What the lesson is in cultural dynamic analysis

APU – Bengali with English Subtitles talented, intelligent, educated and creative person with no practical job skills is probably going to struggle to find work and happiness whether it is in Tokyo, Boston, Amsterdam or, in the case of the film “The World of Apu,” in Calcutta, India. The filmmaker Satyajit Ray makes sure that his audience is fully aware of the disappointments and frustrations his protagonist Apur Sansar, known simply as “Apu,” experiences. But hold on, the way in which typical Americans use the word “frustration” may not fully apply to Apu, because he seems the idealistic unworldly person, not impervious to emotional pain, but never willing to give up on his dream of publishing a novel. Apu is seemingly happy to simply stand out in a soaking rain, go through his day in the gritty streets of Calcutta, and to write his novel about his own life. Life’s pesky slaps across the face are just part of going through it all.

The film is educational on several levels. A movie viewer who has never been to Calcutta gets a big dose of it in black and white in this film. Black and white is probably the best possible format for a film that takes place in a big city with so much poverty, pollution and chaos. A viewer learns about India, Hinduism, Hindu culture, love and human emotions.

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The subtitles are of course helpful, but the quality of the direction is such that an alert viewer can ignore them and still get a wonderful sense of what is going on. The emotions that are created by close-ups and poignant camera angles tell a story of their own, with no words needed in many cases. There are no special effects in this film, no clever production techniques – because there is no need for these techniques. Strong characterization development through practical camera direction wins the day for Ray, and keeps the viewer interested, even though compared with the typical movie of 2008, this one is very slow-moving and pictorially bleak. The show close-up pictures of faces, expressions, and especially big Indian eyes, tell stories richer by far than crowded dialogue and/or narrative.

Viewers are introduced to and know something important about the protagonist at the opening of the film: A train whistle wakes the protagonist up, and even though there are leaks in the roof that let the water inside, the protagonist runs outside in a joyful bath of rainwater and silliness. Is this is a cultural dynamic? Be happy with what you have, because a lot of people in this culture have much less?

The film has a story, an important story to tell, and it tells the story very well. But all the techniques the director Ray uses tell other stories along the way. It is like a newspaper story that has a sidebar story for every main theme and point in the plot. An argument between two close friends in the dark of the night – an argument about love – is not central to the story. But it depicts several things: one, neither of the friends knows much about love but that doesn’t stop them from making their points in vain; two, what are friends for if not to debate once in awhile? And three, the point of the argument is related to an unpublished novel Apu has been working on, so argument or not, the fact that the friend is interested in what the other friend is doing brings some sense of warmth to the table.

Irony and juxtaposition are used very effectively in this film. The director has a habit of allowing the protagonist to find some joy or momentary salvation, but soon afterwards – sometimes immediately – that joy turns to seriousness at best and disappointment at worst. Highs and lows, in other words, are put into solid motifs that lead the viewer into the depth of the personal feelings of Apu. He loves the rain, jumps around in it like a little boy on his birthday, but soon his landlord comes in to demand rent. He receives a letter that tells him a publisher is interested in his manuscript but in the next scene he is turned down for a teaching position.

More examples are found throughout the film; he attends a wedding, a joyful time in the lives of the couple and their families, but it turns out the bridegroom has serious mental problems; Apu then marries the bride himself (because in Hindu culture if she does not marry the very day that her wedding has been planned, she will never marry) and is very happy but his wife dies during childbirth. It goes on and on like this, highs and lows, happiness and sorrow, portraying not only Indian culture alone but indeed the universal human condition.

What’s the lesson here in cultural dynamics? Is that what Ray is sharing with us through his characters and the plot? In fact, zeroing in on the wedding dilemma, the filmmaker seems to be negatively critiquing the Hindu culture. Is it Ray’s intention to show the absurdity of a pre-arranged wedding in Hindu culture? The pratfalls of pre-arranged weddings are shown very well in this film. The family is disgraced. The bride’s reputation is ruined – and she is brutally hurt because the parents prior to the wedding didn’t carefully vet the potential bridegroom. Through it all, the protagonist Apu falls asleep by the river, with the soft flow of water past him and the dunes in the distance.

When his friend wakens Apu, the protagonist is treated to a startling fact – that there will be no wedding because there is no bridegroom. The camera catches so many emotions on Apu’s face throughout the film, but these scenes bring out the most drama in his face. The headlines might read, “Unemployed writer, living in poverty, becomes a Hindu hero by substituting for a lunatic bridegroom.” And when Apu agrees to this absurd arrangement – to marry the bride lest she be cursed in her culture – the film falls into a lovely moment of understatement. Instead of saying, “Yes I will marry her,” Apu simply states to his friend, “You’ll have to lend me a shirt, and I must shave first.”

This film is a wonderful portrayal of life in the slow lane of poverty, of family, and of personal sacrifice. Life knocks Apu down again and again and pushes him all over the map of emotions. But he goes about wandering and when he finally returns, to see his son for the first time, it gives the film a warm sense of humanity. The starkness of the pictures, backed by the wonderful emotions provided by Ravi Shankar’s musical score, give this a compelling and haunting story worth seeing again.

The World of Apu. Directed by Satyajit Ray. Sony Pictures Classics. (1959).

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