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Satish Bahadur, the guru / Photo SC

Had things gone right, Professor Satish Bahadur should have been the one writing these books, nor me. He would have done an infinitely better job than I am ever going to be capable of. So please be warned, dear reader, that in reading my stuff you are compelled to make do with only the second best. Bahadur sahib wrote miles and miles on the black board but was most reluctant to touch pen to paper. Even now I can see the great teacher smiling his blessings through clouds of chalk dust as I begin.

Satish Bahadur was our truly ‘listening’ Professor of Film Appreciation at the Film Institute of India in Pune where I spent three years as student of film direction in the late 60s. Within weeks of our arrival he showed us Pather Panchali, followed by Aparajito and later Apur Sansar. These were eye openers as you can imagine, after which we were converts for life. I certainly was. In 1974 I returned to join the direction faculty but spent that time being an extended student with Prof Bahadur. (Even our offices were next to each other and I would usually be found in his.) When in 1983 he superannuated and left the Institute, I felt very very nervous and alone. He had inspired a whole generation of us but left nothing behind for those coming later. Prof Bahadur passed away in 2010 at 85. He knew at the time that my book on Pather Panchali was on the way but couldn’t hold out. A huge loss personally for me, for I would trust none other’s feedback than his.

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At the moment I have three books on Apu trilogy to float on this blog. They’ll be released one by one, and true to the spirit of bogging, chapter wise. That should take about a year. That done, more will follow.

The first, therefore, would be a refined version of the The Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray published by McFarland and Company in the US.

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McFarland had plans to bring out an Indian edition through their Indian partners, redesigned but more importantly re-priced for our chiefly browsers’ market. (The American edition was sold exclusively online—you never got to thumb through the book at a book shop—and priced at $55!). But two years on nothing came of it. In February 2014 the rights reverted back to me. Since then my experience with Indian publishers has been dismal. I didn’t know any top honchos and approaching through routine channels they made me feel as though I was looking for a job. Unlike Americans, they were excessively secretive and kept neither their word, nor deadlines. So I have now dropped the idea of getting rich through writing and decided instead to directly reach out to the world sitting at home.

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 No more squeaky accented women to deal with on the phone, no Bengali commissioning editors assuming exclusive rights on ‘Shautojeet Roy’ to meet in their featureless, sterile cubicles.

The second and third books would be on Aparajito and Apur Sansar. Words for both these are ready, only illustrations remain to be done. I don’t want to ask Girish Sahasrabudhe, who did such an excellent job for Pather Panchali, to do these since I couldn’t pay him matching price for his talent and labour. I paid him just 22 thousand rupees in 2009 whereas 50 should have been in order; today, even more. For my part, in case you are curious and interested, I received just one single cheque of $200 from McFarland for my entire effort on the project! Dileep Padgaonkar told me he received a similar amount from his book on Rossellini or Pasolini, I forget which since I haven’t seen the book. Writers apparently are supposed to make their kill from publicity fallouts of writing: be nominated on committees, invited for lectures, inaugurations, weddings, funerals; essentially from living on page 3. Back in the 70s, the FFC filmmakers earned their monies from non-descript ad shorts, documentaries and corporate films while their New Wave titles got them name and prestige, and from that a claim on large budgets. Post Ankur, Shyam Benegal demanded the use of a state helicopter from Bansi Lal for a Haryana government documentary and got it. The film he made? Never mind.

After Apu trilogy other books under Professor Satyajit Ray can be analyses of famous—or my favourite—scenes from some of his other films, both fiction as well as fact. Or just structural notes on some others without necessarily going into details. Or even related material, say a rare interview with the master, which provides hands on academic insights into Ray’s world suitable for a learning filmmaker. Jalsaghar, Mahanagar, Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranaya, Kanchenjunga, Ashani Sanket, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Pikoo’s Day, Rabindranath Tagore, The Inner Eye, Bala.  Again words for most of these are ready, sketches would follow. Given the advantages of the medium of blogging I would have colour film illustrations in colour. Publishers tend to cringe having to include colour plates in paper books.

So unless help comes along in some form, I intend to do the rest of the illustrations myself. They are after all no more than black board work, the illustrations, at which I can assure you I wasn’t bad in my days. And who knows, with practice I may even improve!

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Ray is among the most consistent of filmmakers in the world. Kurosawa, Bergman, Mizoguchi are others on whom my kind of books are possible to write and they could all be learnt from by self-taught filmmakers. In addition, Ray is also rock bottom low on budget, which gives students a sense of kinship with him. In my opinion what learner filmmakers need are insights into the technique of the masters (technique as distinct from technology) and not necessarily their so-called worldview. Nuts and bolts, in other words, of how a scene was put together and not aesthetic discourses as so often tirelessly pedalled and obfuscated by critics and film studies departments. But more of this in my Preface to the Pather Panchali book.

About the same time that I got introduced to Satyajit Ray’s cinema in late 60s, an army cadet explained to me the technique of ballroom dancing that they were offered as hobby in the National Defence Academy. How does the couple relate without stepping on each other’s toes, I wanted to know. Putting his arm around my waist and holding my other hand above, he raised his first elbow in level with the shoulder to offer my free hand a firm support to rest over. The man initiates the woman, he told me, providing her an assurance and trust of security so that she can experience the bliss of romance. A trust that she’d never be cheated by this partner.

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I don’t know if the cadet was right on facts about ballroom dancing but watching a Ray film, I certainly feel like that privileged woman.

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Book Aparajito /Chapter 2 (a)

As the view fades in we are inside a temple. First the main spire, then Apu and Sarbojaya approaching the entrance with a crowd of devotees and finally inside where aarti is in progress.

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This is Benares’s famous Vishwanath Temple. This is the first time the film breaks out of the ghat ambience and begins to go wider. More such explorations would soon follow.

Examine the shot of Apu and Sarbojaya in prayer. One of the men in the group is rather a stern looking bearded youth. In the previous shot there was a bearded old man prominently placed outside the temple. Since none of the characters in the story wears a beard, such sprinkling of types is important for general representation of the populace. More importantly, notice another man behind Sarbojaya holding his palms together in prayer. Sarbojaya’s own hands by comparison are more crossed than folded. With a key-bunch hanging over the shoulder, hers is a housewife’s gesture of being god fearing rather than in prayer per se. Considering that there is a repeat reference to the aarti soon after in the narration, the temple visit may well be providing a godly dimension to the tragedy that is shortly going to befall the family.

The din of the temple cuts off giving way to Diwali fireworks gushing up into the night sky.

Sarbojaya is lighting earthen lamps when Harihar returns home indisposed and shaky. Notice the rich nuances of how this sudden development is handled in the film.

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That Harihar is unwell gets noticed right away as he enters from the street in the long shot. Only Sarbojaya discovers it later. A serial cracker set off in the street provides ‘illumination’ on many planes. Apart from lighting up the exterior for a silhouette, it also contrasts the public cheer with individual suffering.

After Sarbojaya helps him with his things we see Harihar reaching out to the verandah pillar for support. This should be a subtle ‘seeding’ of the image since he is shortly going to do the same on top of the ghats with much greater impact. Once put to bed, he tells her how it happened to him at the ghat steps. All these details plant fear and anxiety in our mind for the next time he is going to be there. A whole mise-en-scene has been embedded in our subconscious for that imminent next time.

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Sarbojaya wants to call a doctor but Harihar forbids asking her to give him a mixture from his bag. We were already suspicious of such medication ever since we saw him carrying a packet for a rheumatic; even Sarbojaya had expressed apprehension at that time. We are now infected with a morbid curiosity to see if what he had been giving others would work in his own case.

Notice the lighting when he is on the bed. There is no electricity in Benares yet. So it has to be an oil lamp—normally placed on a niche in the walls at eye level. That as the main source and occasional fire cracker from the street provide for the dramatic effect on Harihar’s face. Apu would experience electric light in Calcutta when he first enters his room and switches a bulb on and off.

