Back in 1955, we were introduced to the Roys, a poor Bengali family from the 1920s. This sequel to Pather Panchali picks up where we left off there, shortly after Harihar and Sarbajaya, along with their son Apu (now an only child) have moved to a city along the Ganges where father Harihar has found work as a priest. Things seem to be looking up for a while – Harihar is well respected and decently paid, and there’s enough money for Mom Sarbajaya to spoil Apu a little with better food and the occasional sweet. Apu is also having a whale of a time hanging out with all the other kids in their neighborhood, and one of them is even teaching Apu English. However, their luck soon runs out when Harihar visits a sick neighbor – Harihar falls ill soon after himself, and dies, leaving wife and son alone.
At first Sarbajaya cleans houses to keep things afloat; but she’s never really been comfortable in the city, so when her uncle invites them back to Bengal and live in one of his guest houses, she jumps at the chance. There’s a condition, however – the village is without a priest, and Apu is old enough to start following his father’s footsteps. So as long as Apu gives his apprenticeship a shot, they can live rent-free. Apu gives it an honest shot, but early on he discovers the local school is really close by the temple, and begs Sarbajaya to let him enroll there – their hours are late enough that he could stop in after temple. She reluctantly agrees – the enrollment fees take a chunk out of their savings – but it turns out to be a fortuitous choice, as Apu quickly distinguishes himself as an ace student. Within a few years he even wins a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Kolkata. He has to move away from home for this – something neither is all that thrilled about – but she lets him leave the nest, confining herself to occasional letters gently nagging him for visits. But Apu is so caught up in his schoolwork that he finds her pleas easy to ignore – even when she starts hinting that she may not be well…
Many of the same faces are back again; Kanu and Karuna Banjeree (no relation) are back as Apu’s parents, and Satyajit Ray is back in the director’s chair, bringing the same quiet focus onto the minutia of Apu’s life. We have two new Apus, however – not surprising, as Apu was only supposed to be about five or six in Pather Panchali, and here we see him age from about ten to about fifteen. I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed with Pinaki Sen Gupta, who played the younger Apu; a lot of the film called for him to be quietly watching things, as with the earlier film, but Gupta has a sort of vacantness in his gaze that didn’t fit the character. However, I was charmed with him in the scenes after Apu has started school; the headmaster recognizes Apu’s talent early on and gives him free rein in the school library, and there’s a whole vignette of scenes where Apu is excitedly talking his mother’s ear off telling her about the solar system and how sundials work, or making ungodly messes in the kitchen with science experiments, or scaring the dickens out of his mother by dressing up as a Masai warrior and pretending he’s in Kenya. Gupta has a lot of fun with those scenes because he gets to whoop it up and run around and do goofy stuff. (I also loved those scenes because I also did that as a kid, and my own mother quickly took the same nod-and-smile approach Sarbajaya adopts.)
The teenage Apu, Smaran Ghosal, is a better bit of casting. Ghosal plays Apu as a bit of a goody-two-shoes with a shy smile, eager to please his teachers and a bit dazzled by the city he’s moved to; crushed when his teachers discpline him. But back “home”, Ghosal plays Apu as more of a stereotypical teen who speaks to his parents in monosyllables. He’s not mean to his mother, though – there’s still a moment or two when teenage Apu regales his mother with the latest Cool Thing He’s Learned when he’s home for a visit, and he does seem genuinely torn when he’s getting ready to head back to school and his lonely mother asks him if he can blow it off for just one more day. Apu wouldn’t be mean; he’s too sensitive for that. He’s just a teenager, starting to feel torn between what his parents want and what he wants.
Interestingly, the novel upon which this film is based also gave Apu a girlfriend back in Kolkotta, and she is part of the reason why Apu is so eager to cut each of his home visits short. Satjayit Ray originally included this subplot, but when he found someone for the role, her uneasy fiancé forced her to drop out. It was too late to recast, so Ray cut the subplot out entirely. Ultimately he realized he didn’t miss her, and I honestly don’t either; the excitement of the larger world is what’s calling Apu away from home, and that’s enough.