So much has already been written about Pather Panchali and Aparajito that Ray's trilogy was destined for classic status even before the release of the third instalment, and the various influences - Renoir, De Sica, Donskoi and Ozu - have long since been traced and named.
Now that World of Apu is completed, we see it is all the things Ray claims for it, and much more. "It is in many ways my most satisfying film," he said - and in the opinion of many of the critics, also his finest. The poetic beauty he imparts to the first two films is present here also, and there is a maturity not merely of outlook, but of expression, and the sensitive handling of the characters makes many of the sequences unforgettable. The total impression it creates is of a profound emotional realism unequalled in the Indian cinema, and seldom found elsewhere.
The third part of the Bengali saga continues in the story of Apu, now a young man living in Calcutta and dreaming of a literary career and a positive future. An old friend invites him to a village wedding. When the marriage is called off due to te bridegroom's illness, Apu is asked to marry the girl in order to spare her the traditional ill-luck of a waiting bride. Though horrified by these ancient superstitions Apu agrees, and returns to Calcutta with his bride. Slowly and miraculously a bond of love grows between them and Apu begins to work again. Suddenly a tragedy robs him of his wife; lost in despair, he destroys his writings and wanders disconsolately around the countryside. One day, his friend finds him and urges him to go back to the young son he has never seen. Apu decides to return and win his son's affection.
The central human bond of World of Apu, between husband and wife, springs from Apu's agreement to step into the shoes of a bridegroom. Such an action is inexcusable from an Indian outlook. Because of it, the family association isn't quite rooted in the normal - unlike the mother-son association of the preceding film - and yet, it is so wonderfully developed; the wife rising at dawn to the noise of the alarm clock, pushing Apu to dislodge her gown from beneath him; his proud worries concerning his inadequate author's wages, which she gently brushes aside with a reminder of her devotion; their parting at the station when she goes to her mother's to have their baby; his reading of her adorable letters ("You promised me eight notes last month, I have only seven. I can't trust you"). The playing of Soumitra Chatterji and Sharmila Tagore is flawless.
The integrity and humanity of the trilogy rival even that of Mark Donskoi's Gorki series. A remarkable work, lyrically acted, and cut with a slow opulent rhythm. Perhaps because he is a realist working against a histrionic tradition, Ray manages to be stylised and naturalistic at the same time, and can switch from the oracular to the matter of fact without a jolt. "What is in your eyes?" says the young hero rhetorically, watching his brooding, opiate-lidded bride as they drive away from their wedding. "Kohl," she says peacefully, without bathos.