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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, not 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 4(b)

Notice that this is the second time in Aparajito that the family’s course of life going one way changes to another. From staying on in Benares to returning to village and now from training to be a priest to going to the school instead. First time it was the mother who decided and Apu went along; this time it’s the opposite.

Apu trilogy is replete with teaching-learning scenes—we just had one where Bhabratan initiates Apu to the priestly profession—but this next one is a stroke of genius.

Mother’s approval won, the narration is ready to go to school. Now the basic plot of the film would have us show Apu join the village high school and go year after year until there is no further class to go to and it’s time for him to go again to the mother and seek permission for Calcutta.

Rather than take the linear route, Ray takes the creative offensive and recasts a large part of the development on a special day in the school, namely during the inspector’s visit. In the process, we get to ‘inspect’ the school.

What he gains in the process is:

  1. Not having to deal with children—even just Apu—to ‘act’ out through scenes and spoken lines. That burden is instead passed on to the grown ups—the headmaster, individual teachers, the inspector, even a straying cow—so that when eventually it comes to the children, they sit monkey-like in a classroom, with one weak boy having to stutter and another, Apu, to breeze through a poem read out from the text book.
  2. Ray is also able to get us an objective look at the school hierarchy where teachers are as afraid of the headmaster as the students would be of them. He is also able to widen the horizon of the story and foreshadow Calcutta where the narration is soon headed. Arriving in a phaeton, dressed in city formals and accompanied by a uniformed peon, the inspector clearly comes from Calcutta, where Apu will shortly go to study.
  3. And above all, humour. Both before and after this scene are going to be scenes of stress between the mother and the boy and there is nothing like humour to balance things out in between.

The scene resumes with the same long shot of the school as Apu had first seen it.

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But this time there is no activity except crucially—and unmistakably—a teacher’s movement seen through the entrance in the distance. To me this is a killer touch which visually prepares us for what follows, namely the headmaster’s inspection of his own premises. Without this important staging in the extreme long shot, the school building would look dead.

Notice that the headmaster is dressed as distinctly from the teachers as the inspector is soon going to be from him.

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Notice that we have seen the crumpled ball of paper before the headmaster does.

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He comes and himself picks it up. But as he rises looking towards the door we think he has seen the culprit. So that when he calls out to a teacher we want to know what action he has in mind. Instead it turns out something altogether different.

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Notice the richness of the frame and the moment. With the crumpled paper in hand, the headmaster points to his own caricature on the wall. The angle of view, both of the camera as well as that of the offending artist, offers us ready opportunity to compare the artwork with the man himself. The toothbrush moustaches clinch the deal. The tall, servile teacher bends over to take a look and promptly moves out to take corrective action. Wonder what that could be.

Next the headmaster spots something else, this time just outside the verandah. We have no idea but the all-dressed-up, bhadralok headmaster has to suddenly shout for help and break off from his starched persona, himself taking action against an intruder, this one a cow that has strayed inside the compound.

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“Get out, get out,” he goes after it in English.

From a strayed cow to another quadruped, this one a horse. And harnessed.

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The phaeton comes on a glorious trot and we have a glimpse of its VIP passenger before he is met by the headmaster. He is a curiously leaning dark fatso in white suit and a solar hat. More comedy should be afoot.

The headmaster walks the distance to receive the guest. 

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It sure is a funny man the way he returns the headmaster’s greetings. He even walks bent forward at an angle not very different from the headmaster’s as he had run clapping after the cow a short while ago. A note of mutual cordiality sets up the scene for what is coming.

A teacher is almost caught spying as the errant cow again comes crossing the visitor’s path at the last moment.

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Notice that the teacher’s conduct comes across as humorous mainly because of his long shot. He is ‘openly’ behaving like the very children his colleagues then control in the classrooms surrounding him.

Also notice the inspector’s response to the cow. It’s an understanding officer, not an unduly strict one that was widely feared.

Interestingly the camera view in the welcome scene is lined up to see the school gate complete with the cow grazing at the gate, although we hardly notice it.

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Similarly in the subsequent 180 degree reversal of the viewpoint from inside the school compound, not only do we see the three approaching figures and the cow straying into their path but even the phaeton behind them in the distance. And again the phaeton goes unnoticed even though it is there.

In comedy, it’s always safer to do more rather than less.

Since this is the last we see of the cow, it’s worth noticing that bringing the animal here falls in the same class and category as the monkey’s intrusion in Sarbojaya’s household in Benares. Similarly, the caricature on the school wall is a sub-conscious reminder of the wall paintings in Benares lanes.

All four work as extremely subtle ‘cross-stitches’ holding the film together.

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The situation introduced, ‘fun’ music ends (as do exaggerations) and the regular school soundtrack begins. The headmaster ushers him for the tour of the school. As they go down the veranda you almost expect some mischief of the children to puncture the occasion.

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After all, the cow did cross the inspector’s path without notice.

The class rises as they enter. Children have their backs to the camera but Apu is recognisable: he wears a dark wrapper and is the first to rise. Then everybody settles down.

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He’s teaching them Bengali, says the humble teacher and hands him the textbook. It’s no coincidence that the black board still carries geometry figures from the earlier session. Some stray Bengali words written for the shot just because it happens to be a language class would look so tame and false. Notice also that for the first time after a number of caricatures, the teacher here is realistic. And correctly dignified.

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A front row student is unable to answer the question but sitting next to him Apu has no difficulty. When further asked to read from the book, Apu confidently goes through the famous poem The Soil of Bengal to the beaming admiration of the inspector.

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Take a second look at the final shot of the inspector where the view pans from an anxious headmaster to the impressed official. Given their distinctly different heights, a level horizontal pan from one to the other would be difficult to achieve. But that is what Ray does. His starting composition of the headmaster is somewhat off-centred, leaving too much head space for now in order to get it exactly right for the tall inspector after the pan.

The option of giving the headmaster a handy 4’’ ‘paatla’ to stand on for this shot seems to have been rejected, most likely for reasons of basic falsity. (Paatlas were wooden platforms of varying heights to use under the camera in those days.) Also that kind of levelling would be confusing in the situation where the class teacher already stands on his usual foot-high platform.

A third alternative was to compose them both right and gently raise the camera during the pan. Perhaps this option struck him—mistakenly I think—as unduly emphasising their difference in heights, thereby detracting from the scene’s resolution, which is that the inspector’s visit has been successful. To me the master’s option of horizontal pan looks like an error of judgment. I can’t think of another instance where he faced a similar dilemma.

Interestingly, the component of corporal punishment, very common in village schools, is missing in Ray’s treatment here. But the scene doesn’t look inauthentic on this count because we are already familiar with caning from the grocer-teacher scene in Pather Panchali. Given that reference the issue would look over-emphasised if it were repeated here.

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Notice the interplayed contrasts deployed in the sequence.

