Aparajito, the second film in the Apu Trilogy, did not do well in terms of ticket sales in Bengal. After the success of Pather Panchali, people did rush to see what lay in store for young Apu, but the numbers started dropping and it vanished from the halls entirely in the 7th week of its release.
What had gone wrong? Satyajit Ray felt that the problem lay in exactly that element which had attracted him most to this part of Apu's story. Always fascinated by the complications of the human psyche, Ray had appreciated the original story's "daring and profound revelation" that a much-loved son could feel a sense of freedom on the dying of his doting mother. The adolescent Apu was the only reason for his widowed mother Sarbajaya to live and struggle on, the only focus of her hopes, if she dared hope at all. It could be too much for a youngster, especially one who is curious and lively intelligent like Apu who was just beginning to explore the world, to shoulder the burden. Ray found novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's original statement "extraordinarily revealing":
"For some time after Sarbajaya's death Apu became familiar with a strange sensation... His immediate reaction had been one of pleasure, like a surge of release, a delight in the breaking of bonds... There was no doubt that he loved his mother, but the news of her death had at first brought him pleasure – he couldn't avoid that truth".
The most rewarding part of Aparajito deals with "variations on this theme". Apu goes to Calcutta, discovers a world of college, friends and night jobs, and when he returns to the village, responds in monosyllables to his mother's questioning – like countless teenagers do! She starts by asking him about Calcutta but soon slips into the insecure and lonely truths of her existence: Will you look after me if I fall ill? You're not going to leave your studies and come here, right? Will you keep me with you? Will you get me treated when you start earning?... But Apu has already fallen asleep.
Karuna Bannerjee's performance as the mother is extraordinary; she seems to dissolve into the role even as Sarbajaya dissolves into silence, loneliness and illness – sitting wordlessly under a tree all day, hallucinating that her son has come home when she hears the train pass by.
Ray felt that his viewers had found the mother-son relationship excessively harsh. "The mother-and-son relationships they were used to were painted in soft colours. How could a boy of fifteen be so unfeeling towards a widowed mother who had sacrificed her whole life for him? The truth was that Bengali audiences were not ready for the kind of psychological relationship that Aparajito depicted." Ray also felt that Apu being played by two different boy actors had put off the viewers; that the audiences would have preferred to see one Apu. "The trompe l'oeil hadn't worked".
Musui Art Foundation is extremely happy to share with you pages from the original booklet of Aparajito designed by Satyajit Ray. You can see all these beautiful reasons for Aparajito's commercial 'failure' in these pages: the two young actors who played Apu – young Pinaki Sen Gupta and the adolescent Smaran Ghosal – as well as a moment in the mother-son relationship with Karuna Bannerjee overflowing with maternal love, pride, hope, and fear. Incidentally, both Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen felt that this film was the best of the Apu trilogy.
Aparajito booklet pages, Musui Art Collection
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer, photographer and cinema lover.