The Apu Trilogy
Two decades after its original negatives were burned in a fire, Satyajit Ray’s breathtaking milestone of world cinema rises from the ashes in a meticulously reconstructed new restoration. The Apu Trilogy brought India into the golden age of international art-house film, following one indelible character, a free-spirited child in rural Bengal who matures into an adolescent urban student and finally a sensitive man of the world. These delicate masterworks—Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)—based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, were shot over the course of five years, and each stands on its own as a tender, visually radiant journey. They are among the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies ever made—essential works for any film lover.
Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy comes to Blu-ray in a new box set from The Criterion Collection. The three-disc set features the films Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar, each of which appears on an individual dual-layer disc. All three films are offered in new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentations, which come from the new 4K restorations.
In the early 90’s most of the film negatives for Ray’s films, including the Apu Trilogy, were severely damaged, if not destroyed, in a fire. What remained was preserved and last year Criterion, with the help of the Academy Film Archive, undertook the colossal task of restoring the films, using what remained of the damaged negatives where they could. Through a very vigorous restoration (which is covered in one of the features on this set) they were able to use 40% of the original negative for Pather Panchali and 60% of it for Aparajito. Unfortunately none of the original negative could be used for Apur Sansar. Apur Sansar and the remainder of the other films were filled in using duplicate negatives provided by the BFI, the Academy Film Archive, or the Harvard Archive, along with fine-grain master positives to fill in other gaps.
Despite the rough history of the films, and all of the varying sources, all three presentations look absolutely superb. The transfers across all three are very good, some of Criterion’s better ones in a while, nicely encoded and retaining a filmic look. Contrast looks to be nicely balanced and gray levels transition smoothly between tones. Black levels look fairly rich and deep, though the source seems to limit this on occasion, presenting moments where blacks come off more as a dark gray, but a majority of the time they look greet and crushing isn’t too big a concern. On the whole the transfer looks wonderful.
While the digital transfer itself is very good the restoration work is easily the most impressive aspect of the presentation. I was expecting damage to remain and there is some, but nowhere near what I was preparing myself for. Pather Panchali probably shows the worst amount, with a number of vertical scratches and specs of debris. Overall quality of the image noticeably deteriorates when it looks like a less than ideal source was used (these moments are littered with a heavier amount of damage and the gray scale can shift) and there appears to be missing frames here and there, but on the whole the damage really is minimal. The other two films do look better though still have their share of flecks and scratches, pulsing and tonal shifts, but again the damage really is minimal, rarely distracting and could have been much worse.
In the end it’s an impressive achievement, far surpassing my expectations. All three films look unbelievably wonderful, and all of those involved from the actual restoration to the encode should be commended.
All three films include lossless 1.0 PCM mono tracks. In all three cases the audio is limited by age and the equipment used during the shoot. Pather Panchali is the weakest of the three, sounding incredibly flat and tinny, with some obvious background noise in places. But as the restoration demonstration found in the features shows the audio for the film was far worse. While all pops, drops, and cracks have been removed the original equipment (which the feature states was very cheap) and the ravages of time severely limit it.
The other two films come off sounding better, if only a little bit. Overall quality has a little more fidelity, though the tracks are still a bit limited. But again the restoration work has removed all major instances of damage and the tracks on the whole sound pleasant enough.
The box set features a nice assortment of features spread out over the three discs, with supplements specific to the related film and then the trilogy as a whole. The first disc features the film Pather Panchali and its supplements start out with A Long Time on the Little Road, which is a recording—made by Gideon Bachmann—of Ray reading from a 1957 essay he wrote on the making of the film. During the 14-minute recording Ray talks about his first day of shooting and his general nervousness that did ease over time, and his thoughts on how to obtain authenticity. He admits he thought it would be all easy, but once he got into the nitty-gritty of it and had to actually deal with the camera and the actors, things obviously became more challenging and weren’t as clear cut. It’s a wonderful first-hand recollection with plenty about the learning curve he experienced while making the film.