Finally notice how under the ‘cover’ of another serial fire cracker—this time just outside Harihar’s window—Apu comes in full of cheer with a sparkler and his smile switches off.

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This is a reassertion of how Sarbojaya had likewise reacted to Harihar’s indisposition just a while ago.

Next we have a scene between Harihar on the bed and Apu. Taking him away from fun with other children outside, mother has asked Apu to sit with the ailing father.

Harihar        Come, sit down. Did you buy crackers? Which ones?

Apu               Some colourful ones and some which burst with a small sound.

Harihar        Here it is not as good as in our native place, isn’t it?

Apu is undecided.

Harihar        Did you see that firework that lights the sky?

Apu               Yes.

A boy calls Apu offscreen.

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Harihar        Who is calling you?

Apu               Shambhu.

Harihar        Who is Shambhu?

Apu               He lives in the next street.

Harihar        Your friend, who teaches you?

Apu               Yes.

Harihar        OK. Tell me, Apu is a good boy. How will you translate it in English?

Apu translates. The boy calls again.

Harihar        Call him inside.

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Apu               He will burst crackers now.

Harihar        You want to go with him?

Apu               Yes.

Harihar        (After a pause) OK, go.

This father and son scene falls in the same category as the one between Apu and Durga when Durga fell ill in Pather Panchali. There the children talk about plans to go and see the train once she is better; here too there is great cordiality and hope for recovery. Additionally here what the father talks about besides the fun of Diwali is significant. That Apu is learning English and whether it wasn’t better in their native place, both subjects relate to Apu’s education and future. That this talk should be taking place at the sick bed, which soon turns to death bed where Apu will be required to play a vital role as a Hindu son—pour Ganga water in the dying father’s mouth—loads the scene with added significance.

The idea is further advanced when later the same night Harihar feels better (a top angle view reminiscent of Durga looking up in the lens) and takes the medicine that Sarbojaya brings him. Interestingly, Ray does nothing to circumvent him from directly licking the mortar and pestle inspite of obvious Freudian associations. Instead he keeps it direct and simple, treating the act more in keeping with his frugal ways. Earlier before we saw him drinking milk wash before leaving the cup in front of Sarbojaya to clean.

Equally, she doesn’t sit with him, the same as Apu too wanted to escape and rather be with a friend.

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Harihar reports progress on shifting house near a school which brings cheer to a harried Sarbojaya. For us however the subject has resonances when he is due to shift to another world. Both parents watch as Apu amuses himself with scissors and paper. The boy’s hum is in the same category and of the same level of interest and absorption as Nand Babu’s very adult and romantic tune a while ago.

The view from Harihar’s window seen briefly as the camera pulls back is worthy of comment. As we know Harihar’s house is a ground floor section of a 2-3 storey building but why should their bedroom window open on a height? This has to be a very shrewd set designing ‘coup’ to do so, for in one quiet stroke it reinforces the irregular topography of the terrain. A similar play is in evidence all along the ghats where the uneven river-bank landscape has been harnessed through multi-layered steps all along the running waters.

Likewise, notice in how many ways this sad Diwali night has been given festival touches. Besides crackers outside, both heard and seen, there is a subtle and unwavering sprinkling of earthen lamps all over the scene.

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Morning begins with a monkey at the tap. And Harihar steps out to go for bath.

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That the monkey gives a fright to Sarbojaya was not in the script but incorporated once the happy accident took place. I wonder what the original scheme may have been. That Sarbojaya shoos off the monkey and washes the tap in the same shot until Harihar emerges? Friendly monkeys, like friendly cows? We’d never know. The accident however has revealed the authentic, true nature of that otherwise very sociable cousin.

After Sarbojaya regains composure she suddenly notices Harihar come out ready to go for bath. She tries to stop him but he has already made up his mind.

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Amidst the spread of sun shades, the usual din of bathers at the ghat.

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Having finished Harihar picks up his Ganga jal filled lota and begins to climb the steps. As we know, he wouldn’t go far before he collapses and is carried home.

Notice, to begin with, that the general shot of the ghat is not a mere repeat of any others used at the beginning. This is a longer view and unlike earlier ones, taken from a static boat. Secondly the priest handing glasses to Harihar is expectedly the same man (and in the same composition) as before but an old woman has been added to pass it off as another day.

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Interestingly, this ‘sameness’ of all other earlier references en route home, of people and places, is retained throughout the subsequent development here.

Examine the mise-en-scene as a whole. We have already seen Harihar’s routine at bath and here it is again in this new context. We know the route and can imagine the hurdles that the ill man is up against. The chief hurdle of course is what he faces immediately, the steep climb. Ray builds on this fact.

Notice the gentle shift of focus from close foreground to the depth of the flight of steps as Harihar wears his glasses. This he does at the edge of the frame—we barely sense the action—but the shift focus registers. The view is tighter this time, taken with a longer lens. As well as the frame is locked. What we now see represents his view of the steps.

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The earlier view of the steps had a somewhat fluid frame since it had followed Harihar from picking up his lota. This time he is allowed to walk the frame for much longer. Even so, the dissolve when it comes doesn’t help much—at the end of it he is still in the middle of the steps, somewhat doddering. The moment of reckoning is here, so to speak.

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Notice the details of this reverse angle, top view composition. The water body is now reflecting the sun directly into the lens. Only once have we seen this angle of view in the morning hours; at the very beginning of the film, when the camera rose from the pigeons to the rising sun. Otherwise we have known this side of things only from Apu’s wanderings in the evening. And once again the camera is back to a fluid frame, ‘nervously’ adjusting all the time until it has to swing-pan with him at the last moment.

The frame being wide open, Harihar can be given any desired route to follow. The one chosen for him here provides three specific framing compositions. One, at the beginning that includes the thatch at extreme right where he was given his glasses. Two, that which after panning away from the thatch comes to include the bobbing boat on the left as he climbs and comes closer. Three, the final composition after the swing pan that includes the unexpected support pole and a part of the building on the right.

Notice inclusion of two visual elements in the shot which are not essential to the plot but critical for its success. The empty boat bobbing in the water and a flight of pigeons that crosses the sky when Harihar struggles at his support. The boat’s ‘chemistry’ is difficult to explain. It’s a poetic image capable of multiple interpretations, the more obvious being that Harihar leaves the firmament of the thatch and comes upon ‘watery’ territory. The pigeons however are part of the larger scheme that he has been building towards Harihar’s death. They would peak as he dies.

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To me the moment is reminiscent of that famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin where a baby’s pram is critically poised at the top of the steps as bodies are falling all around from soldiers’ fire.

How have the pigeons been ‘directed’ for this shot? They wouldn’t be missed if they weren’t brought here as much as the boat too would not be missed. But here they are crossing the frame just before the shot cuts and are making an unmistakable contribution to the moment. As we know from Ray’s memoirs, they were using a cracker bomb to send the birds flying in formation. My guess is that unless the unit were really lucky, executing this shot would be as demanding as that famous composite shot of the dog getting up and following the children on the sweetmeat seller’s call in Pather Panchali. Harihar’s shot here could never be okayed without the correct timing of the birds.

And if this is already not genius, consider the next two shots. Having saved himself from tumbling down a hundred steps, Harihar finally crashes just at the entry point to the lanes. This is shown from the reaction of alarm of an old widow coming down in a composition familiar from Harihar’s first return from bath.

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And what does she see? A backlit, silhouette with much of the composition blocked by black on all sides.

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From a wide open shot with threatening gulf behind, to a closed, dark outlined opening in which Harihar’s figure falls ‘safely’. He has been lucky, we understand. A major mishap has been averted but would he live?

The silhouette composition is an echo of a similar boxed-in composition when Harihar came home unsteady on Diwali night.

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Let’s spend a moment talking about the ‘choreography’ of this present shot. Given the already reduced visual space of the composition and in the long shot, Harihar’s fall is arranged to ensure that the lota falls away from the body. He almost aims it that way. (Lota, in this context, is a carry-over from PP where one had rolled down the pond steps.) After the fall, the wind billowing his shawl to cover his face and the clear flutter of it over his body has be a chance but not entirely. It’s a windy day and the doorway being a small outlet, the passage should work as a funnel for the wind.

