Don’t ask me why I saw Aparajito first but I did. (It’s an A movie and I must not have known it was a sequel years ago when I saw it.) But it was long enough ago that I don’t really remember it (and long enough ago that I lost my review when Zip.ca died). I don’t know why that’s relevant, but there you go.
This is an episodic and deliberately paced realist drama about a Bengali family struggling to survive in their ancestral home. It apparently started a new cinematic movement in Indian called “Parallel cinema,” essentially the Indian equivalent of neo-realism and chronologically prior to the various national New Waves. It is bleak, as much neo realism is, but it’s also pretty compelling. And the sort of lilting nature of the pace makes it feel more like “life” than a lot of supposedly realist films.
Perhaps the thing that stands out most is the score – I don’t know how many Indian films international audiences had seen as of 1955, especially European and North American audiences, but this is likely one of the first major exposures many people had to Indian classical music, or Ravi Shankar. I have no idea where his score would rank among historical Indian classical music pieces or contemporary ones but, for someone who had never experienced Indian music before, it must have been revelatory. Even now, in 2021, having heard some (by no means many) and having listened to an absolute ton of music influenced by Shankar and Indian classical music, the score is still just dynamic and incredible.
This is not a super showy film. (I know little about Ray as a director but a surer hand might have made this film awe-inspiring.) There are only a couple of really cool shots. For the most part, it’s much more about the story and the characters. That’s not say the shots aren’t well-framed, just that there aren’t too many shots you’ll think about later (though there are a couple). The editing is a little rough, and I don’t know if that’s a technological limitation of making a movie in West Bengal in the 1950s, if that’s because this is a first film, or something else. The rough editing makes the pacing feel a little weird. But I’m willing to lower my expectations a bit given the context and the cultural significance of the film.
But here’s an example anyway: the train. Imagine if there had been little to no music or ambient noise (aside form the necessary train whistle) before the train showed up. Now, I loved the score, but I can also imagine how powerful the train moment would be with better sound design. (I feel like some of the films that have done things like this have actually been inspired by the train moment regardless.)
Some people claim this film is a slog. I really didn’t find it so. (I have seen plenty of movies from the ’50s and earlier that are sloggier, trust me.) Instead I found a refreshingly realistic view of the struggles and experiences of the poor in Bengal in the early 20th century. (The novel is set in the 20s, though the film doesn’t explicitly say when it is set.) Anyone who romanticizes the simple life of peasants in the past should watch movies like this, as they should cure you of those delusions. There’s nothing romantic about this and that’s what I appreciate. It feels authentic. And that authenticity is devastating.