In short, it has all the stuff that good cinema is made of. Yes, good, but not brilliant.
Mark Twain, who had a quote for all seasons, once said that comparison was the death of joy. I say comparison is a bitch. Because when you make a film as subtle, as heart-warming and as nuanced as
, the last thing you want to hear is the audience and those critics (bless their souls) raving about another Panchali, made nearly six decades back.
But then, director Kaushik Ganguly brings it upon himself. In
, he traces the life of one of our greatest child actors, Subir Banerjee, who played little Apu in Ray's
. The exploration of Subir's life is a journey into the heart of darkness — and out of it. Kaushik's tribute to the man is touched by grief, pathos, sympathy and a final redemption that brings both joy and fulfilment. In short, it has all the stuff that good cinema is made of. Yes, good, but not brilliant. For that you have the masterclass,
. But hang on, more on that later.
The premiere of Apur Panchali
Though Kaushik does not call his film a biopic, he had his task cut out while choosing the subject of
. Subir's life follows an arc that is the opposite of the lives of great men, who begin like you and me and end up famous later in life. Subir, on the other hand, was famous in childhood, but the rest of his life has been a story of decline and unfulfilled promises. He started out a star and was whittled down to a common man. There are no great achievements, only painful memories. Kaushik tells his tale gently and with empathy, drawing the audience in with three tracks that are woven together like gossamer threads in an intricate pattern.
So there is Arko (Gaurav Chakrabarty), a film studies student who goes looking for Subir-Apu, whose dreams have been lost in the bylanes of middle-class Kolkata. This middle-aged man (Ardhendu Banerjee) doesn't like strangers, stays alone and hates being identified as the child actor, Apu. As Arko breaks through his initial resistance, Subir opens up about his life and the second track plays out in flashback, with Parambrata Chatterjee as the young Subir. There are uncanny resemblances between Apu's life and Subir's — economic hardships, marriage, death of their fathers and wives — and Kaushik reinforces this on screen with footage from
juxtaposed against scenes from his own film.
Pather Panchali begins for Satyajit Ray's hero
There are many Apus here — some Ray's and two Kaushik's. Anything said in praise of Ardhendu's portrayal runs the risk of saying too little. He is superlative, putting in a restrained performance as Subir. The pain of his life's mediocrity is matched by his fierce sense of self-worth, which allows him to renounce the world and its middle-class curiosities. Parambrata is, well, Parambrata. His performance is able and studied but I'm still waiting for that one edgy role that will let him break out of his good-boy, slightly bheto, screen sensibilities. Maybe he's waiting for it too. Parno Mittra puts in a lot of effort as Subir's young wife Ashima but it's Ritwick Chakraborty as Subir's friend who steals almost everybody's thunder in a small role. Indraadip Das Gupta had the unenvious task of composing a score that would be inevitably compared to Ravi Shankar's haunting, soulful music in the Ray film. He succeeds to an extent, especially with the thematic refrain which stays with you.
Nervous Parno gears up for a challenging role in Apur Panchali
So, now to some questions for the director. Did he really have to use so much of footage from
? Didn't he know that his own voice ran the risk of being snuffed out by a baritone much stronger? Did he not realise that his mature and compelling story could only show up as mediocre when held up against one of the best Indian films of all time? Didn't I tell you comparison is a bitch?