The teachers are all dressed in near-white shades while the headmaster is set off against them with a jet black jacket (and jet black hair). The inspector coming soon after ‘wears’ a combination of both, white jacket on his sweaty, dark native complexion. (And again dyed hair!) He is a quintessential Indian serving British interest but is a nationalist at heart who is moved silly when he hears a poem singing glories of their ‘Sonar’ Bengal. As characters the teachers are all boyish slim in spite of different ages—“hungry”—in their conduct and behaviour while the headmaster’s cartoon would not work without his Hitler moustaches and the inspector’s round and fat figure is crucial for his melt-down-sold-out smile with which the scene resolves. That the headmaster is also later seen wearing a Christian cross round his neck cannot be just a ‘witty’ costuming detail, particularly when there is also the pig-tailed Hindu Brahmin teacher to counterbalance.

Notice the buttoned up collar that student Apu has been given to wear. Not only does it help to bridge the coming time jump of years but it also plants associations of sincerity with the character the rest of the way. Among the teachers, only Abinash Babu has buttoned up collar, perhaps ‘inspiration’ for Apu to do the same. None of the other boys is buttoned up. They have all oiled hair though in preparation for the big visit.

With Ray there is nothing like an absolute characterisation and casting; they are all conceived and set off against each other in relative terms for the scene—or even the film as a whole—to work.

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Goes the school bell and the school is over. But in his office the headmaster is taking a ‘pigtailed’ teacher to task.

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“I don’t see your signatures,” says the headmaster angrily. “You always forget to sign the attendance register. It’s disgraceful!” He throws the pen on the desk and the register to the teacher, dismissing him.

Again not very different from how the teacher would himself do a weak student in another situation.

Notice the ‘acting’ of the pigtailed teacher. He has no words to speak, just stands as he is scolded, then collects his register and withdraws. What Ray add to the situation is the posture of bending over as though to ‘obediently’ see what the boss is showing. No acting thereafter, just keep neutral expressions throughout. The looks of the man, his shaven head with the pigtail, the bent posture and lack of expressions says it all. The character emerges as an eternal errant-survivor that is universally recognisable. His memory would never improve and he would sail through his entire career undisturbed. Last thing he’d do, of course, is lose sleep over the reprimand.

But as soon as the headmaster sees Apu enter, his tone changes. The boy is now a favourite. The accompanying teacher brings him in as the headmaster enquires about his mother and studies.

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“Oh, Aupurbo! Come in, come in,” says he beaming. “Is your mother alright?” “The inspector sahib was very pleased with you today. And so indeed was I. I have been watching your progress. I mentioned it to Aubinash Babu.”

“He is far above average sir,” volunteers Abinash Babu.

“We have great hopes from you, you know,” says the headmaster taking off his glasses. “We’ll help you all we can, but if you want to do really well, you must put your heart into your work.”

He has been clearing up his desk and gets up. “And especially you must improve your English. Are you fond of reading?”

At this point the pigtailed teacher reenters and discreetly leaves the corrected register in front of the headmaster.

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“I don’t mean textbooks,” the headmaster goes on uninterrupted. “Books on travel, lives of great men, science made simple. If I give you such books, will you read them?”

“Certainly he will, why won’t he?” says Abinash Babu from higher above as Apu merely nods.

“That’s good,” says the headmaster.

His job done, Abinash Babu exits leaving Apu behind. Even though it looks a little odd, it’s important that Apu is left alone to eventually take the books. The bond essentially is between the headmaster and Apu, and the teacher if present would tend to patronise.

The headmaster continues, “The books are in my cupboard. You see, all these books, you need to read them, to develop your mind. We live in a remote corner of Bengal. But we need not have a narrow outlook. And limit the scope of our knowledge.

He has been collecting a pile of books and begins to hand them.

“This book is about the North Pole. If you are asked about the Aurora Borealis, or what the Eskimos eat, you will find the answers there. This is about Livingstone, you will learn about Africa from it. Here is the “Story of Inventions”, this is about inventions. It contains biographies of scientists! Galileo, Archimedes, Newton, Faraday…!”

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A pleased headmaster giving and the shy little boy taking with both hands, is a perfect portrayal—almost literally so—of the celebrated teacher-taught relationship anywhere, anytime in the world. The image transcends the immediate context and becomes universal.

Notice in particular Apu’s image of receiving the books. To me this is the earliest example of what came to typify Ray’s style of narration. The camera angle, the image size, the boy’s vulnerable looks and, not the least, receiving diverse books faster than he can organise in his arms. That’s the key. Is he up to the challenge, we wonder? The question gets answered in the developments that follow immediately after.

(A similar situation happens in Apur Sansar. Married in a huff, bridegroom Apu sits next to his stranger bride during the ceremony, looking distinctly troubled and burdened. Has he acted in haste? This stance becomes the agenda for the next scene where around the flower-decked bridal bed an anxious Apu shares his concerns with his new wife. The rest of the scene shows his wife put his doubts to rest so that by the time it ends he is hugely relieved. Neither the characters, nor we miss the lovemaking scene of a young couple’s first night together.)

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And now for some mise-en-scene notes.

This teacher-taught image draws a lot of support from details of the headmaster’s office. There is a large globe on his desk, stealing in and out of frames, never shown in full; rolled up classroom maps resting on a stand against one of the walls in suggestion. Then there are books, indeed paper volumes of all kinds. Files, registers, and yes, books too, two cupboards full of them, much read, much handled, rarely added to. And it’s from these that the headmaster makes a selection and gives Apu. A caring teacher opening up horizons, so to speak. As it eventually turns out, even awards given to meritorious students are tiny globes, one of which the grown up Apu brings home to his mother. Also introduced as an ‘award’ is the visitor’s chair on which now Apu rests his hand and upon which he is going to sit when he leaves the school. Abinash Babu perhaps didn’t get to sit on that chair.

Notice through the scene that all three teachers seen ahead of the Inspector’s visit are clear caricatures, first through casting and next through behaviour. The teacher in Apu’s class is a completely realistic portrayal. He stands by respectfully as the Inspector and the headmaster take charge of his class. The pigtailed defaulter and Abinash Babu after the visit sum up the ‘faculty’ as being a mixed bag of good and bad teachers.

Going further into details, the mise-en-scene has it that the cupboard from which Apu is given the books—it’s actually the school library, which along with rolled maps and box of chalk-sticks used to be in the headmaster’s direct charge—begins from being a mere detail on the side in the compositions and slowly gets to acquire a central position (as well as gets enlarged) as the scene advances.

In sum, the headmaster’s office is a ‘den’ of education. Never before have so many books been seen at one glance in the trilogy. That by itself is development in Apu’s life.

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His imagination fired, Apu tries various experiments at home and shares his excitement with mother. The choice, range and variety of images is typical Ray.

First he tries out a siphon and calls out to show mother.

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But what we see him showing her on that steam, and at night, is his next fascination. Sitting both in lantern light, Apu explains to a bewildered mother how heavenly bodies cast shadows upon each other to create eclipses.

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Notice that there is no effort to show us the phenomenon that he is trying to explain. It’s not about the phenomenon per se but the excitement that it triggers in the boy.

