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'The World of Apu' director Satyajit Ray.

Ghost 'World'

The influential presence of Satyajit Ray's 'The World of Apu' lingers over some of the greatest American films of all time

By Steve Palopoli

You may have heard that UCSC is home to the largest collection of films by Satyajit Ray in the country, and possibly the world. But even if you know a thing or two about film, you may not know why you should care.

Similarly, if you've never experienced one of Ray's films, you may wonder why The World of Apu, a 44-year-old movie from India, is the must-see entry at this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival. But even if you've seen it, don't be too quick on that buzzer--the answer is only partly that it's a great film. It's also got a couple of other things going for it. Like, oh, influencing some of the greatest American movies of all time.

"American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Philip Kaufman have told me if they didn't see the Apu trilogy, they wouldn't be filmmakers today," says Dilip Basu, the UCSC associate professor of history who established UCSC's famed Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection. "The impact of the Apu trilogy is incredible in that sense."

That may seem somewhat incredible itself, considering Indian films are in limited circulation in this country even today. But Ray's Apu trilogy--1955's Song of the Road, 1957's Unvanquished and 1959's The World of Apu--found an audience in America and around the world at exactly the right time to impact an entire generation of filmmakers.

There was some luck involved: namely, John Huston happened to be in Calcutta while Ray was making Song of the Road, his very first film. Huston was talking it up back in New York before it was even finished, and it was rushed to this country immediately after completion. There hadn't even been time to translate it, meaning audiences here saw it without subtitles, but the critics still went nuts. It was entered in Cannes, where it took two awards that year.

That foreign audiences could have reacted so strongly to a film whose dialogue was completely beyond their comprehension is less shocking when you see Ray's work in The World of Apu. So much of the impact is visual, and most of the rest comes through in the sheer visceral emotion of the performances--all the more impressive in World of Apu since Ray (like Vittorio De Sica in Ray's own inspiration, The Bicycle Thief) insisted on using leads who'd never acted before. That precarious balance of raw cinéma vérité style with film craft that continually catches you off guard--stunning tracking shots that move across empty landscapes to find the focus of a scene, an ending so perfectly constructed it was re-created shot-for-shot in 1995's My Family--is perhaps the most obvious evidence of Ray's influence on modern filmmaking. New York City ain't Calcutta, but in light of what he told Basu, one can't help but wonder, for instance, if seeing The World of Apu helped Scorsese work up the nerve to blend technical grace with hyperreal grit in Taxi Driver.

Appearing at the Pacific Rim Film Festival screening on Oct. 13 will be Sharmila Tagore, the now-legendary Indian actress who got her start playing Aparna, the young wife in The World of Apu. It's stunning to think that Tagore was only 14 years old when Ray handed her such a part, and even more amazing to see how huge of an impact she had on a film in which she does not appear until halfway through. Considering that Tagore plays a woman in 1920s Calcutta who clearly is not allowed much control over her own life since she doesn't even get to pick her husband, it is fascinating how much of a feminist subtext there is to World of Apu. Tagore is certainly a big part of making that come across--from under layers of traditional clothing, she brings strength, sly wit and no end of charm to her performance.

"All of Ray's women characters tend to be very strong, and men tend to be very weak," says the Ray archive's Basu. "Pauline Kael once remarked that 'it's hard to believe that Satyajit Ray is a man, not a woman.'"

Brave New 'World'

It's also hard to believe Ray was working in an era in which film had for the most part barely discovered postmodernism. Though the World of Apu's plot is outwardly fairly straightforward even for an epic drama, there is a more complicated thread of self-reference that winds through the story and gives the narrative a whole other layer of depth. At the beginning, Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a frustrated writer, certainly not the most ambitious guy in the world and almost disturbingly happy-go-lucky. "What do you take me for?" he asks at one point. "A fool acting in a comedy?"

Well, not in a comedy, but otherwise, yup. He is, in fact, the archetypal Fool. He can't make rent, doesn't care, thinks working is beneath him and is prone to weird outbursts of crazy laughter and pretentious quoting. Most of all, he plays the flute a lot--which don't put naan on the table, if you know what I'm saying.

He tells his friend Pulu that he dreams of writing his vision of the Great Indian Novel--a story where the main character "feels that he has the seeds of greatness," but doesn't quite make it. "He remains in want, in poverty," Apu goes on. "But that doesn't discourage him. He realizes that one must face reality. One must live."

Even Pulu can see the postmodernist undertones here, and he calls Apu on it. "It's more an autobiography than a novel," he quips, and of course it's even more the film we're watching (which was, in fact, based on an autobiography). However, neither the characters nor the audience at that point can know what it really means to "face reality." By the end, through various twists, we've learned, and it isn't always easy. But in Ray's hands, it's always convincing and powerful.

Besides the screening at the Pacific Rim Film Festival, it's worth noting that the UCSC Ray collection, which now houses 35 mm prints of 31 of Ray's 36 films, will also provide films for a Ray retrospective that begins Sept. 22 at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. Basu, who has worked with a singular vision to establish and grow the archive over the last decade (and also, incidentally, is the man who personally brought Ray his Lifetime Achievement Award Oscar, which the filmmaker accepted on his deathbed in 1992), was honored this summer with a Distinguished Service Award from the Cultural Assocation of Bengal.

The World of Apu will be screened Monday, Oct. 13 at 7pm at the Del Mar as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Sharmila Tagore will be on hand for a Q&A.

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From the October 8-15, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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