The word “aparajito” means “the undefeated.” Anik Datta decided to use this as Satyajit Ray’s first name in place of his original, famous one. But that leaves no room for doubt about the person the film is about – Satyajit Ray whose classic film among the Apu Trilogy was named Aparajito, used metaphorically as well as ironically in this film. “Metaphorically” because Datta unfolds through the film’s beautifully structured narrative, the long struggle that marked Ray’s journey from the conception of Pather Padabali (as named in the film) through which he emerged with his head unbowed. Ironically because Apu, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali was, in a manner of speaking, a loser in the tragic games life played on him. This could also be read in reverse if the word “undefeated” is understood from the perspective of the man himself – Apu whose life redefines the word “undefeated” from the way we understand it.
Satyajit Ray, on his 101st birth anniversary, is flooding the media in many different ways. Among one of them, a more looked-forward-to one is Aparajito directed by Anik Datta and produced jointly by Firdausul Hasan and Probal Halder under the banner of Friends Communications. Shot in Black-and-White, Dutta threads the entire narrative through an AIR interview of Ray carried on by the noted theatre scholar Shamik Bandopadhyay that happened after Ray became a household name pegging him almost unfailingly to his debut in direction, Pather Panchali.
The brilliance in the film lies mainly in the manner Datta has built up his film, brick by small brick, ambient sound byte by ambient sound byte, visually rich frames, Ray’s growth from a commercial artist at DJ Keymers where we find him building up his collection of Western classical music, listening to the violin played by his favourite Munshi-da through his creation of the city’s first Film Society with like-minded friend Chidananda Dasgupta and some others, watching films today in someone’s balcony by putting up a bedsheet for a screen and an old projector which one had to struggle with and on another day in someone’s bedroom.
Though we see Aparajito as an incorrigible fan of Western classical music, Hollywood films and English novels, with time, and after he could finally get to watch The Bicycle Thief, he decides to make a film himself. His boss is shocked to hear that Ray has not read Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali when the former calls him to do the cover for an abridged edition of the classic for children under a different name. Ray is mesmerised by the descriptive details in the novel and decides to make a full-length feature film based on this.
These renderings are intercut back into that AIR interview time and again as an editing device with a very young Ray responding to, strangely, a much older Shamik Bandopadhyay’s carefully structured questions which unfold the layers of evolution of a man who loved to dream and draw and sketch and watch films to become one of the best ten directors the world has ever produced. Perhaps, this was a well-thought-out, structured screenplay but looking back, the clipped, and staccato Bengali questions by Bandopadhyay and the answers by Ray at times appear to break the smooth lyrical and poetic rhythm the film successfully builds over its more than two hours of running time.
Also read: Adoor Gopalakrishnan on Cinema, Ray & More
The biggest takeaway from the film is the way Datta discovered a whole array of his cast to closely resemble the persons they were portraying. Among these, Aparajito would never have been the film it has turned out to be without Jeetu who plays the title role ‘becoming’ almost an exact replica of the person he portrayed. The credit goes firstly to Anik Datta to discover how Jeetu could be metamorphosed to look like a younger Ray, secondly, to that miracle-of-a-make-up-man in the name and style of Somnath Kundu who has replicated even the mole on Ray’s chin including the pimples on his face and his slightly dark skin, and last, but never the least, Jeetu, the debutant large screen actor who transforms himself miraculously to a younger version of Satyajit Ray through his expression, his manner of speaking, his clear enunciation of both Bangla and English, his cigarette dangling from one corner of his lips, his way of folding his arms at an angle behind his head, his body language including the way he folds his hands together at the celebration of his victory to thank his audience when he is an internationally recognised name at the end of this film. One wonders how he will fit into other roles in other films after this one, considering the magic he has created on screen.
All the other actors have matched Jeetu dialogue for dialogue, including the Hindi-English-Bangla used by the young actor who plays Bansi Chandragupta, Sayoni Ghosh as Bijoya Ray, Anasuya Majumdar as Aparajito’s widowed mother, Anusha Viswanathan as Durga and everyone else fit into the roles they were given to play.
Some catchy moments are – on the ship when they are returning from England, Bimala (Bijoya) steps on the deck of the ship and breaks into a soft Tagore number. She stops when her husband joins her and he says – why did the singing stop? Another memorable scene is where Aparajito discovers his “Indir Thakrun” played here by a man! Bibhuti Bhsuan’s widow agreed to give the film rights to Ray in another touching piece of nostalgia. The scene in the Coffee House where the committed young men discuss finances, the lack of which pushed back the film by more than a year takes us back to a Kolkata many of us have forgotten and some youngsters have never seen. Ray’s sojourns in Calcutta looking for a producer brings out some humour as their response to the fact that the film has no romance, no song-dance scenes and no fight scenes which makes them withdraw.
The biggest takeaway from the film is the complete reconstruction of the little Manik and Uma (Apu and Durga) running through the kash fields to have a glimpse of the train and the entire audience in the theatre broke into collected applause. Ray’s dissatisfaction with little Apu’s acting is brought across exactly as Ray would have reacted in real life though we have not witnessed it.
Ananda Addhya’s art direction brings the 1950s Calcutta and Boral alive, beautifully enriched with the incredibly “real” cinematography by none other than Supratim Bhol who captures the clouds in the skies before it begins to rain, the way Uma gets wet and merrily runs around in circles with her hair hanging down, old, faded photographs with peeling layers, an old framed and garlanded portrait of Sukumar Roy, the interiors of the Ray home, possibly on Lake Temple Road, the interiors of the office at Keymers’ and the sophisticated meeting hall in London. Black-and-White invests the film with a ‘period’ mood and takes seniors back to the golden days when colour in cinema was absent.
Debjajyoti Mishra largely sticks to the theme music done by Ravi Shankar in the original Pather Panchali but twists it from time to time to take away the ‘imitation’ and add something of his own this very different film to make it a ‘new original.’ Very imaginative indeed. Tirthankar Majumdar’s sound design absorbs every ambient sound one can hear away from the frame such as the bells in some temple nearby, the ringing of the old telephone, the sound of the fan whirring in the office, the sound of the ship’s horn, the sound of the movie camera, the sounds of people talking, or the radio blaring, away from the frame add a third dimension to the visuals apart from the dialogue spoken just as it is in real life situations by real people.
Arghya Kamal Mitra’s editing leaves no room for critique as he cuts smoothly from the interiors of the Keymer office to the narrow, stuffy room where Ray is trying out his projector before screening a film, or, smoothly moving to the landscapes of Boral with Manik and Uma running through them or, the staid, ‘proper’ meeting with Bidhan Chandra Roy and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who loved the film after a special screening. I take my hat off to Anik Datta and company as this is the best Bengali film I have seen and reviewed through 2022. And I have seen quite so many!
Images used in the article were sourced by the author.