Notice the framing of the shot. In an early article from his learning days Ray speaks of the importance of placing the camera. “Get too close to the action and the emotion of the scene spills over,” he says in one among many observations. “Get too far back and the thing becomes cold and remote.” By these considerations the camera here is far enough to cover the whole action in one glance and still close so as to eliminate its surroundings. It’s the framing that gives the action its specific as well as abstract, suspended-in-the-dark quality.

The third ‘experiment’ is in a completely different idiom as well as key from the first two. In fact it’s a little piece of narration by itself.

Day again, mother is returning from bath when she spots some sticks and pots lying outside home. She calls for Apu and is nearing the door when suddenly a body painted little boy bursts open.

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Making his war cries—“Africa! Africa!”—Apu first goes circling around a shocked mother in the courtyard and then runs away past her into the open expanse behind the house.

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Mother laughs standing in the doorway.

Interestingly, the whole staging is a reassertion of the boy spotting the train, towards which he now runs. (Even his improvising household things in order to dress up is subtly, subconsciously reminiscent of the children doing similar antics before they ran away into the fields and saw the train.) Also the curve of the tree trunk is a gentle anticipation—a slip-in, if you like—of the large tree outside the house that eventually Apu sits under and weeps. Notice the stuff lying under the tree: straight sticks, wide mouthed earthen pot and a round handle of some tool. These together, their randomness, adds up to the mystery of what awaits mother.

The three instances work mainly on account of the range of human curiosity that they manage to represent. While siphon is a simple procedure based science, eclipses are a view of the universe as in astronomy and Africa is related to exploration of the world as in geography. There can hardly be a more comprehensive portrayal of the notion of ‘frontiers of knowledge’. Even formally all three are treated very differently from each other. While siphon is a close view treatment, the eclipse is a fixed medium-look view at night and Africa involves all three—close, medium, long views—in its weaving.

And finally, a completely different aspect of learning, falling asleep on an open notebook.

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Notice that as the mother takes away the boy, the view closes in on the lantern twice over before it fades out to black. Considering the time-jump that follows immediately after this, the two dissolves are perhaps intended to convey the night-after-night feel of the practice. Maybe a decade later a single fade out would be sufficient for him.

Additionally, the image of mother thus indulging over the boy, apart from its immediate context, is also a plant for the coming events when an ailing Sarbojaya is going to need similar help and tending but Apu is going to be far away in Calcutta.

Ray is full of such casual slip-ins, which give the narration a decisive prior direction for the future developments of the story.

[To be continued]

Book Aparajito /Chapter 4(a)

The ‘purpose’ of the travel-montage—Sarbojaya’s smile—over, the view dissolves to a shot of their new village before it dissolves to them arriving in their new house.

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Notice this rather ‘invisible’ shot. It’s supposed to be bridging the two specifics, a filler of sorts. It couldn’t be done without and it has to have a non-specific character.

The shot has all this plus an introduction to what can be described as the outskirts of the Bengal village—waterways and all—where soon after this Apu is found on two-three occasions before he discovers the village school. Also, being a bank of the village canal, it provides an opportunity to have the boy run up and down to express his curiosity and interest in the school.

And not the least it maintains the water connection between their old home in Benares and the new one here. As it happens, their new house is also next to a pond, the same as in PP.

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Notice that the family approaching the house passes by the pond and their reflection in the water—easy to manage if wanted—is avoided. That would be repeating what has already been done in PP, twice over, once in the sweetmeat seller sequence and less noticeably later when children run on both sides of a pond as Pishi stands bending still.

Interestingly, the main courtyard door as the family enters is wide open—there is nothing to lock here. Bhabratan’s room inside is locked though.

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At the end of the film when Apu comes home looking for his mother, he enters the premises, goes back and forth across the courtyard and emerges completely unrestricted at the other end until realisation dawns on him that she may be no more. That indeed is the case.

Another see-through house after PP? Not only is the new house next to a pond, it’s also laid out on the PP pattern as we soon discover: courtyard, verandahs, mud-wall rooms. Why should it be so? Because it keeps echoing the old house for Sarbojaya as well as for us. In a subconscious then-and-now connection to the extent it works.

Notice that Sarbojaya being new to the place, there is no line given to Bhabratan assigning the room to her. She just settles down to what is there. Equally, of course, there is no word of thanks from her.

Overcome with emotion, Sarbojaya goes no further than the courtyard door and just sits in a verandah. Tired from walking? Facing uncertain future? She is back to being a widow, having a son to bring up by herself.

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Notice the composition. With a part of her luggage in view and with her new place a little more in evidence through that window, it’s her room where Sarbojaya sits contemplating on her situation. And her life.

Suddenly, a train is heard. Apu who is already running up and down through the courtyard calls out excited.

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The mother joins the boy to see the distant train.

It’s a house with a rail-line attached!

The scene, while it introduces their new house, is also simultaneously designed in a symbolic mode. Barely have they unloaded when the boy discovers the train. He is fascinated but Sarbojaya instinctively sees it as a threat to take her son away from her. She comes from behind to claim him, literally putting her arm around the boy. Seeds of conflict are already sown in this key composition. But as the rest of the film goes on to reveal, she is on a losing ground. Soon the boy is going to be attracted to the school and insist on joining it over the priestly training that is started for him. And in due course he is going to be leaving to join college in Calcutta—and by the very same train—in full awareness that the act is going to leave them both miserable.

Ray famously described this as the boy “growing up and away from the mother”.

Thus, practically from the word go, the scene sets the thematic agenda of the rest of the film and proceeds accordingly. In this key image one can see the boy’s imagination fired.

Notice too that the route Apu takes through the house this first time is exactly repeated at the end when he comes home to discover that the mother is ‘gone’. This one is a subtle ‘plant’ for that future walk-through at the end of which he emerges from the house and sits down defeated and weeps. Defeated? Vanquished? No, because he gets up and take charge of his situation and life. He decides to leave for Calcutta, telling a surprised uncle that he would perform the necessary rites in Calcutta. Unvanquished! Aparajito!

In a highly understated irony of Aparajito, both Father’s last rites as well as mother’s eventually get to be performed on the banks of the sacred Ganga.

From the first day in the new house, to a new routine.

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It’s a masterstroke of a transition from train to train on the horizon, which was the clock in British India that governed life in the nearby villages. A stray dog has materialised, live smoke indicates that the hearth is lit and Sarbojaya who now has another, much younger widow helping her around, already carries a ‘load’ of keys on her shoulder.

The family is once again now settled, so to speak.

Night. Bhabratan and Apu eat by the lamp as Sarbojaya sits serving.

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The elder-man announces he would be gone after a week, then asks Apu to join him from the next day to learn priestly rituals in that period. Notice the utter simplicity of the manner in which a major decision gets taken for the boy.

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He pauses drinking water from the glass and turns to look to the mother; and the camera follows that look to find Sarbojaya smiling in approval. No discussions, no debating, just two shots. Notice that rather than ‘emote’ one way or the other, Apu has been given specific steps of action to perform, camera asked to pan at a certain pace and Sarbojaya told to respond through a smile.