Criterion then includes a few interviews, starting with a brief 7-minute one with actor Soumitra Chatterjee. The actor actually plays Apu in the third film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar, and has nothing to do with Pather Panchali directly, but he talks about the popularity of the film and its source novel, and the impact the film had on him, chiefly in terms of acting.
Shampa Srivastava, who plays the younger Durga in the film (credited as Runki Banerjee), next talks for 16-minutes about working with Ray, who she keeps referring to as, more or less, that “large, beautiful man.” She gives an idea as to what it was like while making the film, but she also talks about working with her mother, Karuna Bannerjee, who plays the mother in the film. She also talks about how her mother handled her newfound fame, and how she was recognized pretty regularly thanks to the film. It’s an insightful and very funny interview, probably my favourite interview across the whole set.
Criterion then provides an interview with camera operator Soumendu Roy, the only crew member interview to be found on the set. It’s disappointingly short, but Roy gives a decent account of the production and how it got its funding, and also recounts shooting on location and dealing with the elements. A name that comes up in the supplements here and there when others are referring to Ray is Manik-da (there’s even a book about Ray that uses the name for its title). Looking up the literal translation of manik it comes back as “gem” or “jewel” (Google Translate gets more specific with “ruby”) but Roy actually explains the term here, suggesting it’s more of a term-of-endearment suggesting a “big brother,” which shows the admiration and respect everyone had for the man.
Criterion then includes a 6-minute excerpt from the documentary The Song of the Little Road, featuring an interview with musician Ravi Shankar. Shankar talks about first meeting Ray and the process in composing the music, coming up with certain themes, and then talking about how Ray worked it into the film. He also shares the story on the last time he met Ray. It’s a fine interview, though its presentation is fairly frustrating: for whatever reason the actual interview with Shankar is presented as a series of stills. At first I thought that maybe this was some way for Criterion to get around some sort of copyright/licensing issue, but looking up the documentary (which I have not seen obviously) it appears the whole thing is edited like this, even during interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Ismail Merchant. I found this aspect unnecessary and more distracting from what was being said.
The second disc features Aparajito and the supplements on this disc seem to be more interested in Ray’s film-language, influences, and working method. They start with The Small Details, an interview with film writer Ujjal Chakraborty. Though the films were praised at the time for being “universal” Chakraborty points out how the films (though he focuses on Aparajito specifically) have many references that would be familiar to the Bengali culture, and there are certain symbols and actions that foreshadow key events. He also points out particular items and what they represent, particularly in terms of class, like the white handkerchief carried around by the “fat boy” (as Chakraborty calls him) and how that would tell the local audience his stature in society. The interview runs only about 11-minutes but it’s an excellent academic addition and manages to pack in a lot.
Criterion then includes an audio recording featuring Satyajit Ray talking about the films, this one recorded in 1958 by Gideon Bachmann at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in Vermont, around the time that Pather Panchali was release in the States. Here Ray talks about how he first came across the novel, Pather Panchali, talks about its success, and then talks a bit about how its sequel, Aparajito, didn’t do nearly as well. This led him to make a couple of different films (including a comedy) before he would start the third film. It’s a fascinating discussion but it really picks up when Ray talks about his country’s films, their formula, and the certain slick production values they have, at least in Bengali films. He even talks about the impact Bicycle Thieves had him. It’s a delightfully engaging discussion about the trilogy and filmmaking in India at the time. It runs about 14-minutes.
Criterion then includes a new video essay by Andrew Robinson, called Making the Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray’s Epic Debut. Mixed with photos, clips and archival interviews (including with actor Karuna Bannerjee, Apu’s mother in the film) it gives a very extensive overview on the production of each film, though Pather Panchali receives the most time. It looks at difficulties Ray had in getting the first film made (he financed and filmed it over a period of years), a period where he worked a little on Jean Renoir’s The River (Renoir becoming a mentor to the aspiring filmmaker), and pays a bit of attention at the time between Aparajito and Apur Sansar. There are some interesting little tidbits of info here, including, for example, the actor who plays “Auntie,” Chunibala Devi, required a daily supply of opium and, despite her age, had an amazing ability at keep continuity between shots, noticing and remembering things that flew by most others. It also ends with an audio recording of director Martin Scorsese talking about Ray’s films. It’s very thorough and fascinating, making for a brisk 38-minutes.
