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Restored by HFPA: “Apur Sansar” (1959)

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) concludes the Apu Trilogy, director Satyajit Ray’s magnum opus.

The three Bengali language films, based on the books by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, tell the coming of age story of Apu – Pather Panchali (1955, Song of the Road) is about Apu’s childhood growing up in the village of Boral in rural Bengal; in Aparajito (1956, The Unvanquished) the story moves to his adolescence in the holy city of Benares; and Apur Sansar concludes the story in Calcutta with Apu facing the challenges of adulthood.

Sansar did not have the budget problems the first one did: Ray was now a celebrated auteur and his previous films had been received with great acclaim. While he worked with the same team – cinematographer Subrata Mitra, production designer Bansi Chandragupta; and composer Ravi Shankar, all of whom had started successful careers with Ray – he was adamant about casting unknowns in the lead roles. Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore made their debuts in this film: Chatterjee as Apu and Tagore as Aparna, his wife. They would both work multiple times with Ray and establish long careers of their own, Tagore primarily in Bollywood. (In fact, Chatterjee had auditioned for the adolescent Apu in Aparajito but had been turned down as he was considered too old. Two years later, Ray offered him the part of Apu in Sansar.)

But despite the fact that Ray was not scrambling for money this time, he was still careful about spending it. In a 1968 interview with Film Comment, he explained his way of working. “I would perhaps like to improvise a little more if the raw stock weren’t such a problem, but you just can’t do that, you can’t afford to. You can’t afford to consciously ruin the man who’s backing you. You owe a certain responsibility to the man. After all, it’s not your own money, and I don’t have a large market.

“I must be very sure of what I want when I make a film. Very, very sure. Sure, in terms of acting, of set-up, of cutting, of everything … I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film. I know what it’s going to look like when cut. I’m absolutely sure of that, and so I don’t cover the scene from every possible angle—close, medium, long. There’s hardly anything left on the cutting-room floor after the cutting. It’s all cut in the camera.”

In Apur Sansar, Apu is living in poverty, has cut short his studies and is desperately looking for work as he is months late with his rent. A friend, Pulu, invites him to his cousin Aparna’s wedding in a nearby village. As is the custom, it is an arranged marriage, and the family has never seen the bridegroom before. When the groom arrives, it is discovered that he is suffering from mental problems. The bride’s mother refuses to wed her daughter to this man; the father is distraught because if the traditional window for the marriage is not kept, the girl will remain unwed for the rest of her life. Pulu persuades Apu to step in and save Aparna by marrying her himself. The two start their married life back in Apu’s meager lodgings in Calcutta but find happiness with each other until tragedy strikes and Apu leaves Calcutta in despair, cutting all ties for five years until Pulu once again steps in to bring Apu home.


The scenes of the couple’s domestic life were handled by Ray with his signature sensitivity. In “My Years with Apu,” the book posthumously published in 1994 by his widow, he explains how he had to convey a loving relationship that would pass the Indian censor board.

“The challenge was to suggest intimacy without using any of the elements to which the Western director had access – such as embracing or kissing or intimacy in bed. Kissing was tabooed by Indian censorship. I did not think of this as a curb on an artist’s freedom. To suggest intimacy through a kiss is an easy method. I found it a challenge to achieve the same end by other, more oblique means. A great deal could be done through looks alone, but there were other ways as well.”

In order to convey the changes from Apu’s bachelor life, the bed is shown with two pillows, the curtains are clean, and there is a plant on the windowsill. Marital intimacy is suggested when Apu wakes up to find a hairpin in the bed which he twists around his finger with a small smile. He reads a loving note from Aparna that she put in his box of cigarettes.

Ray continues in his memoir, “Renoir, when I showed the film in Paris, commented on the fact that intimacy had been suggested without showing even a single embrace.”

The Apu Trilogy has appeared in numerous all-time best movie lists. Apur Sansar won many awards in India as well as international ones such as the Sutherland Award for Best Original Film at the London Film Festival and the American National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The reason the films resonate with audiences is the compassion with which Ray portrays his ordinary characters. Poverty is not depicted as shameful. The lives portrayed onscreen speak to audiences who connect with Ray’s empathy for small lives, the dreams dreamt even if they are unfulfilled, the sorrow and joy, laughter and despair, that define every existence. They may see a foreign land and a story in a strange language, but they recognize that the human condition is universal. And the lyrical cinematography brings it to vivid life.

After Ray won the Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy, a restoration project was started to preserve many of his films, including the Apu Trilogy. Original negatives of several films were destroyed by a nitrate fire in a London lab in 1993, and whatever could be salvaged was stored, then sent to the Academy Film Archive in 2013. Then L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna stepped in. The brittle film had to be rehydrated in a special solution. Restorers then spent almost a thousand hours rebuilding the perforations and cleaning the film. Duplicate negatives were sourced through Janus Films, the Academy, the Harvard Film Archive and the British Film Institute to find replacements for missing sections.

The restoration was funded in part by The Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. An excellent version is available to view on HBO Max.