How would the director judge the shot, particularly the camera operation, in such a situation? By simply looking over the cameraman’s shoulder as he did the job in conjunction with the actors performing, both viewed from an overseeing position. Notice that in this shot Sarbojaya waits a tad longer than ‘natural’ before breaking into her smile. And notice as well that strictly speaking, Apu’s look falters before the camera fully leaves him but is still accepted as OK for the action as a whole. Perhaps a second take was tried but found to have gone worse somewhere else and rejected in favour of the first. Holding the glass short and switching of looks has worked particularly well in the first attempt.

Apu’s training as priest is covered in three shots taken on a common concept and each dissolved into the next to imply progression.

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Bhabratan gives the first instructions, then young widow Nirupama substitutes supervising and finally the boy performs on his own, right through until the chants and obeisance. Notice the boy’s sense of hurry when left alone. That would be typical of his age, as well as indicative of a degree of lack of interest in what he is being trained as.

As though to further the same idea, outdoor has been a constant presence through the door behind him. All along his training, the outdoor beckons, so to speak.

The door in the background is as deliberate through Apu’s training as was the absence of any such opening immediately after Harihar’s death in Sarbojaya’s new house where Bhabratan had come visiting. Ray’s cinema expresses both through inclusion as well as exclusion.

And it’s when he is outdoors that the contrast strikes us with the routine of life in the village.

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As Apu goes burdened with his priestly persona, children his own age go wildly chasing one another and rolling down the banks of the canal in gay abandon. Since this scene leads him to leave priesthood and join the village school, let’s examine the mise-en-scene in some detail.

Starting with carrying the deity’s idol and heavily wrapped in a priestly shawl, Apu already looks like a grown up when first seen walking under the large tree. As the view begins to track along with him, first person to cross him is a bare-bodied, manual worker.

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Active interplay between castes and communities similar to this is common to Ray’s later village films like Aashani Sanket and Sadgati.

Then as the track gradually draws closer to him we begin to hear the ruckus between an old woman and a horde of boys his own age. Seeing them, Apu is amused almost like an adult.

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Take a second look at the tracking shot. Not only is the boy contrasted in all kinds of ways with the villager he crosses—dress, age, profession—there is variety and contrast even in the greenery that he so incidentally passes. The large canopy of a tree, the palm single with its typical spread of leaves, a common aak bush (Calotropis) in the foreground, the banana plantation in the background, and of course the grass sticking out all along his route. It would seem that Ray built his nuanced expression through conflict and contrasts on as many planes as he could possibly incorporate in his frame.

But beside the frolicking boys, something else catches the young priest’s attention on the other side of the slope and he keeps turning to look back in that direction even as he descends another slope carefully holding the idol and the basket.

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This one is a new visual set up where we see a bamboo footbridge in the background. Further narration is going to use all these elements in an amplified manner when the action returns here.

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Apu stands watching the school the same as he stood watching the train a while earlier. The same indeed as he had stood variously amused, curious and mesmerised watching monkeys, Nand Babu trying to hide bottle of rum and the body-builder with Gadha on the bank of Ganga.

But before we move further, a question. What was Apu out for in the first place? Carrying a basket(?) in one hand and idol in the other, what was his purpose? Nothing is clear.

It’s almost an imposition with the sole purpose of bringing out the oddity of his profession when outdoors among boys his age, something that cried out to be ‘corrected’. His wanting to join them in school was therefore, not an act of rebellion as it could be in another character, but a ‘natural’ urge. That would be interpreting Ray’s stance here. 

Night. The lantern, Apu lying face away and his shadow fanning out on the wall. Mother joins him on the bed with her needlework and does all the talking. Is he unwell? Somebody said something? There are nice people here…

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Suddenly the boy wants to say something and rolls over into her lap. Whispers that he wants to go to school. Mother listens attentive, asks some basic clarifications and finally smiles approval.

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Everything is over in just two shots. The concept makes it easy for the boy to perform. All he has to do is speak his lines one after another and roll back to look up at the mother while asking his last, “Don’t you have money, Ma?”

In a learner-filmmaker’s hands such a scene would usually end up having a heavy- handed approach. There can be no denying for example that the boy is sad to begin with and to most novices that would suggest to begin the scene with a close up. Having written which all they can do, then, is to go hammer and tongs after the kid to ‘act’ degrees of sadness… Naturally, a child can do no better than just make faces. Or worse, be a Bollywood child star.

[To be continued]

Book Aparajito /Chapter 3

When the view opens after Harihar’s death, 2 or 3 things strike us at once.

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One, that it’s a new interior, with kitchen cum living in the same room. Two, that Sarbojaya is now a widow—her white dress would signify that. Three, that spatially it’s an against-the-wall situation for her, literally so. A window would release that tension but that has been decided against. Also Sarbojaya’s sitting posture—she’s for the first time sitting on bare ankles—suggests a more menial, servant-like position that she now has come to acquire. And finally when she smiles to Apu, it suggests it’s been some time since Harihar’s passing. Just as after Durga’s death in PP, Harihar too had greeted the elders with a moving-on-with-a-smile gesture.

And not the least, the widow-smile here ‘patterns’ with the widow-smile with which the scene would end as the train carrying Sarbojaya and Apu leaves Benares and reaches Bengal.

A word about Sarbojaya’s new house. For that it’s not enough to go and shoot in a different house, perhaps a servant quarter of some kind. The elements of the new place should clearly contrast with those of the earlier house and they should all be available to see at one glance of the camera since you don’t have many scenes to play here. In fact what Ray chooses may not be a real house at all—it’s a set. In filmmaking you should be able to lie on a straight face as long as it is in the service of a larger truth. That should hold in all arts.

For most part, the set here is only a flat wall with some features. And therein lies its genius. The door is barely in suggestion at the left and the action is separated from the background mostly through lighting. One obvious source of light is the door through which Apu comes and goes but equally important is an unseen window in the opposite wall. Lit from these two opposite directions, the figures come nicely moulded for us.

The setting suggests a climb-down in the family’s situation after Harihar. There is probably no bed; they sleep on the floor (a sample of which was introduced earlier as Apu was woken up from the floor to get Ganga jal). The cross-bar in the foreground is a mysterious piece of ‘clutter’; impossible to decide what it might be. In the least it is ‘trailing off’ of the out-focus close foreground of the medicine bottle in Harihar’s death composition.

Altogether the set is like a template for her life after Harihar. It’s the liveable equivalent of what can only be described as a hole. And this is where she is getting the offer of living back in the countryside where space is not a problem. This ‘choke’ should be an additional motivation for her to eventually shift to Bengal, if one was needed.

Notice the composition.

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It’s a wide view and static, with a lot of vacant standing space which gets filled up as Sarbojaya stands and gets back empty as she sits down. Often Ray had a way of striking a simple ‘average’ of various stages of action and go for a static composition to house them. The idea always was not to make the means explicit. Here for example Ray had the following alternatives. One, in the same set up to follow Sarbojaya’s action through frame adjustments completely eliminating the imbalance. Two, tighten the frame with a longer lens and do the same even more pro-actively. Both would imply degrees of intervention. Instead in this stock-taking situation after the tragedy, he opts for the static frame, keeps the imbalance to the minimum through timing Sarbojaya’s action and allows us to have our own way with the composition and the situation. In doing so he also saves the closer view for the exchange of looks between the visiting relative Bhabratan and Apu.

