when a decision is reached and the whole weight of the film sensed to be behind it’ (p. 72).
If Ray learnt from Renoir lessons in humanist objectivity then Rossellini taught him the way a film’s pacing had to be realistically determined by the characters and their associating actions. And arguably it was from De Sica that Ray understood the simplicity in directing emotions, a point raised by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones in their documentary on Italian cinema (2001). Wood says ‘The central section of The World of Apu offers one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life’ (p. 72), an idea he goes on to explore in the book’s most sustained passages of textual analysis, producing a moving insight into the six sequences that forms the soul of the film, some of the best work Ray ever did. In my opinion, it is this part of the book that makes this text such a revelatory once since Wood has a grasp on the finer nuances, the micro details and writes about them with an incomparable adroitness. Intriguingly, Wood criticises the renunciation sequence in Apur Sansar, saying it is ‘the weakest in the film’ (p. 86) for its obviousness, a point that I unequivocally disagree with since it is one of my favourite moments in the trilogy. In fact, it is a pure cinema sequence, another reason why Ray’s films are so uncomplicated when it comes to relaying to us the most basic of human emotions. Wood ends poignantly, deconstructing the final sequences, which culminates in one of the great moments in film history, and reminding us of the ‘visual poetry’ (p. 64) of the trilogy and its numerous achievements:
‘The film ends with him seated on Apu’s shoulders as Apu walks away towards the future. In accepting the child, he has accepted life, has accepted the death of Aparna. Whether or not he is going back to become a great novelist is immaterial: he is going back to live’.
One cannot help but think about Antonio and Bruno at the end of De Sica’s influential Bicycle Thieves, holding hands as they join the crowd. Scorsese & Jones describe it as one of the most precious moments in film. We could the same about the ending of the Apu Trilogy.