Notice the presence of wind in this entire development. Unmistakable evidence of it begins right from the priest handing Harihar his glasses. A cloth (not represented in my illustration) flaps in and out of frame. It gets windy as you get higher, so after-bath wraps are fluttering on the improvised lines. Notice that minus his billowed out dhoti, Harihar’s collapse would not look half as threatening and menacing.

Book Aparajito /Chapter 1(c)

As the view fades in we are at the ghats with Harihar reciting to a group of (mostly) women—in fact widows, since they are in white. We have already seen a lone figure of one at the beginning of the film and here are more. Benares attracts a large population of Hindu widows who come to spend their last years at the bank of Ganga. This is, in the main, what Harihar does for a living. What we earlier learnt of him giving away some kind of medication is an extra.

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The nature of lighting as also the calm of the atmosphere suggests that this should be the evening hour. In contrast with the din of bathers against the beating morning sun, this is a more peaceful time at the ghats when shadows of the city have lengthened over the water body.

Ray explores this scene through the idling Apu. Earlier we had seen him playing with other boys in the lanes, here he amuses himself alone.

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Rising from the platform, Apu jumps steps and runs along high walls lining the ghats.

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He’s just been seeing father ‘at work’ and now crosses another Brahmin reciting to another group. Compared to Harihar, this man is more earthy and an engaging performer.

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So the devotees have choice. The two priests might as well be selling their respective wares. It’s not so much about religion as earning livelihoods.

Next Apu comes to a third zone which is in complete contrast to the first two. Taking a peep inside a house boat he runs alongside the jagged edge of the steps and reaches the body builders’ zone.

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One of them fascinates the boy as yet another performer. Working a heavy stone at the end of a bamboo rod, he calls it gada, a weapon of gods from Indian mythology. (We are familiar with gada from the jatra performance in PP). The young man jokes with Apu to join him, then begins hoisting it with both hands in manoeuvres that are as much exercise as acrobatics. Apu watches mesmerised.

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Apu’s shot of him watching with stairs in the background is a repeat of that ‘idiom’; earlier we have similarly seen Sarbojaya in the courtyard with steps at the back.

The view dissolves to a long view of the darkening Benares skyline with Ganga in the foreground. Although the film has developed a pattern of freely using dissolves, even at times when a match cut would be normal, this is the first bridging transition using a city shot. More such applications are going to follow.

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Noteworthy on the screen are a couple of lights blinking in the distance. Without the blinks it would be a dead image. Ray was not beyond staging the blink, no matter how difficult it would be in those pre-walkie-talkie days. (And having done that, he would never, never talk about it!)

Sarbojaya is in the kitchen where she has run out of match sticks. Notice the sequence of searching actions that she goes through before calling Apu. Notice also how the answer presents itself in the timely appearance of Nanda Babu. And soon after, timely trickling in of Apu as well.

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We hardly know what Nand Babu does for a living but here is another clue—he comes home carrying a couple of tabla drums.

Notice how the search for the match box has been repeated in the living room before Apu appears and Sarbojaya sends him to Nanda Babu’s room. Notice, as well, how the staircase seen in the background as she explains to Apu assumes a ‘beckoning’ quality through repetition.

The shot inside the living room is our first viewing of the main living space of the family and we are led to it through Sarbojay’s search for a matchbox. On the same momentum we are taken to Nand Babu’s room upstairs, this time through Apu.

Notice that Apu’s entry into the house is a variation on the boy’s first entry. That was on-screen—we saw him as he entered—while this second one is off-screen, implied. Details such as these may look casual but it’s through devices like this that Ray’s mise-en-scene gets to acquire his famous seamless quality.

So far we have had neighbours descend from the unknown upstairs; now we are taken there ourselves to one particular neighbour. Two brisk shots through the staircase—one of them with a pan, the same as Harihar’s returning home at the beginning—and the boy is on the terrace. Again a two-way traffic in the reverse.

As has been the pattern so far, more and more details continue to emerge of Nanda Babu’s character. And this happens through the curious eyes of the little boy just as the exploration of the ghats has been a short while ago. He sees Nand Babu first undressing, then unwrapping a bottle of alcohol which he first tries to hide, then explains. All through the scene there is a picture of a woman on the wall—this would be a pin-up of sorts for those days.

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As Apu is about to leave, he is called back.

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This is to tell him to tell mother not to bother about returning the matchbox. Apart from the way he says it, the image size is the biggest so far of the man giving us a hint of his intentions. It wouldn’t ever get any bigger, not even when he approaches Sarbojaya in the kitchen to make his advance.

Finally as the scene ends and the view is fading out, we barely notice in the passing that Nanda Babu takes a cigarette to his lips. Actually he had also entered the courtyard with one similarly dangling. The only other time a character would light up in Aparajito is when Apu’s friend in college offers him one. While all such details add up to form a character, these are also values, howsoever subtle, which set off each character against the rest in the film as a whole.

This is the first time a vertical opening composition is used in the film to reveal Nand Babu’s room and his world. The second time the same eavesdropping idiom would be deployed is when mother points out Apu to the ailing father as the boy sits busy outside singing to himself. The third time is when Sarbojaya is descending the stairs and sees Apu blowing into a chillum in the distance.

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When the view reopens we are back again at the ghats. Another evening, another assembly of the faithful listening to Harihar.

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Notice the multi-level, multiple-plane long shot composition rich with the serene atmosphere on the bank of Ganga as Harihar is finishing. A Henri Cartier-Bresson, if you like, in its ease and simplicity. In order to break the large grey of the stone, the white dhoti was almost certainly added for visual relief.

Invariably from long shot to a close up—in fact any kind of juxtaposition between extremes—creates an abstraction as it does here when the view cuts to the plate of coins.

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These are daily collections that Harihar and other priests live on. Even though unnoticed, the angle of view of the plate reflects a wide open sky. The angle has been deliberately chosen avoiding the high buildings.

The evening over, the other priest we saw preaching next to Harihar introduces himself. In a familiar composition with Apu at the same place earlier on, the ever-smiling Kalicharan Bandopadhyaya begins with a compliment. He’s carrying tea leaves and is looking for a place where the hot drink can be made. Harihar invites him home. The two join up at the uppermost step and go chatting, exchanging introductions.

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Notice that the contrasting low and high angles showing them individually level up to a ‘cordial’ eye-level view in the third shot as the twosome goes.

At home, however, the subtext of the scene is its real substance. It’s not so much about Harihar’s warm hospitality but the making of tea which in those days was just being introduced in Indian homes. So there’s no chinaware yet; Sarbojaya is improvising the regular brass utensils to prepare and serve the beverage. In a telling detail (barely noticeable in the small sketch below) we see her using the handle of a brass ladle to stir the concoction as Apu too wants to have it.

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While Sarbojaya waits anxiously at the kitchen door to hear comment on her tea-making skills, what the visitor actually appreciates is her womanly presence that’s so handy and useful to prepare it. This becomes clear as the scene proceeds.

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Kalicharan has saved some money and is looking to get married. He reveals that secret in embarrassed instalments through the underlit passage to the exterior, finally asking Harihar upfront if he knows a suitable girl. This was the real purpose of the friendship and visit. As a tabla is heard being played nearby—Nanda Babu at it upstairs, for sure—Harihar declines. This is the resolution of Kalicharan Bandopadhyaya’s character; that’s the last we see of him.

That’s also the end of Chapter 1 of Aparajito.

As characters, Kalicharan and Nanda Babu provide a foil to each other. Both are looking for female company. Both are scheming in their own way. One begs for help, the other hopes to seduce and steal as we shall soon see. Sexuality as a theme had been only subliminal, if at all, through Pather Panchali and this is the first instance of active sexuality in the trilogy. For the first time we are seeing Sarbojaya in a dark striped saree looking glamorous and desirable. She is soon going to be a widow. A full blown romantic love is only going to be seen between Apu and his wife in Apur Sansar.