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This first look of the old man is important since at the end of the film the adolescent Apu defies him and leaves for Calcutta.

Kitchen. It’s a kitchen only because cooking is going on here. And Sarbojaya is the one cooking.

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It’s not large because there are no other cooks or helpers. It’s not ventilated either. There is no window because even here we cannot judge which floor she might be working on. But, unlike her living space, it is large enough to ‘release’ the camera to do a track around the hearth.

This is Sarbojaya’s workplace; the open air ghats were Harihar’s.

We have seen Sarbojaya at the hearth any number of times in Pather Panchali and in Aparajito but this one is different. She is now cooking for another family. And the difference shows through a telling detail. Dealing now with larger volumes, she has to stand up to stir the vegetables. The action is highlighted through using a longer lens so that camera has to tilt up with her.

Twice in quick succession between here and the preceding scene, Sarbojaya’s lightness on her feet is noticeable. This is the beginning of an idiom in the portrayal of her character subtly slipped in. Her getting up becomes more and more laboured towards the end of the film as she staggers to the door waiting for her son.

The kitchen shot ends with an anxious look on Sarbojaya’s face and the next one confirms our own fears. She worries about Apu and for the first few moments we too are tricked into thinking the boy is really going astray. But a pull back reveals to the contrary. Apu is not stealing but picking grey hair from the old master’s head.

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Once the humour of the situation passes, notice how the rest of the scene continues tantalisingly along the same elements that we had feared for the boy. The old man directs Apu to the drawer where money is and takes out the coin in his presence. Does it take long for an innocent boy like that to switch sides the next time round?

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But even after the tip Ray continues to build on Apu’s innocence. What does the boy go and do with his coin? He spends it feasting with the monkeys! “The monkeys behave as if they owned the place,” Ray observes in his Benares diary. “A good possibility of a scene with Apu here.”

On the way the boy crosses a party of shehnai players who go singing and playing the background music that started with him getting the tip and is applied to the whole sequence even subsequently. Not very noticeable but included in the shot is a man riding a donkey and another crossing over on a camel.

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Notice how the monkey sequence has been built. This is after all the peak of Apu’s activities in Benares and has to play out as a celebration at some length.

Having bought the feed in the long shot—rather quickly and in the dark, hardly noticed—Apu enters the temple and sees the monkeys spread out all over.

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Amused then he sees sections of them—these would be largely improvised ‘studies’ but notice they are all in static compositions.

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A group sitting over a tiger enhances the theme of folk-cum-religious art already introduced with Apu as he plays with other children in the lanes; another single scratching himself is advancement in having an audio component to his action. The sound of scratching is specifically added and actually heard.

Next Apu comes closer, takes out the grams from under his shirt and begins to call out for them—much in the same way, incidentally, as the lean bearded man at the beginning feeding the pigeons.

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Just as the street sections between the ghats and Harihar’s house were repeated as style, monkeys assemble around Apu from the same shots that we have seen them in moments ago. Action builds until they are picking grains from Apu’s hand. (An unfriendly proximity by Sarbojaya had been rebuffed earlier.)

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The celebration component comes with the monkeys jumping on the bells. This is cut purely on the bell sounds, their build up from scattered singles to purely cacophonic. The last shot of the sequence shows a monkey with bells carved in stone. By the time the scene ends Apu is himself munching on the same roasted grams. “Have you seen that monkey?” Sarbojaya had asked in her opening lines of the film.

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This is the ‘resolution’ of the monkey in Aparajito. This is also the last that we hear of the temple bells in Benares. This is the only occasion in the film where Apu smiles in true happiness. Minus such a scene he would come across as a ‘sad’ child.

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After Harihar’s death Sarbojaya has been uncertain about whether to stay on in Benares or to take uncle Bhabratan’s offer and shift back home with him to Bengal. Now her mistress, happy with her work, asks her to accompany them to their own village.

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“Do you have someone here?” “No.” “Is there someone in your village?” “No.” “Then where is the problem? Come with us,” she tells her rather crudely. Sarbojaya agrees.

Notice the composition of the two-shot with the mistress.

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The reclining mistress has been given much more than breathing space to her left whereas Sarbojaya stands with her shoulder cut by the frameline. A slight shift of the camera frame to the right would have them occupy equal space in the composition but that would be false in terms of their relative position in life. The present one becomes a more authentic representation of the two characters.

We have seen two interactions with Sarbojaya’s masters, Apu’s with the dozing old man and Sarbojaya’s with the well-fed, kindly mistress. Both scenes are followed by large verandas through which Apu and Sarbojaya pass. (They are not the same, by the way; only similarly shot.) While these spaces give us an idea of the size and scale of this household, they also lull us into believing that Sarbojaya has been lucky to find a good footing after the tragedy. (There is no evidence of Nanda Babu kind of threat here either.) This belief is crucial if what follows has to really work with full force.

After the reassuring interview with the mistress Sarbojaya walks the whole length of the veranda before turning to the staircase.

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She reappears at a landing and continues coming down. Offscreen the house has been humming with activity. At one point somebody calls for Apu and she turns to look in that direction. Although in a long shot, what she sees delivers its good at once.

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In a full figure posture in an empty verandah, Apu stands blowing into a hookah chillum that he is carrying on order. Sarbojaya is stung. The image—her boy growing up to be a man servant in that large household—is the complete antithesis of all that she had ever dreamt for the boy.

In a tighter composition and quite shaken, Sarbojaya resumes descending. Each tentative step brings her down as well as closer to the camera.

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By the time she is in a close up, her mind is made up. To a screaming train whistle, the camera swing pans to the right but is promptly slapped back by the undercarriage of a passing train that is just leaving the city.

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Sarbojaya and Apu are on the train with Bhabratan as it passes over Ganga. Girders pass by the same as they had done at the beginning of the film but in the opposite direction.

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Wistfully Sarbojaya sees the city they are leaving behind. She is leaving a widow but her son is securely by her side.

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Examine Apu’s shot with the chillum.

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There is a lot of clutter around his small figure but in addition there is an unexplained gauze, a net of sorts through which everything is seen. The fuzz of the clutter and the out-focus of the net introduce an element of criticality to the whole experience. Such elements have been gradually introduced at key points in the recent narrative. As Harihar lay sick there was a large out-focus bottle in the foreground and after his death, Sarbojaya’s new place has a bold out-focus wooden bar stretching across the frame.

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The present application may only be the resolution of that device.

Similarly for the two verandah shots in which Apu and Sarbojaya walk after their scenes with the master and the mistress. Nothing much happens in them but they are there underlining the grandeur of the mansion and opulence of the family Sarbojaya serves. In a way Apu’s shot with the chillum, which too is a similar long space, is a resolution of the earlier two veranda shots.

