This must be the worst way to do it.
Kaushik Ganguly’s Apur Panchali is purportedly a fictionalized biopic/tribute to Subir Banerjee, the child actor in Pather Panchali. Banerjee played that one iconic role before settling down to the life of an everyman due to financial/social circumstances.
Ganguly’s film dramatizes Banerjee’s life – in flashback – by drawing parallels to Apu. And that is precisely my point of objection; it takes an enormous amount of disrespect for the ordinariness of the everyman to define his existence solely in relation to a cultural touchstone. This is the highest form of veiled elitism; if Subir hadn’t played Apu you could be pretty sure there wouldn’t be a film of his life. Irony being – and I don’t expect the filmmakers to understand this – the story of Apu is moving precisely because it could be, and was, story of anyone from a certain background.
Ganguly takes a lot of pain to establish how Subir Banerjee shies away from any mention of Apu – as I imagine he actually must – but the supposed empathy with this reticence is betrayed by the whole parallels business – some of them so overtly forced you’d have to strain your imagination – a dubious bit of the pilfering of Ray’s legacy that has been continually perpetuated through the years by Bengali filmmakers. Oh, the subtlety!
The silliest bit of the fictionalizing – mandatory “based on a true story” warning; and that always is a warning! – is when Nemai Ghosh, the stills photographer of Ray is being interviewed about Subir. Ghosh says something cursory before saying he has a photo of young Subir. Picks up one from a stack full of actual prints from the sets; a photo of Parambrato! (Who promptly plays his part with all the gravity that comes from someone knowing how he’s a cultural icon and everything – as the actor Parambrato, and the character Subir/Apu. The older actor, Ardhendu Banerjee, is far more sensitive, getting a lot of everyman nuances just perfect.)
As if to rub the point in, about how beautifully Ray-like Subir – and by extension this whole film – is you have the background score (an almost note-by-note
copy of tribute to Ravi Shankar’s Pather Panchali theme) playing endlessly, trying to squeeze out
that last teardrop stuck in the corner of your eye. Emotions on rent from The
Greatest Indian Film. Go on, weep some more. For Bengali cinema is dead.