Notice how the sexual charge is built up in relation to Nand Babu. To begin with, it is through Sarbojay’s sixth sense, first when he suddenly appears from upstairs and the second time again when she is surprised by his return with tablas. Then, the calendar that he has brought. Howsoever casually slipped in, a rolled up calendar is also a touch of the phallic and to think he had come to hand it to her. Look at his room: tablas, the bed, the pin ups (there’s more than one to be sure), whisky, cigarette, and everything in an environment of temples and bells. That’s sexuality with colouration.

Consider Sarbojaya’s most casual smile to Apu as she makes tea. That prepares us for her smile in the next shot when she hears appreciation for it from the visitor. This in turn ‘seeds’ the idea for her crack of a smile in the train when they leave Benares and the first signs of Bengal countryside appear. Without these two instances that third smile would not work. That Sarbojaya pines for praise for her cooking, too, is a carryover from PP, from her first detailed conversation with Harihar in the kitchen after Apu’s birth. In Satyajit Ray, all kinds of seeds are forever being planted for harvesting at various levels later on.

Notice that Kalicharan returns to speak to Harihar from the street; earlier Apu was called back by Nand Babu as the boy was leaving. There is a surprising lot of ‘calling back’ going on in Aparajito as a matter of ‘patterning’ as Ray would call it.

Book Aparajito /Chapter 1(b)

Sarbojaya is washing the courtyard as Harihar enters.

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Unlike in Pather Panchali, water is in abundance here. Also, the act is a variation on bathing. Bathing bodies, bathing courtyards. Cleansing after all is what Benares is all about.

Since we are meeting the family for the first time after PP, let’s see the lines Ray has written for them.

Sarbojaya    Did you see the monkey?

Harihar        Did a monkey come?

Sarbojaya    No why will that be a monkey? That’s the brother’s son!

Harihar        Oh is that so? No I didn’t.

Sarbojaya    Suddenly he left without eating anything. (Keeps sweeping the floor and talking) Such a hopeless place. How do people live here? There’s no school nearby. How will I put him in a school?

Harihar, who had meanwhile gone inside, now returns dressed up. (In fact he goes back in again, Pather Panchali style, for the umbrella.)

Sarbojaya    Are you leaving? There’s some milk.

Aparajito028 Aparajito029

Harihar        You just now said it’s for your son?

Sarbojaya    You’ll also get milk from today.

Harihar        It that so?

Sarbojaya    It’s in that small vessel in the kitchen.

He goes into the kitchen and tastes from a bowl.

Aparajito030

Then drinking it joins Sarbojaya at the tap.

Harihar        That’s good.

Sarbojaya    Wouldn’t you go to the market?

Harihar        I will. Tell me what you want. (Sarbojaya hesitates) Are you thinking of the money? I don’t have to pay cash down.

Sarbojaya    Why so?

Harihar        Am I smart just like that? Tell me what you want.

Sarbojaya    Then get me some mustard oil and some spices. Then get some pulse also. It’s a long time since we’ve had khichdi. From the day he had khichdi there, he’s been asking for it.

Harihar        What else?

Sarbojaya    That’s enough for today. (Then again) Listen, can you get some good betel ingredients?

Harihar        Which ones?

Sarbojaya    I don’t know the name. Nupur gave it to me that day and it was good to taste.

Aparajito031

Harihar        Get the name and I’ll get it for you tomorrow.

He is about to leave, then turns back.

Harihar        I met a sweet maker today. He is suffering from rheumatism. I’m carrying the medicine for him. (Shows it from the pocket) Shall I get some cream for you? It’s famous in Kashi.

Sarbojaya    I know. (Then) Let the medicine work today.

Harihar        OK. (Leaves)

On the whole they remain the same familiar individuals, only more prosperous. Which is good, we say, since they had left the village for a better life. We get an inkling of what he does for a living but more will follow. Living next to a flowing river, water here is available on the turn of a tap. In fact a tap that stands leaking a constant trickle as we’ll soon discover. Apu has been referred to as monkey; real ones would appear shortly. Sarbojaya is still too new to bathe in public; she declines the upstairs women’s invitation to take bath in Ganga and their man understands.

Aparajito032

Sarbojaya remains body and mind kitchen-bound. That she’s never going to be seen at the ghats not only strengthens that impression but also enriches portrayal of her character, her image, in that direction. She asks Harihar for new spices after the local recipes she has learnt about. And finally the flavour of Hindi culture that they are now in. We get to hear a sample of that language as upper-floor neighbours pass her by to go for bath. More will follow.

Harihar likes milk from the bowl, which she merely notes. Soon she’ll wait for appreciation of her tea from the visiting priest. Notice introduction of stairs behind Sarbojaya; then a number of people—neighbours—descending them. Also introduction of the visual idiom of shot waiting uncut as people appear at their own pace.

The conversation also makes way for the ‘monkey’ to appear.

Aparajito033Aparajito034  

But as the scene proceeds we see only a dog, rabbit, elephant, horse and a camel! Everything but a monkey! The boys are the monkeys.

Aparajito035

Through the children we explore the lanes further. Not only for their wall paintings but also their cramped spaces that can be blocked by a gentle cow tethered in front of a house.

Aparajito036 Aparajito037

Notice that the cow humour works, one, by introducing a stray cow in the street just ahead of this scene and two, by avoiding temptation of intercutting as Apu passes under it. Rather the shot holds waiting for the second boy to approach and repeat the fun performance. Much like the neighbours descending the steps a little earlier and the slate at the grocer’s school in PP.

Sarbojaya is finishing at the tap when Apu runs in for a snatch of water. She waits and just in time orders him to stop. He is again going to be torn away from playmates when father is taken ill.

Aparajito038Aparajito039 Aparajito040 

Notice that dealing with Apu she is acting on two conflicting planes. One, that she is angry and scolding and two, that she’s giving him a bowl of milk to drink. That’s mother’s love as universally understood. As for Apu’s answers in monosyllables, he’s already speaking in Hindi!

In the earlier snatch of the courtyard scene we have seen one set of neighbours and here is another, a single man. From all appearances he looks a straight character, having brought a calendar for them but Sarbojaya’s response to him is a typical study of a woman’s sixth sense. Also, a calendar in the middle of the year?

Aparajito041 Aparajito042 Aparajito043 

Notice that during the uneasy interaction, the courtyard for a brief while falls empty before the neighbour, Nand Babu, returns and crosses to leave and Sarbojaya comes out of the kitchen, still veil-drawn and uncomfortable. Firstly, the empty courtyard would be a variation on the shot-waiting-uncut style and secondly, the quick fade out that ends the scene can hardly obliterate the possibilities of disturbing developments, the same as a quick dissolve over Harihar climbing the high steps at the ghats a little earlier never quite concealed the danger of a mishap.

Sarbojaya’s veils become more noticeable in Aparajito. In PP, the only time she was in purdah was during the doctor’s visit when Durga fell ill. Here they are far away from home and among strangers, so she is seen veiled more often. Her instinctive reaction to Nand Babu’s sudden appearance would seem to underscore the social reason of the veil itself as it’s in response to a sexual advance. This is also the peak of that application since there is no purdah after this in the film.

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Notice some formal dynamics. Beginning on the ghats we follows Harihar through the lanes to his house. Towards the end of the scene the neighbour families descending into the courtyard are going in the opposite direction, back to the ghats. And indeed for the same purpose, to bathe. There’s going to be a lot of to-and-fro between these two locations just as there was repeated movement of character between Harihar’s house and Sejo-bou’s in Pather Panchali. The same design principal in the two films helps to bind the films.

Notice that everybody going to the river carries a lota. It begins with Harihar who collects water in one from the river and returns pouring to deities. Neighbours going for bath too variously have lotas. Even Nand Babu, besides the calendar, comes down carrying a shining brass. Sarbojaya too is using a lota to wash the courtyard. Eventually, Apu would be woken up and handed a lota to get ganga jal from the river. Pouring water in a dying man’s mouth is the ‘resolution’ of that modest—and typical—Indian pot which is introduced right at the beginning and subtly asserted through various usages.

