Is there a more vexatious film than the film about the making of a classic film? This type of self-reflexive cinema is arguably doomed from the start.

A critique of the classic, however fair-minded, outrages family members and fans. A flattering treatment wanders into the realm of the hagiography. When such films don’t place their efforts within a larger intellectual framework – answering the “why” alongside the “who” and “how” – there’s nothing to be done but to wait for the cruellest of comments: “Simply watch the original.”

At the very least, then, Anik Datta’s Aparajito is a brave project. Datta’s Bengali-language feature takes on two venerated subjects – director Satyajit Ray and his lauded debut feature Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955).

Datta’s 138-minute chronicle of the making of Pather Panchali arrives in the midst of Ray’s centenary. Aparajito declares upfront that it has been made with the permission of Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s filmmaker son. Aparajito stars Jeetu Kamal as a dead ringer for the great man, down to the pits on his face and the way he holds his cigarette.

Aparajito (2022). Courtesy Friends Communication.

And yet, Datta plays it very safe. His film’s title doesn’t refer to the hero of Pather Panchali, the Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay novel that inspired Ray’s debut and its sequels Aparajito and Apur Sansar. Datta has changed the names of every single character. Satyajit Ray is called Aparajito Ray, his wife Bijoya is Bimala, cinematographer Subrata Mitra is Subir Mitter and production designer Bansi Chandragupta is Chandragupta Kitchlu.

Pather Panchali itself is called Pather Padabali. Apu is Manik (also Satyajit Ray’s pet name) while his beloved sister Durga is Uma.

Even Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist classic that inspired Ray, has been retitled The Bicycle Rider. A certain “Martin Scottish” calls up Ray to rave about the Apu trilogy. It’s a mystery worthy of Feluda, Ray’s fictional detective.

Once the unsettling bizarreness of watching some of cinema’s most famous personalities being passed off under fake names dissipates, Datta’s film settles into a pleasant, if predictable, rhythm. Aparajito has been filmed in monochromatic silvery tones, as subdued as the build-up to Pather Padabali.

Aparajito was screened at the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai on Monday to mark the inauguration of a Satyajit Ray retrospective on the occasion of his birth anniversary. A remarkably life-like statue of Ray stood at the entrance of the auditorium.

Aparajito is scheduled to be released in cinemas on May 13.

A statue of Satyajit Ray at the National Museum of Indian Cinema, Mumbai. Photo by Scroll staff.

Inside, a kurta-clad man, unusually tall (“like a lamp-post”) and wise beyond his years, parleyed his self-taught knowledge of cinema into his first feature. The big-screen bug has bitten Aparajito, encouraging him to consider chucking a cushy advertising career for the uncertain pleasures of filmmaking.

It’s the 1950s in Kolkata, a time when leaps of faith are possible. Ray’s family members and friends back his dream. His wife Bimala (Saayoni Ghosh) is one of his staunchest supporters, pawning her jewellery and egging him on during phases of self-doubt.

Ray’s esteemed family name holds him in good stead, opening doors that might have been shut for others. In one of the best sequences, the chief minister of West Bengal (Paran Bandopadhyay), aided by a smart-thinking official, allots funds to Pather Padabali by passing it off as a road development project.

More such improvisations help Pather Padabali along the way. Aparajito also lovingly recreates some of its source material’s iconic scenes. The sequence in which Manik and Uma get drenched in the rain is shot in Ray’s absence by Subir Mitter and the rest of the crew, Aparajito tells us.

When Pather Padabali is released in Kolkata following rave reviews in America, Bengalis line up to watch their home-grown master. One reason could be a 1950s version of FOMO, Aparajito cheekily hints.

Aparajito (2022). Courtesy Friends Communication.

Elsewhere, Aparajito respectfully retreads deeply familiar material, drawing from anecdotes about Pather Panchali’s tortured production that are available in Ray’s copious writings and the numerous biographies about him. Datta eschews the eureka moments that precede the creation of a masterpiece. There are several scenes of people sitting around and talking, casually making far-reaching decisions.

At times, there is an airless and mechanical quality to the staging. Datta’s most radical act turns out to be the renaming of Pather Panchali and its makers.

By hiding behind invented names and situations, filmmakers are liberated to imagine their subjects as they see fit. Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, a fictionalised version of the making of John Huston’s The African Queen, deconstructs the cult of the megalomaniacal director. Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, which riffs on the friendship and fallout between Tamil Nadu’s chief ministers MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi, allows Ratnam to offer his version of the interplay between cinema and politics.

Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika, about the movie star Usha, is based on Hansa Wadkar’s autobiography Sangtye Aika. Usha speaks to every other woman who dares to go against convention.

By calling the film Aparajito, Datta and co-writers Sreeparna Mitra and Utsav Mukherjee initially appear to be drawing a parallel between Ray and Apu, whose childhood and early adulthood are scarred by penury, a series of deaths and thwarted ambition.

Like Apu, Ray too is seemingly undefeated. But his travails are of a far more temporary nature. Simply narrated and plainly filmed, Aparajito shows us the “when” and “how”, but leaves the “why” – and even the “who” – to the imagination.

Aparajito (2022). Courtesy Friends Communication.

Jeetu Kamal’s faithful impersonation is in keeping with Aparajito’s overall deferential tone. Unlike Q, who played Ray in Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Soumitra Chatterjee biopic Abhijaan with authority and hauteur, Jeetu’s filmmaker is still coming into view. The other bright bit of casting is the actor who beautifully plays Indir Thakrun, the scene-stealing toothless crone from Pather Panchali.

Ray made Pather Panchali against insurmountable odds, taking along with him a bunch of similarly adventurous mavericks.

Who were these people? Aparajito wants you to know but also doesn’t want to be the one doing the telling.

Aparajito (2022).

Also read:

How Satyajit Ray found Indir Thakrun, the scene-stealer of ‘Pather Panchali’

Rare sketches and photos of the making of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’

How Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy survived fire, decay and neglect to re-emerge anew

Light of Ray: The Subrata Mitra-Satyajit Ray partnership led to cinema’s most unforgettable moments