Notice the ‘geometry’ of Sarbojaya’s descending shot before it merges into the train. It’s a static composition, carefully chosen on the lens and the height of the camera so as to provide a right mix of progressive enlargement and ‘tease’ with framing. The shot is a lower angle and tighter than the one before when she first spotted Apu. Lower than this and the camera would need to be tilted up as she approaches. That in Ray’s judgement would be overplaying the moment.

Notice, too, the stitching of the two shots in question; swing away from the descending Sarbojaya and swing along the rushing train in the opposite direction. The ‘collision’ expresses the impact of the moment the same as sighting of train had done for the little Apu in PP.

The train, by the way, cannot be rushing so fast just after leaving the station and entering the bridge; the shot has been cheated. In fact the unevenness of the train’s speed throughout the sequence has been levelled through clever use of train sound, at the end of which we get to have an a convincing feel of the overnight journey. The PP theme music and Sarbojaya’s smile would otherwise not work.

Much later Ray made Nayak which is an extended look at an overnight train journey from Calcutta to New Delhi. There too, besides the main story, the audience experience the feel and fatigue of the long travel between the two stations.

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One ready temptation to end the Benares sequence would be to fade out on the girders and go directly into their new life in the village. Bridge to bridge, it would form such a neat bracketing of the sequence.

What Ray has done instead is to repeat the girders as well as incorporate them in a much wider scheme. While arriving it had been the family’s point of view (implied, not seen); now it is specifically Sarbojaya’s viewpoint as they leave. The girders now have been intervened by shots of the family and the journey continues even after clearing the bridge, over the suburbs and the villages and the vales and over the night and the next day. The first time we saw Sarbojaya in the train it was with a widow’s sorrow writ large on the face, the next morning it’s a crack of a smile as the train enters the Bengal countryside. Used only this once in Aparajito, PP theme music returns underscoring the moment and at once grows to be a resonance of the universal sentiment of homecoming.

Two snatches of the threesome achieve this effect. To begin with, all three awake—the old man eating—and seeing out of the window, and after a long stretch of journey, the old man and Apu are asleep while Sarbojaya, the new head of what is left of the family, awake. She has not slept a wink throughout the journey, by implication.

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The ‘purpose’ of the travel-montage—Sarbojaya’s smile—over, the view dissolves to a shot of their new village, before it dissolves to them arriving in their new house.

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The Benares sequence over, consider its mise-en-scene.

The narration tells us that after leaving the village at the end of Pather Panchali, the family shifts to Benares. In Benares two things happen. Harihar dies and after a period of uncertainty Sarbojaya decides to return to Bengal. Along with the plot, Ray’s mise-en-scene incorporates the essence of the ancient holy city. That’s how one gets the impression of a comprehensive feel to the city. “There is no reason why we should not cash in on the curiosity of the west about the orient,” he wrote in an early article. Indeed the next best thing to visiting Benares is watching Aparajito.

The first story, Harihar’s death, is on the waterfront while the second is exclusively in the household of the rich family. With everything else going in contrast, there are wider excursions taken in both cases. Apu exploring the ghats in the first and the boy feeding the monkeys in the second. Regardless of all kinds of developments, the boy’s ‘education’ continues.

Another thing common to both sections—and that’s Ray’s genius—are the steps! The long flight of public steps at the ghat and the private staircase of the rich house where Sarbojaya sees Apu with the chillum. On the former, action takes place climbing whereas on the latter it’s while descending. Besides the formal, there is no other reason to have the staircase to be the location where such a turning point should be brought about. I would be very surprised if this were to be in the book.

Post-Harihar Benares developments have to be seen as a design leading to the sudden departure of the family to the village. To this end, after a very casual mention—a mere whiff—of the village as a possibility through the visiting uncle, we are lured into thinking that mother and son are settling down nicely in Benares. The boy is happy, her cooking is liked, what else might she need in life? (Nowhere is the irony underlined that Sarbojaya’s cooking skills, barely mentioned in PP and praised by Harihar’s preacher colleague in Benares, have now become a source of livelihood for her.) But barely has she given her consent to go with the family, she sees Apu blowing into the chillum—in the long shot, not in a close up—and her mind changes. The opposite swish-pans one after another express mother’s fury as well as waking up from a long stun after Harihar’s death. It’s also like wiping the black board clean and starting afresh all over again.

Interestingly both of Sarbojaya’s options involved moving away from the present set up. With the old uncle to the village and with the zamindar family to wherever they were shifting to. At the time it was not uncommon for zamindars to have more than one home and live in each over different months. In his own way, old uncle does the same thing coming to Benares as he does. Without the prospect of travel away from Benares with the family, the impact of return to the village would be compromised.

A word about Sarbojaya’s employers. Having this home in Benares, the zamindars don’t seem to be particularly religious. Except that the master wears a sacred thread, which Apu wears too. That’s perhaps what got them the job in the first place. Traditionally brahmins used to be the cooks in rich households, which in those days were always high caste. The mistress too is not a scriptures-chanting woman. A leather-bound book in front of her (barely noticeable in the frame) would more likely be a Sharat Chandra novel than, say, Ramayan. Indeed Benares had other areligious aspects to its existence and in that sense it’s an enhancing foil to the experience of the city as a whole.

A large part of the richness of the post-Harihar Benares comes from the play on spaces. From the cramped hole where Sarbojaya lives, to a more spacious but underlit kitchen where she works, to the bright and spacious residential quarters which she serves. From the old master’s study, Apu comes out in the verandah, decides where to go (which is further open-air outdoors) and runs to the temple and the monkeys. From the fat mistress’s room, Sarbojaya comes into another verandah, then stairs, and decides where to go and ‘trains’ to the far, far away Bengal, home. That living quarters are on an upper floor is most subtly introduced when Apu runs to the gate of the mansion in a high angle shot, so that when Sarbojaya takes the staircase, it appears only natural that she should do so.

As I said elsewhere, Ray’s cinema has the greatest density of knots per square inch.

Book Aparajito /Chapter 2(b)

Through the lanes, a cow has to turn and make way for the group bringing sick Harihar. A lean man with hair tied at the back is placed prominently to reinforce the holy city character of the place.

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This is recognisably the same section of the market where he had passed through returning from bath at the beginning. Much as the section showing women’s alarm upon seeing Harihar’s fall was familiar from the same walk. Shortly Apu will take the same route to get Ganga jal for the dying father.  

The doctor.

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So, the doctor has finally been brought in, you say in some relief.

All the elements from the doctor’s visit in Pather Panchali are repeated here. Including the opening shot with the stethoscope. This would be “sameness with a difference” across the two films. This is what makes them both belong to the same trilogy. Except Nanda Babu here, who stands brushing his teeth outside the window. Also introduced here, for the first and only time in the house, is the ceiling.

Notice the doctor’s performance. Once he gets up, he has been asked not to look at the neighbour who has actually brought him. Given his looks and given that he observes this instruction and just speaks his lines looking at the patient, nothing he can possibly do would be out of character. In fact he remembers a little late that he has also been asked to touch Apu’s chin before leaving and when he does that, it looks brilliant piece of acting. The doctor in PP was rather bad after the key close up with the stethoscope. He didn’t seem to be the same man in the group shot afterwards.