By the end of this opening sequence a lot has been established. That we are in the midst of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural situation. That the family is now doing better than before. That Apu’s schooling is likely to get suspended. That, as against the horizontals of PP, we are now set to explore vertical spaces (steps at the waterfront, staircase to the neighbourhood). That Sarbojaya is the youngest female in the building and that draped for the first time in dark stripes (and the last), she looks rather attractive as never before. That the immediate neighbours are a family of elders while the neighbour from the terrace is a bachelor. That Harihar works as a medicine man of some kind and remains, as in PP, a roamer. What he does beside quackery is the subject of the next section.

Apu’s schooling, introduced most casually within the first few lines of the film, is crucial. In a way that is one factor that holds the film together. Sarbojaya is keen to find a school near their house in Benares but when they move to the village it’s Apu who discovers one just outside and asks to join it. Mother lets him do that but again when he wants to continue in Calcutta, the boy has to wrest approval from her, leading to her loneliness and death. The tragedy.

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A technical detail before we conclude. Walking in the lanes or stepping indoors is not an open-to-sky kind of existence in Benares. Unlike Pather Panchali, here it’s more like living at the bottom of a pit. The houses rise crowded to 3-4 floors and direct sun hardly reaches below. The place is therefore sky-lit at the bottom, both outside as well as indoor.

It’s for filming situations such as this that Ray and Subroto Mitra devised a new method of lighting. Rather than first have a key light and then deploy others to endlessly kill shadows, they stretched a white sheet over the setting and bounced studio lights off it. The effect was magical. There were no shadows and the view looked authentic on the screen. On the same principle they later devised a rectangular wooden box having rows of tungsten lamps, mounted it on a regular light stand and simply used it as a single light. For more nuanced effects, butter paper sheets were stretched over the bulbs. It was thanks to this lighting technique that Ray films have a seamless mix of studio shots and those taken on location. Harihar’s house here, like many other interiors in Aparajito, is a studio set and Ray was proud that it sometimes fooled even professionals.

“As I said, the Benares house where Apu lives is a studio set. We had a cloth stretched overhead, you see, for the light from above. Our lighting gives you a kind of dark eye-socket effect, but it doesn’t matter really, because it’s not a question of beautifying everybody. Ultimately it pays off, because you are sticking to a realistic mood.”

Film Comment.com: Interview Satyajit Ray by James Blue in summer 1968

 

Book Aparajito /Chapter 1(a)

Version 2

Fade in

Titles. On a firmer, printing paper, rather small letters and with occasional short horizontal lines separating sections.

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Unlike Pather Panchali’s parchment, it’s clearly a print effect. Later in the film, an adolescent Apu works in a printing press in return for getting to live in a room upstairs.

Last title, Satyajit Ray’s, dissolves to—huge iron girders of a bridge passing in front as the view travels riding in a train. “Benares” you say as the image, complete with the rumbling sounds, sinks in. Echoing the famous Howarah bridge over Ganga and Delhi’s over Jamuna, you have to cross this similar British-built iron bridge over Ganga before arriving at Varanasi railway station.

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Soon enough a title superimposes on the shot to confirm both, the city and the year—1327 of the Bengali calendar, equivalent of 1920.

Not only are you aboard the train, you are already into the story. Pather Panchali ended with the family leaving for Kashi—the old name of Benares, today’s Varanasi—and here they are entering the city as the film begins. The river below is Ganga, the legendary Ganges, and you can already see a glimpse of life on its bank as the view fades out.

Fade in now on a man feeding pigeons. The image is a near silhouette and it’s a holy man of the ancient city, slim, bearded. “A Hindu,” you might hear among a western audience, which of course would be right.

Firmly centred in India, Ray sought to reach the widest circle of audience.

Version 2 Version 4 Version 4

Notice the birds collecting from all over; the shots, the backgrounds, the action. First, three pigeons along a stone perch, flying off. Next some birds landing on a high platform. Then a top view of the platform with more birds landing. That in a way is the whole action, which is only enlarged and amplified in the next few shots, introducing more elements of the location—a basket umbrella top for one—and wider views of the ghats.

Version 2

Notice that the two long views of the ghats are not cut directly but through a brief landing of the birds insert. The two would not cut easy directly because of conflicting direction. A direction-neutral shot bridges the jump admirably.

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The gathering of birds builds over an octagonal high top, before the view tilts up to show the rising sun.

Version 3

Pigeons are important to Aparajito. The birds collecting now would disperse dramatically towards the end of Benares sequence, almost in the manner of an unwinding action. Sunrise too is important to the film—as indeed to Benares ghats. When later Harihar is climbing the steps ill, the sun is reflecting on the water body in the background (as also a flight of pigeons going overhead at the same time) to give the image an ominous, burning quality, reminiscent of Pishi begging Sarbojaya for water in Pather Panchali.

Ray’s Benares diary extracts (Our films, their films) make a prominent mention of both, the pigeons as well as the sun.

Next, three shots of details of bathing, followed by three of general atmosphere on the ghat from a moving boat.

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The large umbrellas against the sun are a common feature to all. The sounds over this introductory stretch also dissolve to highlight different features of the ghats. A sermon is one, a stretch of street music another. But overrunning everything are recurrent temple bells, now close, now far, high-pitched as well as base. Bells are a fact of life in this temple town and would be heard as leitmotif and with variations—school bells, rail station bells and the like—throughout the film.

Harihar is one of the bathers here. Having finished, he fills ganga-jal in his lota and collects his glasses from a priest sitting under an umbrella.

Version 3 Version 2 

The priest also offers sandal paste which Harihar applies on the forehead before beginning to climb the long run of steps home.

Version 2 Version 4

Harihar would again do this same innocent stretch—more in painful detail and with variation—under changed circumstances of his health.

So, that’s the opening of the film and the introduction to the ghats of Benares.

Notice that the ghats may be a raw documentary footage, the shots are by no means casual. The coming fiction incorporates, rather builds on elements taken from them. The pigeons, the bathers, the umbrellas. In old civilisations river fronts decide the very character of the cities on their banks and this fundamental truth is perhaps the basis of the mise-en-scene of the Benares episode. After all everything in the Benares episode happens between the ghats and Harihar’s house.

Immediately after the pigeons there’s even a widow sitting facing the sunrise under an umbrella. Before the episode ends, Sarbojaya herself would be a widow.

Version 3

The ghats done, the view follows Harihar home.

That happens in three shots, each one taking us deeper inside the lanes and by-lanes of the city. Each of these locations would subsequently repeat. The first is the entry point to the lanes just after you have cleared the steps from the ghat.

Version 6

Even here there are a couple more steps to climb before you come to smaller temples on both sides, which Harihar bows to before proceeding further. The old women (both widows in white, incidentally) come up the shot.

Next is a shops-cum-residential section with sit-outs on both sides.

Version 3

Here are bystanders and hawkers passing by as in a bazaar.

The third is a purely residential area where Harihar is a familiar figure—somebody greets him and he answers. He is known and respected, we notice. This last shot unlike the two before follows Harihar through a pan as he turns a corner and approaches the steps in front of his house.

Version 4 Version 5

Harihar’s passage through the lanes provides another example of what I have been calling geometry and its simultaneous breach. When we first saw him after the high steps, he is seen going down the shot, then coming up in the next; then we see him coming up again but this time, instead of a dissolve, it’s a continuous pan through which he passes us by and is seen going down the lane, soon to enter the house. It’s going down the shot, then coming up, then again coming up and finally going down. The pattern of dissolves is broken in this last shot, replaced as it is by a camera pan.

Also the number of people keep getting reduced, he keeps getting bigger in image size and the lanes keep getting less and less deep. Interestingly, in the last shot as he gets in the house there is a cow in the distance but it’s not noticeable. Cow in the lanes is a trait of Benares, which gets to be used soon in humorous and plain factual ways.

