Satyajit Ray's intensely inspired and durably stirring "Apu Trilogy" restores the authentic sense of India, emotionally and historically, that "Gandhi" fails to recreate.

A timely revival at the American Film Institute, "Apu" makes "Gandhi" seem inadequate in terms of period and scenic evocation.

Gandhi isn't mentioned in the course of the trilogy, which spans the years 1910-40, but Ray's movies restore the physical and social immediacy of the country he helped arouse.

A powerfully distilled saga about family, national and personal life subjected to agonizing trials, the trilogy was derived from two famous, revered autobiographical novels, "Pather Panchali" and "Aparajito," by the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Banerji. The portrait-of-the-artist chronicle begins with the birth of Apu into a small, impoverished Brahmin family in rural Bengal.

In the wake of a devastating loss, Apu's parents abandon their crumbling ancestral home and migrate to the holy city of Benaras. Ultimately, the course of events takes Apu to Calcutta, where we encounter him in the final movie as a callow young intellectual with literary aspirations.

The first two films are known by the original titles ("Pather Panchali" is translated as "The Song of the Road" and "Aparajito" as "The Unvanquished"); the third, "Apu Sansar," is usually rendered in translation "The World of Apu." The AFI Theater revival begins with showings of "Pather Panchali" today at 6:30 p.m. and tommorow at 9 p.m. "Aparajito" will be shown Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and then share a Sunday bill at 2 p.m. with "The World of Apu." A second screening of "The World of Apu" Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. concludes the series.

Ray had nurtured a desire to film the books for years before he began the project. He did illustrations for a children's edition of "Pather Panchali" in 1945, while employed as an illustrator and art director for an advertising agency in Calcutta. By the time he commenced shooting in 1952, with roughly $2,000 raised through borrowing on his insurance and selling his wife's jewelry, Ray had refined his vision of the source material in graphic as well as dramatic terms. Marie Seton's 1971 appreciation of Ray, "Portrait of a Director," includes examples of his sketches and engravings for "Pather Panchali" that the finished film seems to recreate and burnish in a definitive pictorial form. The whole movie seems powerfully compressed and visualized from the outset.

The trilogy deals with the most intimate human situations--the tangled affections and resentments of five members of a peasant family in "Pather Panchali"; a child's loss of one parent and alienation from another in "Aparajito," combined with his intellectual awakening to a larger culture than the one he was born into; and the bliss of a happy, providential marriage followed by a tragic loss and then reconciliation in "The World of Apu." Very basic stuff in every respect, and Ray entered the medium with such a powerfully concentrated appreciation of what the human essentials were and how he could express them with an economy of imagery and acting gestures that he became an instant classic humanist..

In retrospect, several aspects of his achievement may seem even more remarkable. For example, it's difficult to think of movies that depict impoverished surroundings with such straightforwardness. . There's no squalor or sentimentality in the poverty endured by the characters in Ray's trilogy. It's always evident, and you see how it can scar the characters (the mother's wrath in "Pather Panchali" is a particularly horrifying example), but they don't surrender a trace of human dignity or moral responsibility as a result of that condition. They exist in impoverished circumstances that invariably teem with life and volition.

A word of warning about the woeful condition of the prints, however. The AFI projectionist pointed out that the copy of "The World of Apu" received from the distributor, Films Inc., was in particularly sorry shape, requiring splices or repairs every dozen sprocket holes or so. In addition to the more or less consistent raggedyness of the print, it turned out to be missing an extended chunk of early exposition.

For those who haven't seen the movie, it now becomes necessary to explain that when Pulu, an old college pal, finds Apu in his Calcutta hideaway and they go out for the night, Pulu eventually invites Apu to be a guest at the wedding ceremony of his beautiful cousin Aparna (the astonishing Sharmila Tagore, an actress of preternatural erotic and expressive impact at the age of 14). No wedding guest ever stumbled into a luckier romantic match--20 years later the idyll of Apu and Aparna still seems a love story of transporting charm and pathos.