The Apu Years (1950–59)See also: The Apu Trilogy and Satyajit Ray filmography
Ray decided to use Pather Panchali (1928), the classic bildungsroman of Bengali literature, as the basis for his first film. The semi-autobiographical novel describes the maturation of Apu, a small boy in a Bengal village.
Ray gathered an inexperienced crew, although both his cameraman Subrata Mitra and art director Bansi Chandragupta went on to achieve great acclaim. The cast consisted of mostly amateur actors. He started shooting in late 1952 with his personal savings and hoped to raise more money once he had some passages shot, but did not succeed on his terms. As a result, Ray shot Pather Panchali over three years, an unusually long period, based on when he or his production manager Anil Chowdhury could raise additional funds. He refused funding from sources who wanted a change in script or supervision over production. He also ignored advice from the government to incorporate a happy ending, but he did receive funding that allowed him to complete the film. Ray showed an early film passage to Anglo-Irish director John Huston, who was in India scouting locations for The Man Who Would Be King. The passage was of the vision which Apu and his sister have of the train running through the countryside, the only sequence which Ray had yet filmed due to his small budget. Huston notified Monroe Wheeler at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) that a major talent was on the horizon.
With a loan from the West Bengal government, Ray finally completed the film. It was released in 1955 to great critical and popular success. It earned numerous prizes and had long runs in both India and abroad. In India, the reaction to the film was enthusiastic; The Times of India wrote that "It is absurd to compare it with any other Indian cinema Pather Panchali is pure cinema." In the United Kingdom, Lindsay Anderson wrote a glowing review of the film. But, the reaction was not uniformly positive. After watching the movie, François Truffaut is reported to have said, "I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands." Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic of The New York Times, wrote a scathing review of the film. Its American distributor Ed Harrison was worried Crowther's review would dissuade audiences, but the film had an exceptionally long run when released in the United States.
Ray's international career started in earnest after the success of his next film, Aparajito (The Unvanquished). This film shows the eternal struggle between the ambitions of a young man, Apu, and the mother who loves him. Critics such as Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak rank it higher than Ray's first film. Aparajito won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, bringing Ray considerable acclaim. Before completing The Apu Trilogy, Ray directed and released two other films: the comic Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), and Jalsaghar (The Music Room), a film about the decadence of the Zamindars, considered one of his most important works.
While making Aparajito, Ray had not planned a trilogy, but after he was asked about the idea in Venice, it appealed to him. He finished the last of the trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959. Critics Robin Wood and Aparna Sen found this to be the supreme achievement of the trilogy. Ray introduced two of his favourite actors, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, in this film. It opens with Apu living in a Calcutta house in near-poverty. He becomes involved in an unusual marriage with Aparna. The scenes of their life together form "one of the cinema's classic affirmative depictions of married life." They suffer tragedy. After Apur Sansar was harshly criticised by a Bengali critic, Ray wrote an article defending it. He rarely responded to critics during his filmmaking career, but also later defended his film Charulata, his personal favourite.
Ray's film successes had little influence on his personal life in the years to come. He continued to live with his wife and children in a rented house, with his mother, uncle and other members of his extended family.
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“He sighed with relief. He had got the job. He was safe.
Putting on his gown, he prepared for the long years to come....”
—Philip Larkin (19221986)