Book Aparajito /Structure of the Film

Satyajit Ray seems to have visualised Aparajito as happening over three broad sections. The family’s life in Benares leading up to father’s death; mother and son returning to Bengal but in a new village home; and their separation once Apu moves to Calcutta ending with mother’s death. Thus if the film were to be 90 minutes, the three sections would roughly be 30 minutes each.

As matters stand, Aparajito is 89 minutes and these sections measure at 31, 23 and 35 minutes.

As in PP, there are two story milestones in Aparajito, the two deaths. As dramatic high-points it’s imperative that they are placed neither too close to each other, nor far apart. Nor indeed such that they divide the film in two equal halves. Equal halves, in case you are wondering, are normally not sound on aesthetics. Not Ray’s aesthetics at any rate. As a classicist, Ray is more comfortable with the Golden Section approach to Art, roughly one-thirds and two-thirds. Which is what the film’s three sections would readily fall in if the second and third could be seen as one continuous development, which indeed they are. In this extended sense, therefore, Aparajito is a film in two unequal sections, 31 and 58 minutes at roughly 1:2, each one leading to two harrowing, soul-stirring deaths.

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Benares section in Aparajito is structurally as autonomous as is possible in a longer film. And yet it doesn’t stick out like a glaring patch. Rather it lends this section an extra dimension of a unique feel and appearance rightfully deserving of that one-of-a-kind ancient city. Happily, Calcutta too at the other end is a city with its own magic (in size, language, culture, history, and experientially) that is deserving of an independent treatment. Thus the film begins in one city, middles in a village and ends with the large metropolis, albeit this one in instalments. This fragmented approach given to Calcutta has two advantages. The film doesn’t get to have a ‘list-like’ feel—a Tale of Two Cities of sorts—and the city gets to gather a momentum in Aparajito for a full-scale location for the next film Apur Sansar. (Which too maintains the rural back and forth in changed circumstances.) Both cities are located on Ganga but compared with so much emphasis on the waterfront in Benares, there is just one reference to it in Calcutta when the two friends go there to relax. Likewise, abruptness of departure from Benares is contrasted with graduated scale of introduction of Calcutta. Variety and variations built-in in the story are thus further enhanced by Ray’s treatment.

On the whole, the two cities come to be treated as different from each other as the two deaths that they are associated with.

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Here are my 10 chapters of Aparajito.

Titles. (01:15 mts)

  1. Family in Benares. (11:15 mts)

Arrival, pigeons, waterfront, family’s newly found prosperity, neighbors, another priest, no school so Apu roams, Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

  1. Harihar is taken ill, dies. (11:45 mts)

Unwell on Diwali, asks his own medicine given. Falls atop the waterfront steps, doctor called, a ‘predator’ neighbor makes an advance to Sarbojaya, rebuffed. Night, dawn, Harihar asks for gangajal. Apu woken up, sent to get it from the river, brings. Mother/son pour water in his mouth, Harihar dies.

  1. Sarbojaya finds employment as cook but soon leaves Benares. (07:00 mts)

A visiting uncle offers to take her to his village, Sarbojaya undecided. She cooks for a rich household and they like her work. But the chance sighting of Apu growing up to be a servant changes everything. She leaves Benares with the old uncle.

  1. Instead of training as a priest, Apu wants to join school. Joins. (14:35 mts)

Train journey to Bengal, new village home where railway line runs even closer. Priestly training sessions, discovers the village school. Tells mother he wants to join it, joins. Inspector’s visit. Headmaster lends him books, encourages him to learn.

  1. Apu wants to join college, go to Calcutta. Mother reluctant but gives in. (08:00 mts)

Grown up Apu has won a scholarship. Creates a scene at home, walks away into the darkness. Mother finds him, brings him home. Shows him her savings from Benares. Departure. Apu leaves for the station. Sarbojaya returns to empty house.

  1. Apu finds his way in Calcutta. Settles down. College routine. (09:00 mts)

Getting off at large railway station, Apu carries his bundle, goes looking for his address. Headmaster’s letter to the printing press owner finds him place to stay in return for work in the press. Writes to mother. College by day, press by night. Makes a friend.

  1. Holiday visit home to mother. (11:45 mts)

Mother’s been waiting as he comes. But nothing interests him in the village, he is bored. Holidays over, he leaves for the station but decides not to take the train at the last moment. Returns to a gleaming mother. I missed the train, he smiles.

  1. Calcutta-village-Calcutta-village. (09:00 mts)

Back to college, routine. Letter from mother. Writes back inability to come. Mother is in declining health. In college with friend, refuses a smoke. Mother is delirious, imagines his arrival. Fireflies in the dark.

  1. Apu receives letter, goes to the village, mother is no more. (02:40 mts)

Back from college a letter awaits him with press owner. It’s not from mother but he has to go. Return train journey the same as when he had come. Home, empty through and through. Mother is no more. Apu sits down weeping. Old man comforts.

  1. Apu decides to return to Calcutta. (02:40 mts)

Apu sits sorting household things just as Harihar had at the end of PP. He will perform last rites in Calcutta, he tells the concerned old man. Ties his bundle, takes the senior’s blessing and is gone through the door even as the old man’s hand is slowly returning. He is walking down a similar dirt road as the family had taken at the end of Pather Panchali.

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As in PP, Aparajito’s ‘chapters’ are of vastly different durations. But unlike that first film they are not formally marked with fades. Rather they correspond with the linear narrative logic within the larger scheme of the story.

I think this kind of approach leaves the filmmaker free to improvise within a section than carry the burden of the whole film at all times.

Book Aparajito /PP & After

Anyone taking up arts as profession strives sooner or later to consolidate two things. A style that is distinct and a worldview that’s revealing of the artist’s range of interests and sympathies.

Of the two style is the more difficult to achieve. It’s like hitting upon a personal formula, a mould of sorts in which to pour your viscous content each time. It also goes by the name and label of andaaz-e-bayaan in our part of the world. The manner of the matter. Inevitably there is a period of churning involved. Gods of cinema, Antonioni, Bergman, DeSica, Kurosawa, all made a number of films before they settled down with what came to be identified as their signature style. Godard made a number of ‘crazy’ films before it hit the world—and probably him—that he was being “consistently inconsistent”!

Satyajit Ray has to be a rare example in the history of cinema to have got all aspects of style right in his very first film. Once perfected, the tenets of his andaaz—strictly Academy Aperture compositions, tracking for emphasis, his way of music application, narration through spiral cutting, intelligent engagement through deductive logic—were fixed for the rest of his films. It’s well known that he never apprenticed; instead he picked up technical information from half-a-dozen books then available, learnt grammar from just watching films (mostly Hollywood; Indian films by and large taught him what not to do) and relied upon Bibhutibhushan for his visual content. All this tempered with shrewd observation, vivid visualisation, a great sense of humour and never taking leave of robust common sense.

Going by considerations of style alone it may not be wrong to conclude that Ray’s entire career of 35 years taxies on one long plateau without ever taking off. Whether it’s high praise or criticism depends upon the eyes of the beholder.

Post PP all Ray was left to concentrate on was to juggle with variety; of genres, periods, subjects, never letting us (or himself) settle down to a habit. Indeed he seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to do that. After having five stunning deaths in the trilogy, the danger of being called a “death specialist” must have been real. Even Jalsaghar, which came after Aparajito—a song and dance film to redeem his position in the trade, as he said—ends with the death of the self-destructing zamindar. But when even his next, Prabhat Kumar authored Devi, happened to be ending with death, he force-changed the ending to the main character only losing her mind, not life. Interestingly when he visited the Institute in 1969, he gave us detailed aesthetic explanations on why he had done that, without mentioning this as the key consideration. But that can hardly be held against him. He was simply exercising his right of a juggler not to reveal the tricks of his trade.

After the trilogy, Ray only returned to portraying death 13 years and as many films later in Ashani Sanket. Teen Kanya, Kanchanjangha, Abhijan, Mahanagar, Charulata, Kapurush, Nayak, Goopy Gayne, Aranyer Din-Ratri, Pratidwandhi, Seemabaddha, none has death as high point of their beautiful expanse and exposition.