Notice that in the group shot the doctor remains mostly with his back turned to us; there’s no effort to have him face the camera. That would be theatrical. And again as Sarbojaya comes to help Harihar with buttoning up his shirt, the surahi with upturned glass returns in the background.

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That’s water for sure but not quite the Ganga jal that would be needed shortly.

Camera operation in this shot is typical of Ray. After men have left, the veiled women speak. As the visitor leaves, the frame doesn’t ‘adjust’ to centre Sarbojaya, as would be the normal practice and tendency. Instead the off-balance composition is motivation for her to move towards Harihar whom care has been taken to keep out of frame throughout doctor’s visit. As she does so, the camera simply tilts down to find him lying helpless. With us seeing his condition as Sarbojay’s hands button him up, the scene is complete and ready to move on. From suffocation to open air outdoors.

Also a note on scriptwriting. Notice that Sarbojaya doesn’t go to see off the kindly neighbour, say, outside the room into the courtyard as would appear polite and ‘logical’ under the circumstances. The woman’s offer of help and exiting frame then and there sums up the essence of the gesture and relationship. The action looks neither rushed nor truncated.

A Ray film moves like a ship rather than, say, a boat. Much like life itself, it moves slow but steady. And assured, without missing a beat.

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Apu is outside on his roam, this time at a well where water is drawn by a team of bullocks.

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Over the synchronous sounds of the action in the frame, Ray uses an unexplained children’s song that sounds almost like a school prayer. This usage has always struck me as nothing more than an additional layer of local flavour of Benares. It’s with details like these—sprinkling of Hindi words, spoken and written; references to local food flavours; comparison every now and then with things back home—that feeling builds up of the family having left Bengal and coming to stay in another culture. Interestingly the song continues to play at a lower volume even when the scene returns to developments at home, as though it were a realistic detail from the well-location that happened to be close by. Whatever its logic, the application works primarily as sound filler. Aparajito is one film that Ray admitted to being thin on sound track.

Taking stock of Apu’s activities in Benares—everything but schooling—we have seen him playing with other children in the streets, then exploring the ghats by himself and now at this novelty, watching this fascinating mechanism for drawing water.

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That this present adventure occurs as Harihar lies ill, should place the application in the same class as the one in Pather Panchali where children were off watching the train as Pishi was preparing to die. This stream would peak at the temple where soon he has fun feeding monkeys. On a larger matrix, drawing water—with pulley and ropes—has been played on in Pather Panchali. Indeed it continues even later in Aparajito when the mother and son shift to the village. Sarbojaya leaves the rope halfway into the courtyard well as Apu comes home from Calcutta.

With Apu away and Harihar ill, Nanda Babu tries his luck with Sarbojaya.

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His arrival is suggested through his shining new pumps—another case of a mysterious ‘chemistry’. A pair of them gently descends on the steps and for a moment the wearer—Nanda Babu for sure, we say—pauses to play with the kittens. Next he appears in Harihar’s window where a checking call from him fails to wake up the ailing man. (Instead it sends Sarbojaya in the kitchen on the alert.)

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Notice that throughout the composite shot the focus stays on Harihar, without shifting to Nanda Babu. Not that we cannot recognise him, but his soft focus does two things. One, it’s an equivalent of holding our breath in this developing situation and two, from the abstract of just his pumps a moment ago, his out-focus is just a shade more concrete. The most concrete of Nanda Babu comes next when he approaches Sarbojaya.

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This time it’s a sharp-focus composite of him consisting of shoes and trembling hand, and later back of the face. Interestingly we never see his face full frontal in his moment of shame. Also notice Sarbojaya brings the knife from out of the frame, just as Harihar had reached for the bamboo post support from out of frame at the steps a while ago. Both these ‘helps’ are handy to each character and they are both aware of them before we see them.

That’s Nanda Babu’s character’s resolution. We do not see him any further but thanks to him we (as also Sarbojaya) are worried about the kind of threat that looms over her should any harm come to her husband. Already there are predators, we say.

As Nanda Babu retreats, the view dissolves to the crescendo of aarti in the Vishwanath temple before resuming on an anxious Sarbojaya at Harihar’s bedside.

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The shot is a recall of Sarbojaya’s view of the priests from her visit, although at a more advanced stage of the charged atmosphere, with flames and vigorous action. And just like the children’s prayer from the earlier application, the aarti sound too continues at a distant perspective as Sarbojaya tends to Harihar before it fades out.

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The night over, it’s a quiet early morning over the city. An occasional temple bell is heard. Harihar sleeps in a big close up, as does Sarbojaya sitting at his bedside. Notice that this is the biggest close up of the man we have ever seen in both PP and here. Then he grunts. “Want something?” Sarbojaya wakes up. He grunts some more. “Want water?” He wants Ganga jal.

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Sarbojaya knows what that means. There is no Ganga jal in the lota. She wakes up Apu from his bed on the floor, wraps him in a shawl and asks him to bring it quickly from the river. Securing Apu here in a shawl and Harihar returning to go inside and coming out with the umbrella a little earlier, are references that you remember from Pather Panchali.

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Now begins the famous intercut between Apu’s progress at the ghat and Sarbojaya’s wait for the Ganga jal. As mentioned before, Apu goes over the same terrain that we have known from Harihar at the beginning.

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Having filled his lota from the river, Apu lingers a moment looking at the idle gadas as another man does sit ups at a distance.

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Finally when he is home, Sarbojaya brings him up closer as she pours from the lota over Harihar’s mouth.

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For the holy water to pour at this sombre moment, the view goes back to the dying man’s close up with which the scene began.

Water is poured but as soon as the hand withdraws, the head falls limp in death.

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As if on cue, a flock of pigeons take off in fright on the ghats. And go circling over the morning skies—twice over in a single static long shot that only Ray can manage—as we hear Sarbojaya’s words of sorrow and disbelief.

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His father gone, Apu is led through some post-death rituals at the river bank and the scene comes to an end.

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Harihar’s death is one of the most celebrated moments in the cinema. It would be a mistake to assume that the juxtaposition of the two images alone—a dying man and the pigeons flying—is by itself a magic juxtaposition. It’s more like a progressive thing, a cumulative effect. A lot of things have to come to a head for this moment to work. And for them to come to a head, they must first exist. It seems to me that the entire Benares episode has been conceived and written with this single objective in mind.

Here is the crux of the entire Benares episode. That this Bengali family has moved to the holy city where father earns his livelihood as a preacher on the riverbank. Unexpectedly the father dies and after a period of uncertainty both widowed mother and the son return to Bengal.

Ray decides to treat the pre and post-death Benares sequence completely different from each other in order to suggest the impact of father’s death on the family. ‘Life was no longer the same’, so to speak. Equally since the film is taking place in Benares and Harihar is a Brahmin priest, he decides to highlight the importance of Ganga jal to a Hindu where belief is that a few drops poured by the son in a dying father’s mouth are highly auspicious. That the act ensures a direct merger of the soul into the Great Soul, Paramatma, without having to go through repeated cycles of life and death in this world. That’s achieving Nirvana, the ultimate bliss for a Hindu.

