It sits uncomfortably as the third entry of Satyajit Ray’s masterful Apu trilogy. The character returns, his past is Pather Panchali and Aparajito, he is played charismatically by Soumitra Chatterjee, but something is off about The World of Apu. Ray himself considered the trilogy a railroad one; one notes that trains play only a minor role here. There’s also the case of the film in-between (Ray made The Philosopher’s Stone after Aparajito)—was the break decisive?
The first two Apu films were warm, exploratory like their youthful protagonist. Tragedy struck, yes. In the second both parents died—the father first, then, heart-breakingly, the mother, but there was hope, a sense of something better awaits. Tragedy also strikes in The World of Apu (not as strongly, we aren’t as intimate with the character), but her death seems final. There is nothing better hidden behind the swaying grass or deep within the dirty city or between the pages of English books. (One of Ray’s great scenes: a bearded, conflicted Apu thrusts the pages of his unfinished life’s-work novel into the uncaring air). Apu the boy becomes Apu who-has-a-boy. That, Ray wipes his palms together, is it: make of it what you will, good / bad. Youth cracks, responsibility hatches. It’s not an easy reptile.
The World of Apu is a more philosophical film than its younger brothers—almost by definition colder. Warmth surfaces, Sharmila Tagore is mesmeric and warm as Apu’s young accidental wife, but is subsequently submerged in detachment. Ray pulls back. Time passes, episodes end, cuts take us elsewhere. This lack of continuity allows for a broad canvas but less privity. Apu is harder to understand, impossible to penetrate. Maybe men are tougher nuts to crack than boys? Where Pather Panchali and Aparajito (my favourite of the three) are lush films, inviting us to feel their Bengali climate, The World of Apu is airy, mountainous. In the end, each man goes his own way. Who are we to understand why.