The World of Apu, for the uninitiated is the third film of Indian director Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, which did for India what Rashomon did for Japan, namely, win for the first time a major release in the United States. The film is a simple drama of life in Calcutta and the countryside, told through the hero Apu, who has here grown into a sensitive but aimless and impoverished young man. Without major incidents or a particular historical context, we get a realistic picture of the Indian culture unseen in travelogues and fairy tale movies.
The story of Apu and his love for Aparna was well received in the West, where it won director Ray international reknown along with a number of film festival prizes.
Apu sleeps by an open window in a room not much larger than a closet, and wears clothes that he can't keep clean. He's writing a novel in Bengali that his pal Pulu thinks is wonderful, but he's practically starving. Pulu warns him against being too idealistic, too much of a dreamer. When he makes his decision to plunge into a marriage literally out of the blue, it's almost because he doesn't see his life taking any positive direction, and is willing to try something completely different.
It turns out to be a marvelous decision, and Apu and Aparna live an idyllic life on the 10 rupees he earns per week. They're poor, and Aparna has to lecture him on his willingness to spend too much, but they have high hopes and the future looks bright. Then tragedy strikes, and Apu loses his optimism for life, and his ability to relate to his family. It takes him five years to put himself back together again.
The interesting people are backgrounded by an India that isn't colorful costumes or charming, funny people. Apu's life in Calcutta is a dirty grind, but when he has love and companionship, the misery disappears. The country wedding is formal, and certainly not the 3-ring circus of Monsoon Wedding, and much of Apu's story takes place in dingy streets and unpaved country roads. Yet we invest heavily in this impulsive young man's basic goodness and optimism, and wait patiently to see if he recovers his personality.
Satyajit Ray's direction is clean and sparse and completely free of mannerisms or embellishment. The people and the environment are everything, and we get the idea that India in the 50s for Apu's class (I don't know what that might be, exactly) might have been just like this. I'm glad I didn't have any surprises ruined by a full synopsis, and will be looking to see the earlier shows in the trilogy. This one played fine as a stand-alone item. Soumitra Chatterjee is fine as Apu, but the lovely Sharmila Tagore is heart-breaking as the sweet and determined Aparna. It's interesting to see cultural differences, as the way she sometimes declines to look her husband in the eye, as a gesture of submission. This contrasts with other times when she's clearly in charge of their relationship.
The IMDB lists a running time that's ten minutes longer, which could easily be a mistake. The only continuity question is, what happened to the female relatives in Aparna's family? In the last act of the show, there only seems to be a grandfatherly type remaining.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of The World of Apu is a disappointment in terms of quality. The sources appear to be 35mm but are dupey, dull, and dirty. Chances are that this is what Sony/Columbia had as an import element back in 1959, and a DVD release was arranged without going back for a better source. It's like watching a reasonable video from the 80s instead of the restored treatment we expect for classics like this now. Of course it's watchable, but for a vintage foreign 'art' film that won't be a big seller, I should think it would have been worth waiting for a better element to transfer.
It's a release for the already-converted Ray fans, as there are no extras. I'm glad I saw it, but regret that a better version may never surface. At the price being asked, the disc can't be called much of a bargain, either.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The World of Apu rates: