It has become common for many people to watch several episodes of a television show back to back, thanks to video services like Netflix and television stations like the Decades TV Network.
On Sunday, August 23, 2015, the Detroit Film Theatre served up some high class binge programming for its patrons. The DFT screened all three parts of the Apu Trilogy, by Indian director Satyajit Ray.
The total running time of the movies was about 5 1/2 hours, which at first was intimidating but eventually proved to be a worthwhile viewing experience.
The DFT screened the three movies at noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m., with about an hour between films, which many people spent relaxing with a snack or beverage in the beautiful Crystal Gallery Café.
Between the second and third films, I took a short walk outside along John R. I gazed at the attractive variety of development that has grown in that part of Detroit (Rackham building, Karmanos cancer center, science center, black history museum, College for Creative Studies, Scarab Club).
That walk reminded me of a photographic essay that I wrote for this blog six years ago (DFT Neighborhood).
The spacious 1,100-seat DFT auditorium allowed me to enjoy each movie from a unique vantage point (on both sides of the main floor and from the top of the balcony), so I didn’t get tired of sitting in one place.
The first film was Pather Panchali (1955), which introduced us to the main character Apu, along with his parents and sister.
Ray’s skillful direction quickly pulled you into the everyday life of this family as they struggled to make ends meet in a rural village. You saw the innocence, playfulness, and mischievousness of Apu and his sister Durga; the quiet dedication of their mother; and the sincere but limited abilities of their father.
The story moved naturally along, thanks to the music of Ravi Shankar, who gained worldwide fame about ten years later when George Harrison of the Beatles took an interest in Shankar’s music.
In all three movies of the trilogy, Shankar’s music had a rhythmic force and atmospheric tone that helped you feel the everyday emotions of the characters in the films.
Pather Panchali had much documentary-style realism, but also many cinematic touches. These touches included dramatic closeups that were combined with other characters and images in the background. These camera setups gave depth to what was essentially a montage of images in one frame.
The second movie was Aparajito (1956), in which Apu progresses from boyhood to college. The image of the young Apu was so strongly established in Pather Panchali and the first part of Aparajito, that you felt a mild shock when a different actor started playing Apu as a college student.
As I settled into watching Aparajito, the viewing experience had added richness because I knew much about the backgrounds of the characters from Pather Panchali. I cared about the characters more, as I watched them move forward with their lives after the difficulties of the first movie.
Although the trilogy is named after Apu, the first two movies were as much about his mother as they were about him. The reactions of her expressive face were powerful commentaries on the actions of the other characters. You could feel her sorrow, weariness, love, joy, and frustration.
One of my favorite scenes in Aparajito was the slow change in the facial expression of Apu’s mother when Apu asks her if he can go to school. The camera slowly rises towards her face, as it gradually changes from disapproval to approval, with Shankar’s music adding emphasis.
Another powerful image in Aparajito came when Apu realizes that his mother is dead. He collapses on the ground in front of a large tree whose root system has been greatly exposed by erosion.
The World of Apu
The trilogy ended with The World of Apu (1959), in which a third actor plays Apu. He struggles with tragedies, both large and small, and finally arrives at what looks like a happy ending.
The images of Apu’s son in The World of Apu made me feel like the trilogy had come full circle to the images of young Apu in Pather Panchali, showing the endless cycle of life.
After The World of Apu ended, I felt very satisfied with what had been a rich cinematic experience. Interestingly, there was no applause for any of the movies, but I’m sure that reflected the powerful and somber drama of the trilogy.
As I walked out of the DFT, into a rainy evening, I felt a positive feeling from other patrons. Together we had shared a special cinematic journey thanks to Satyajit Ray, film restoration teams, and the DFT.
Copyright 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.