Monday, 9 April 2001
The Apu Trilogy (1959)
The Apu problem was giving commentators a cow for much of 2018, as The Simpsons came under fire for racial stereotyping…how could such a righteous and democratic show screw up like that?? The caricature Kwik-E-Mark proprietor takes his name from Indian cinema’s classic ‘Apu Trilogy’, of course, a trio of films made by Satyajit Ray in the 1950s, concerning the rites of passage of a poor Bengali village boy.
Ray was a graphic artist from a prominent family who worked for a British advertising agency in Calcutta. After the war he co-founded the city’s film society, importing foreign reels to meet a demand for western cinema among young educated Bengalis. When Jean Renoir came to town he scouted locations for the famed director. But it was during a trip to London, and a minor cinemagoing blitz, that his Eureka moment occurred, at a screening of Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
That was the spark which convinced him he could make cinema himself, using non-actors and an inexperienced crew. His ambition was to film the celebrated novel Pather Panchali. And so, recruiting a rookie cinematographer and asking a young classical musician called Ravi Shankar to compose a soundtrack for him, he set about learning on the job. The three films which transpired evoke the humbleness of village life (Pather Panchali, 1955), the yearning for betterment (Aparajito, 1956) and the realities of becoming a man (The World of Apu, 1959) with the clear-eyed simplicity of a classicist. As a result Ray prised open the culture of an entire continent.
Never has one man had such a profound effect on a nation’s film industry, bringing European style to a domestic scene long possessed with musical epics. A Parallel Cinema movement was spawned and a long and illustriuous career for Ray himself was to follow, becoming an icon in his native land, feted from Cannes to the California Hills, and to this day the Apu Trilogy remains a fixture on ‘greatest movies’ lists.
As far as Apu’s Springfield conterpart is concerned, though, the cartoon character offers neither in-jokes nor nodding references beyond the borrowing of the name. There are no lifted lines for the clever cineaste to seize on, and the original Apu certainly doesn’t talk ‘like that’.