But equally he is keen not to turn the whole thing into a lecture. Rather, much like everything he does in the cinema, he wants to reinvent this belief in universal human terms and reach to the widest numbers across the world. That would be expressing the core of this Hindu value from their holiest, most ancient city, the very evolution of which was probably responsible for forming this belief in the first place.

That’s how the dramatic last scene, Harihar’s death, is visualised first and the rest worked back (almost choreographed) to support and strengthen that conclusion. That’s how the film begins with the pigeons, the ghats and Harihar collecting water in his lota as he heads home after bath. That distance is later traversed directly and indirectly in a variety of ways. Once key sections of the stretch are established, he is taken home sick by the crowds via the same route and the boy goes and returns the same way with Ganga jal. Rest of the details of the story are fleshed out around these trips. And that includes the most unlikely characters like Nand Babu and the other preacher colleague, both of whom are looking for sex from two different ends. Nand Babu provides the looming threat over Sarbojaya in the event of Harihar’s death and the preacher colleague looking for a bride works as his foil. That’s the main value of those two minor characters and their little stories to the film.

After Harihar’s death the narrative does not go back to the old house, the old lanes, indeed to the ghats. When we next see Sarbojaya, she is in a different house; in the servant quarters perhaps of the rich family that she has taken employment with and from where they are directly going to leave for Bengal when they do.

With Harihar gone, it’s no longer the essential Benares that the world knows.

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Why is it important for Harihar to hold out until the return of the boy with Ganga jal?

The question came to my mind while doing the sketches of the scene and I believe it’s a brand new question asked of this 1957 film. The boy goes and comes at an unhurried pace and the man stays gasping until his return. Why has death been made to so wait in this piece of fiction? And equally, made to happen as soon as he has taken that water? Under what logic of plot construction does the issue fall?

To me it’s for nothing more—or less—than for reasons mise-en-scene.

The essential requirement of the story is that the man dies, with or without receiving the sacred water. The timing of death only ensures that we experience catharsis, That’s what makes the moment—in our as well as the characters’ lives—memorable. It’s a question of ‘marking the moment’.

In his mise-en-scene, Ray has built in a component of saving grace during all the misfortunes of the family. A things-could-be-much-worse kind of foil, where hope and despair alternate. At the end of PP where a snake crawls into the living unit of the house, we begin to feel anxious. But we are relieved when the next shot shows that the family has safely left just in time. That they are leaving home and village is bad but things could be much worse.

In the build-up to Harihar’s death, the design works as follows. The first day he feels unwell, we experience subtle relief that he is himself a doctor. In spite of our doubts, he feels better after his medicine. Both he and Sarbojaya are upbeat and begin to think of moving to a new house and putting Apu in a school. So much so that he is up and ready to go for his daily bath next morning.

While returning, he crashes. But we experience relief that he fell on the level surface atop the steps, for a little before he almost went down those dangerously steep steps. Next with the regular doctor brought in, we feel assured that they are still probably in time and he has a chance.

On the fateful day, early morning he asks for Ganga jal. The boy gets it, he takes it, and dies. As per the pattern so far, the boy’s successfully getting the water to father’s lips is the necessary relief that cannot be compromised before the inevitable tragedy. Indeed if Ganga jal brought and given is a stretched dramatic license, what comes after his death is bizarre. His fall of head sends the pigeons on the ghats flying! Nothing could be more arbitrary but it heightens the moment after the pattern!

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Here are some more observations that need further thought.

Notice, first of all, that all three members of the family come together in one frame for the first and the only time in the film when Ganga jal is poured in the mouth.

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Just as in PP there were only two moments when the family appeared in single frames, one at the end of Chapter 1 in the extended kitchen scene where Harihar is upbeat about the future and second at the end of the film when Apu, Sarbojaya and Harihar are leaving the village in a bullock cart. The visual composition reinforces the family in subtlest and the most assured ways at this crucial juncture. In Apur Sansar, no such single frame was ever possible as they were only two present at one time.

Notice further that once the view has left the threesome and gone to the man in his grand isolation, there is no going back to the family. From here, Harihar can only go ‘skywards’ which he does, symbolized by the pigeons.

As pointed out, the head falling and pigeons flying is not a regular cause-and-effect phenomenon—it cannot be. But that is exactly how it has been conceived and cut. The head falls and its imagined thud is the editor’s cue for the next shot to cut. The sitting flock takes off as though in fright and the effect is carried over into the third shot where a wave of pigeons crosses the skyline and even reappears after a full round of flight. On the sound is Sarbojaya’s reaction of disbelief and a stretch of music—high flute and a trill that slowly fades away. This trill is used in Aparajito a number of times later on.

Notice too that the second and third shot—as indeed the first too—are static compositions. That’s as long as the stun effect lasts. Afterwards as regular living resumes (religious rituals in this case), the frame eases up as required. It’s crucial (no, critical) that the rituals sampled should be those that take place on the riverbank and not, say, in the house. The structural logic dictates that the narrative doesn’t go back to the house after Harihar’s death. The death of a Brahmin has to end up at the Ganges—it’s a one-way process.

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Examine the two shots representing post death rituals. They often get lost in the shadow of what has preceded them but that’s precisely their function. They are designed to be so lost. Without them the scene would look abruptly cut but by no means can they be allowed to compete with the main scene either.

So first of all the whole thing has to be very brief, just enough to bring the stun of death to a normal pitch. There is no room for detailed rituals here. Secondly, they have to happen on the river bank, nowhere else.

Accordingly the river bank is unmistakable from the shots and the chosen ritual is not very identifiable. The boy being conducted is nothing new; throughout the film he’s told what to do and he does that without question. So much so that when at the end he fails to do what mother wants him to do, it’s a monumental tragedy. The elders conducting him are all strangers; none of them is one of the neighbors, for example. These elders would represent the extended community. Earlier during the main scene, the boy has been woken up by another elder, his own mother, and asked to bring water from the river. He does so without questioning, not even resisting. When eventually that water is poured into his dying father’s mouth, it’s in his name although the mother does it. Among the group leading him away, he is the only child and his is the only wrapper that’s new.

While the first shot emphasizes the action, the second shot is so composed as to be overseen by the famous river bank. A lower camera would end up in giving greater importance to the group (which in any case is receding, not oncoming, say).

Notice further that the composition would be lifeless without a stray flag fluttering closer by and overhead. Most likely it’s a stray flag that’s been included, not put there for that purpose. But it’s been included.

Then, the shot has been arranged on an uneven, unfinished terrain of the river, not on one of the paved others that we have seen through the film. A location with prior associations would be a distraction, as much as familiar characters, say one of the neighbors present here, would be too. Mother is not even present here! It’s a patriarchal society and women don’t even attend cremation…

That’s achieving ordinariness through designing.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.