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The first half of Satyajit Ray’s career was a breeze.

Then over Charulata and Nayak came the split with his cameraman Subrato Mitra. And soon afterwards followed the inevitable spat with that hornets’ next called the Indian new wave. Shorn of genuine talent, the government-backed wave could never quite win self-sustenance but did manage, at least in India, to dent Ray’s image.

I had known Subrato Mitra as an occasional visitor to the Institute. He was a tongue-tied fussy perfectionist who, as Ray told us in 1969, couldn’t quite say why he wanted another take. In actual fact, perhaps both men had had enough of each other. Both knew that nothing could deny them a place in the history with a dozen or so brilliant films they had done together and wanted to move on. In the event both lost. After some indifferent films here and there, Subrato took to teaching in the FTII and Ray could never again manage that luminous, marble quality of looks in his films.

The new wave filmmakers were for most part Institute ex-students looking for a break and were obliged to take a position on Ray. Using heavy academic jargon and with eager help from journalists, they began to fault-find him on two counts. One saying that his cinema was politically aloof and second that he had failed to keep pace with the medium. Institute was the undeclared war room of this attack.

Political commitment in those days meant being leftist. Communism was still firmly in control behind the Soviet iron curtain and much like everywhere else communist thought was the toast of Indian intellectuals. Accordingly cinema at that time could only be either Progressive or Reactionary. But Ray seemed to fall in neither category. As such some sought to ignore him while others assigned him to international skies in the company of other ‘humanists’, whatever that broad label meant. Students made it a point to see his films as and when they came—mostly without subtitles, it should be added—and came out moved but somewhat unexcited. Their preferred viewing, with lots of ‘repeat’ value, was European films from both sides of the political divide, east and west. Ray lacked the sexual fizz. That and less than perfect cinematography is what actually made his films look out of step with the times.

To be sure Satyajit Ray wasn’t a prude when it came to sexuality. But then there was the censor board which he wasn’t willing to mess with. As early as Devi he was constrained to show a lip-to-lip between a young married couple through a mosquito net, in the silhouette and in a long shot! The world scene on the other hand was experiencing a spurt of permissiveness. Take out sexual sting from films like Closely Guarded Trains, Virgin Spring, Cries And Whispers, Shinoda’s Double Suicide and even, let’s say, Jan Kadar’s minor Adrift and see what remains. You couldn’t blame the drooling students if Miklos Jancso, film after film, had flooded his lush green Hungarian countryside with a feast of shapely nudes walking uncut among horse riders who seemed to be rather interested in Marxism. Why, the communists once even tried a topless newsreader reading hard news on one of the Soviet channels!

Much as one might defend values of subtlety and the power of the suggestive in art, it’s not as though a film like Silence is any less suggestive and subtle. The truth is we as a society have been excessively prudish when it comes to portrayal of sex in the public arts. For somebody who played on the wider world scene, it wasn’t a level playing field. Come to think of it, one of the most embarrassing moments in Ray’s cinema is the kiss in Ghare Bahire. Self conscious and clumsy to the limit, seeing that shot you rather see the breath held of the unit members while taking it. If ever after the dog following the children in Pather Panchali there was another Ray shot that needed 13 takes, it was this one in Ghare Bahire.

All of which is not to deny, of course, that the second half of Ray’s cinema was on a natural decline even if none of these factors counted. It indeed was.

It can hardly be otherwise.

Book PP /Acknowledgements

Here is gratefully acknowledging:

Professor Satish Bahadur, whom I had expected to be the first reader of this book just as we his students used to expect him to be the first viewer of our diploma films. Sadly he expired while this book was under production.

Anil Srivastava, Director, OHSL and Dr Craig Smith, Chair, Film and Electronics Arts, CSU, Long Beach for advice and help in realising this book.

Tripurari Sharan, IAS, a genial boss at FTII for 5 years, for being ever so encouraging and helpful; Dilip Kumar Chakraborty, IAS, for sending a permission letter at Sharan’s instance on Pather Panchali.

Sandip Ray for prompt permission to use his father’s two articles; Jaya Bachchan, my batch mate and the first lady of Indian cinema, for getting Filmfare’s clearance for reprinting them; Jitesh Pillai, editor Filmfare, for the clearance. Also Dileep Padgaonkar, Dilip Basu, Prasenjit Dasgupta and Soumen Paul for advice on the subject.

Professor Dilip K Basu of Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection; Professor Vinay Shrivastava, Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts, San Francisco State University; and Eswaran Pillai, Assistant Professor, Department of English (Film Studies), Michigan State University, for their critical comments on the sample pages. Professor Basu also for writing such a kind foreword.

Jon Boorstin, scriptwriter and teacher from Hollywood, for just about anything when in doubt. Thanks Jon; just that you earn a living from writing isn’t enough explanation for being so good with words! You almost started a revolution in Pune, man!

Professor Satish Bahadur, Haimanti Banerjee, Shyam Benegal, Vishnu Mathur, Pankaj Saxena and Sanjay Agrawal for their valuable comments on one or the other part of the manuscript from time to time. Anil Srivastava of the FTII for research.

Girish Sahasrabudhe, the young illustrator of this book who felt truly inspired with the project and won all-around praise for his sketches. Prithvishwar Gayen, a generous, chance-find calligrapher, for the entire pencil work on the sketches and illustrations. As well as later for photoshop work for the present blog version. Also my younger brother, Davinder Choudhary, for looking after our 94 year old father on my turn in Delhi, while sketches kept me extending stay in Pune from 1 to 8 weeks.

My family—wife Indu, daughter Sonia and son Gyan—for providing unexpected sparks of appreciation at times when they were most needed. Now I know how you cannot write books without family’s support.

And finally my alma mater Film and Television Institute of India and generations of students that I dealt with there, for sparing me some unsullied space so I can still ask some innocent questions.

———–

Book PP /Filmography

There are better more detailed filmographies available at the end of scores and scores of books and publications on Ray. Here is a straight list of them for casual reference.

Those in bold are documentaries and short fictions.

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1955  Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)

1956  Aparajito (The Unvanquished)

1958  Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone)

1958  Jalsaghar (The Music Room)

1959  Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)

1960  Devi (The Goddess)

1961  Teen Kanya (Three Daughters)

1961  Rabindranath Tagore

1962  Kanchanjangha

1962  Abhijan (The Expedition)

1963  Mahanagar (The Big City)

1964  Charulata (The Lonely Wife)

1964  Two

1965  Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man)

1966  Nayak (The Hero)

1967  Chidiakhana (The Menagerie)

1968  Goopy Gyne Bagha Bayne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha)

1969  Aranyer Din-Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest)

1970  Pratidwandi (The Adversary)

1971  Seemabaddha (Company Limited)

1971  Sikkim

1972  The Inner Eye

1973  Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder)

1974  Sonar Killa (The Golden Fortress)

1975  Jana Aranya (The Middle Man)

1975  Bala

1977  Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players)

1978  Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God)

1980  Hirek Rajar Deshey (The Kingdom of Diamonds)

1980  Pikoo

1981  Sadgati (Deliverance)

1984  Gharey-Bahire (The Home and the World)

1987  Sukumar Ray

1989  Ganashatru (The Enemy of the People)

1990  Shakha-Proshakha (Branches of a Tree)

1991  Agantuk (The Stranger)

 

 

Book PP /What to read—and what to avoid—on Ray

To my mind, Ray’s filmography should be the best bibliography for the readers of this book. When in doubt, ‘read’ his films.

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Any of them is good for a close study since each one bears his distinctive style and signature. Luckily there are about 30 features, 5-6 documentaries and two short fictions to choose from. Most are available on the Internet for free download. Even the early 70’s short fiction The Two and a documentary commissioned by the Chogyal of the then independent kingdom Sikkim, which for some reason had gone missing, are today available. My own collection was picked up largely in India about 10 years back when most of them were released on DVDs. True, the quality is something that Ray wouldn’t approve of—often they seem to have been transferred from used prints—but I am grateful to have them and they run. However, since the Oscar, various international agencies have begun restoring his films and quality versions are regularly being released.