The supplements on this disc then close with a 1967 episode from the Canadian program The Creative Mind. The 29-minute episode looks at the working methods of Ray, even getting a very personal, in-depth interview with the filmmaker where he talks about the Indian film industry and then how his films differ. He also talks about the construction of his films, from casting (he looks for “faces,” not necessarily actors) to all the design work that goes into his settings, with discussion on what it’s like moving from independent, self-financed films (like Pather Panchali) to bigger budget works. There’s even a look at the posters for his films, which he has designed himself. It’s another wonderful, in-depth supplement, giving a better look at Ray’s working method.
Criterion has put together a nice set of supplements across the entire set, but on its own Aparajito’s supplements are surprisingly detailed and engaging. Some strong material has been put together here.
This third and final disc features Apur Sansar and its supplements start with an interview with Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. It only runs 15-minutes but is a fascinating piece no less, with the two talking about the experience of making their first film, Tagore being only 13 at the time. They both talk about working with Ray and what they did to prep for their roles, Chatterjee writing his own bio for Apu, and they talk about the authenticity of the film and its sets, while also sharing various stories, including the technical issues that arose.
We next get a piece on the trilogy, featuring the former head of the BFI, Mamoun Hassan. Entitled The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look, it features Hassan offering a rather thorough examination of the trilogy as a whole, giving detailed analysis of Ray’s framing, how he introduces characters, the flow of editing, and how the visual language of the films can be broken down into “sentences and paragraphs.” He goes through each film, talking about particular scenes and sequences. It’s lengthy at 43-minutes but found it a very strong scholarly supplement that does make up somewhat for the lack of commentaries, an item that I’m surprised is missing from the set.
Criterion then includes footage from the 1992 Academy Awards where Ray received his honorary Oscar. Audrey Hepburn first introduces the director, going over his body of work, and then through satellite feed we see Ray (unfortunately bed ridden, looking quite ill) accepting his award. He recalls quite humorously how he used to write to directors asking for advice, though never received a response. It only runs a few minutes but it’s a wonderful inclusion.
The set then closes with Restoring The Apu Trilogy, put together by ::kogonada. We get the option of viewing a “Short Version” or a “Long Version.” The “Short” version appears to be just a 3-minute promo for the theatrical release of the new restoration, giving a quick overview of the work. The “Long” version runs 12-minutes and gets more in-depth, providing a number of interviews and examples on the techniques used in repairing the negatives. We also get a number of before-and-after comparisons for both the visuals and the audio of the film (the audio, at least for Pather Panchali, was in terrible shape). It’s a nicely put together piece, thoroughly covering the fascinating process the films went through. It’s one of my favourite features to be found in the set.
The set then comes with a booklet first featuring an essay on the trilogy by Terrence Rafferty, offering a nice round up of thoughts that cover some of the same material found in the supplements. This is then followed by a lovely collection of Ray’s storyboards for Pather Panchali, which are works of art themselves, and then we get an essay by Girish Shambu addressing the praise the films have received of being “universal” and how and why this label hasn’t been used on some of Ray’s work. The booklet then closes with notes on the restoration efforts. It’s an excellent inclusion and a great read, nicely closing off the supplements.
Not a jam packed set in terms of supplements, but I enjoyed going through most of them and felt they sufficiently covered the films in terms of production and Ray’s visual language. I was also thrilled at seeing the work that went into the restoration.
The amount of work that went into restoring the films has obviously been intense and all the hard work has paid off: the presentations all look wonderful, far surpassing what I was expecting. Accompanied by some strong supplements this set is easily my favourite release from Criterion this year.