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An Indian Coming-Of-Age Trilogy, Restored To Its 'True Splendor'


This is FRESH AIR. The Indian director Satyajit Ray, who died in 1992, first came to prominence in the 1950s with the three films known as "The Apu Trilogy," which quickly became an international touchstone. Most people have never seen a good print of these films, but now there's a new digital restoration done by The Criterion Collection and the archive branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.

The restored prints are now being shown in theaters around the country, and in November, Criterion will release them on DVD and Blu-ray. Our critic-at-large John Powers says he's never seen them look so good.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In Don Delillo's novel "The Names," one of the characters does a riff on the difference between books and movies. A book throws a shadow, he says. A film is a shadow. But some shadows throw shadows too. Few have ever thrown a larger one than "Pather Panchali," the 1955 film that launched the career of the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray. It's first episode of his so-called "Apu Trilogy." The others films are "Aparajito" and "The World Of Apu," which follows its Bengali hero's life from boyhood to manhood. These films became landmarks that even half a century later can still expand our horizons. They show us India as it was lived by and seen by Indians, not by outsiders with cameras who found it exotic.

For decades, the trilogy appeared in prints that were bleached out, chopped up and sludgy of sound. I'd never seen any of the films in their true splendor until I recently caught the spectacular new 4K restoration made by The Criterion Collection. Graced by glorious black-and-white photography and fueled by the rousing score of Ravi Shankar, who didn't need The Beatles to be famous, the trilogy shines the beauty I never imagined it could have.

When we first meet Apu, pronounced Apurba in the film, he's a wide-eyed little boy from a poor rural family who's surrounded by vivid relatives - his slightly feckless father, his beleaguered mother, his ancient-and-charming auntie and his older sister who brims with anarchic life. Apu was caught between his delight at life's surprises or the thrill of seeing his first train and his awareness of life's pain, especially for Indian women, who, as Ray knew, endured the brunt of the suffering.

By the time we meet Apu again in "Aparajito," the strongest and most dramatic of the three films, he's grown into a teenage scholarship student in the holy city of Varanasi. There, he must juggle his ambition of being a writer with his feelings about leaving behind his mother, a doting, needy widow, in the countryside.

The years leap ahead again in "The World Of Apu," where we discover what becomes of his earlier hopes. Apu has entered the world of young manhood, with its grownup despairs and joys, including his unexpected love for his accidental bride, Aparna, in one of the screen's radiant portraits of marital bliss.

The arc of Apu's story is the arc of modern life itself, moving from the country to the city, from centuries-old acquiescence to 20th-century aspiration, from the fantasy of success to the disillusionment of reality. The measure of his journey can be found in his experience of trains. Over the three films, these roaring engines of modernity go from feelings as miraculous as shooting stars to taking on a darker, more ambivalent familiarity.

Now, some of the trilogy feels a tad romanticized today. Ray's no greedy realist. But its emotions feel true. What you'll always remember about the trilogy is its compassion and generosity of spirit. Although Francois Truffaut famously walked out of "Pather Panchali" saying he didn't want to watch peasants eating with their hands - not exactly Francois's finest hour - Ray was anything but a primitive. He was a worldly, well-educated man who, before shooting "Pather Panchali," had become conversant with Italian Neorealism and helped the French director Jean Renoir with his film about India, "The River."

Influenced by both East and West, the trilogy reveals a refined filmmaking style all Ray's own - flowing, loose and open to a wide world in which no one is unworthy of the tension. With unforced naturalness, he makes us feel the glowing magic of feathery reeds in the sunlight, the Savage beauty of monsoon deluge battering blackened stone streets, the exultation of love and the inescapability of loss.

Rye would go on to make even greater films - "Charulata" is his masterpiece - but none that are more beloved. While the passing of time is often unkind to landmark films - who today thinks "The Seventh Seal" brilliant? - "The Apu Trilogy" still feels timelessly alive thanks to the delicate purity of Ray's vision which was there from the very beginning. He shoots life with an embracing tenderness that makes the world of Apu our own.


GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow, I'll talk with photographer Sally Mann about her work, including her controversial nude photos of her children, her photos of decomposing bodies at a University of Tennessee research facility known as the Body Farm and her photos of her husband and his muscles that are withering from muscular dystrophy. She's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.