Next in importance would be his screenplays, all written single handed without collaboration. But sadly most of them have remained even to this day untranslated, in Bengali. The few that were either written in English or translated under one or the other arrangement have been released as books or otherwise exist in print: Agantuk (translated), The Alien (in English), The Apu Trilogy (translated), Nayak (translated), Sadgati (translated), and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (in English).

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According to Ray’s filmmaker son Sandip Ray, Devi is currently in translation.

Ray’s own writings on cinema would be next on my list. He wrote both in Bengali as well as in English and almost everything is now available in English. My Years with Apu is his account of the making of Apu trilogy. Our Films, Their Films collects articles in English on Indian and foreign films. Speaking of Films includes translated lectures and articles.

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Picked up when it first appeared in 1976, my own copy of Our Films, Their Films is by now in tatters. Whenever low I have found that book truly uplifting. As it turns out Speaking of Films too is no less inspiring but it’s shocking that it should have taken 30 years to cross the translation barrier. The Bengali original of this book was released along with Our Films in 1976 but the translation came only in 2005, good 13 years after Ray’s death! However the two are true companion pieces, wholly complementary to each other—no overlaps—and should be bought up on sight without hesitation.

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Among those written on Ray, Marie Seton was the first to begin the process in late sixties (along with Robin Wood’s unassuming little paperback on Apu trilogy) with her intimate, internationally released, Portrait of a Director, Satyajit Ray.

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Since then there has been a steady output of titles from the west as well as in India. These have included critical appraisals of his films along with detailed biographical sections, special focus volumes brought out for film festivals, compilation of homage write ups by renowned personalities, and in 1991, Satyajit Ray at 70, a beautiful collection of photographs by his lifelong official photographer Nemai Ghosh, with introduction by Henri Cartier-Bresson who, with touching humility, regrets he never got a chance to photograph the great filmmaker. The latest and the largest coffee table volume is Andrew Robinson’s Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema (2005) with lots of pictures and visual information on his career, varied interests, personality and working methods. But by far the best and most comprehensive—and dense—update on information as well as write ups on the man and his range of work (including designing) remains Satyajit Ray, an Intimate Master (1998) edited by Shanti Das.

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That the book is also affordably priced (if available) should be music to the film students’ ears.

On the whole Indian contribution to scholarship on Ray has been surprisingly little. I am not aware of the quality of stuff that has remained locked up in Bengali but whatever has appeared in English doesn’t inspire much confidence. Either the writers are in awe of the man and use mindless superlatives or they are over anxious to seem even handed and assume school masterly airs. Professor Satish Bahadur was one Ray scholar that all of us in India had been waiting to complete his book on Apu trilogy, but seeking endlessly to match his mentor’s level of perfection, he kept refraining from ever signing off that book. Which to my mind is a tragic and huge loss. A third category of Indian writers is openly committed to promoting the Indian new wave of 70s—long since subsided—and they descend to childish limits to underplay and undermine him. But sadly in all cases the reviewers are so frequently wrong even on factual details that Ray was often irked into writing back long protest pieces in papers, magazines and journals. Even as late as his 1990 Shakha Proshakha, the fading master was constrained to point to misreading of facts on the part of his long time friend and senior commentator Chidanand Dasgupta. Instead of watching what is on offer, we seem to know ahead.

And likewise for interviews. Even in best of cases, when not pointing out the actual expression he had used in a certain context instead of the one being ascribed by the reporter—“I think I used the term departure and not breakthrough…”—Ray’s interviews with local journalists read embarrassingly one sided. By comparison he found the western reviewers better informed on the medium, more thorough as professionals and offering insights that felt truly rewarding. His terse little coinage for Indian critics was “anybody with access to print”. They too on their part hit back in all kinds of ways.

There is however one category of writing where the world has no option but to live with the Indian scholarship. That is on purely sociological (or is it anthropological?) evaluation of the phenomenon of Ray in Bengal and in India. Leaning heavily on stills from films—little oases of pleasure in a vast desert of words—these ‘studies’ are littered with expressions like “Nehruvian India”, Ray’s “Brahmo” origins, “Tagorean Synthesis”, “Bengal Renaissance” “Mythicality(!)”, “archetype” etcetera. Apparently the film studies clientele is happiest with this kind of writing but because of stills and misleading titles—Cinema of Satyajit Ray, for example—they end up in our hands too and do nothing but obfuscate and mislead. Seeking to create a certain kind of ‘intellectual’ culture of films, such books club together all kinds of odd and obscure films, pretending as though all are equal on value quotient. And what film would not offer half a dozen stills that look promising! If bibliographies are permitted to have a negative reference, for the purpose of this book at least I would say it is this kind of writing. Read them at your own risk.

In fact even genuine critical writing I would hesitate to recommend at early stages of learning filmmaking. Asked to write a synopsis of the film that they propose to make as their next exercise, the students at FTII would often come out with a 4-line piece written with the typically evasive flourish of a publicity handout after the film is made. Unless taken with utmost caution, my belief is that critical writing, even the best of the lot, can veer a young filmmaker—most inadvertently and with the best of intentions, no doubt—away from filmmaking and into pure wordsmanship.

So go attack that library only when the story telling abilities have been honed. Until then your instincts should be good enough to guide you through what might constitute a story as against, say, a mere incident. That struggle with the self is important and you would be surprised how much you already knew just based on life experience. We have all heard stories on grandmother’s lap and simplicity of approach never killed anyone. But once you are home on story telling (or at least firmly home bound), you can throw open all your windows like Mahatama Gandhi said and allow all kinds of wind from all kinds of lands to freely pass through…including Mythicality!

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But the last word on filmmaking must rest with Sergei Eisenstein. Mainly with his books Film Form and The Film Sense, and if available Notes of a Film Director.

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Admittedly, Eisenstein’s style is didactic and his references, being from the rather insulated Soviet cultural mainstream of the times, unfamiliar, but coming from a genuinely bright and original mind—Bertolt Brecht should be a fair comparison to him in stature—they are every bit worth aspiring to read and eventually hoping to make sense of. A spiritual bath of sorts; for which the least you can do is to have your own copies of those books around.

A theatre and film director, film teacher, theoretician, and above all a great thinker, Eisenstein is perhaps the only “scientist” of cinema in the history of the medium. Working over the switchover years from silent to sound cinema, those were also the times when the great Soviet socialist experiment was at its peak. Vladimir Lenin had declared that cinema with its wide communication potential was for them the “most important of arts” and Eisenstein as a true experimenter made the most of the situation. But after initial success he didn’t have a smooth sail in the mercurial political dispensation of the times and died rather young at just 50.

Simply put Eisenstein believed that when two shots are joined by a cut, the result is not A + B but rather their product, a third entity C. According to him it is a situation of dynamic conflict between the contents of the two shots rather than that of ‘tame’ summation and should be striven for in film practice. This was the essence of his theory of montage which he further classified into 4 or 5 kinds, arising out of various traits of the visual (and by extension aural) character of the medium as well as situations that it is often called upon to portray.

Through this book I have been using the term mise-en-scene in various contexts. Originally a French expression from theatre, Eisenstein was the first to adapt it for the cinema. In theatre, mise-en-scene means the comprehensive creative strategy to staging a play and the process begins with visualizing the set that the play calls upon to ‘house’ the action (or equally, since it’s a two-way dynamic relationship, visualizing the action of the play that a set would be designed to contain and accommodate). Since, unlike the fixed position of the audience in theatre, the film camera is a moving eye, the application becomes that much more compounded and complex in case of the cinema. Here mise-en-scene becomes a concept at once applicable to a shot, a scene and the whole film.

Welcome (if you are still with me) to the world of mise-en-scene!

Normally never the one to go for jargon, Ray often used the concept and expression mise-en-scene in his discussions on cinema. In one of the Western documentaries on him in mid-80s, some of us were elated to notice Eisenstein’s framed picture hung over a mantlepiece in his living room.

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