Fade to fade, it’s a single scene sequence running into about 7 minutes 20 seconds and takes the narrative stance equivalent to: “One day, soon after—”.
Notice that the opening is most innocent-looking, designed as a perfect lull before the storm. For maximum contrast, therefore, the tone of narration is playful, with a touch of humor. And the presiding emotion is Vatsalya, the celebrated mother’s affection for the child, a son. No less indeed is this feeding Apu a foil to his returning hungry from school in the previous section where he had drifted to Durga’s tamarind chutney.
The stretched bow binds the shots, physically and through humor. Notice also that the dog’s posture is not matching through the shots but it is impossible to catch it in the running film. Clearly the unit must have been tensed up on account of the dog throughout the sequence but not a trace of that anxiety has spilled on the actors.
Next Apu runs off shooting his arrows while mother follows him through the courtyard.
This whole action is an ‘enlargement’ of the preceding one in the kitchen veranda. Notice how easily and un-prodded the dog trickles into the frame and begins to follow the food more actively. Sarbojaya does absolutely nothing to “show” the food plate to it, for no matter how subtly she does it, she is bound to be caught doing so. In any case, such an effort would go completely against Ray’s approach to his handling of that animal. Or human beings for that matter.
Notice how the washing on the line, integral to the mise-en-scene of this sequence, is introduced.
Having given up on Apu, Sarbojaya goes past the tulsi plant, with the dog keenly following. That’s when we first have a glimpse of the washing in this scene. In the next shot it’s all there prominently in the background as she cleans the leftovers for the impatient dog. Even though available right from the beginning, it had been studiously kept out of the frame. As a visual idiom, therefore, it’s been deliberately introduced just ahead of Sejo-bou’s sudden arrival.
Incidentally, washing had been first spread in the film by Sejo-bou right at the beginning of the film. After that, this is the first major deployment of washing on the clothesline serving as a pass-through curtain—it’s even see-through indeed, since a little later Sarbojaya spots Apu through a gap between clothes as he tries to warn off Durga. Next time we come across a similar use of this idiom is soon after when Sarbojaya has spread winter clothes on the line for sunning. At the end of the film after the family has left, the line is prominently seen lying loose on the ground in the courtyard.
The composition showing Sarbojaya cleaning from Apu’s plate for the dog is reminiscent of one used earlier for the friendly neighbor helping in the house on Apu’s birth. It’s the same waste disposal point in the house. This time round it has been delved upon for longer.
That serves as a build up for Sejo-bou’s sudden arrival.
Notice that the suddenness has been brought-off mainly on the sharp sound of the door. That Sejo-bou is not alone but accompanied by two others is revealed only in the second instalment a shot later. That’s when we also begin to guess what she may have come for.
Sarbojaya who had earlier been shown disposing off food frontally, begins now to be shown in reverse angle, as though to underline the complete reversal of the situation for her.
This is in addition to the immediate reason for the reversal, namely that now we are seeing her from Sejo-bou’s point of view.
Not only is it a see-through house but also a walk-through one, it would seem—one of the girls with Sejo-bou has no hesitation going in and getting Durga’s trinket box.
This also serves as Sejo-bou’s third level of ‘penetration’ into Sarbojaya’s house in this scene. All three are a part of the same momentum, each one coming after the other in quick succession—through the courtyard door, across the clothesline, and finally right into the living room. Interestingly, all three are intercut with Sarbojaya in the process of straightening up from bending and realizing what the matter is.
The basic issue having been disclosed, both to Sarbojaya and us, the view switches to Apu spotting and warding off Durga while the two women engage each other off screen.
Notice that Apu is only seen making his frantic gestures while nothing of what he is saying is made available to us. Looking at him, it’s obvious he was given specific words to speak during shooting in order to get those authentic expressions. This device is by now well established as a part of the style of the film.
Secondly, notice that the composite shot as sketched above is strictly speaking a violation of the principle of Imaginary Line. But it works—and works perhaps better than an “academically correct” rendition would have—because it is supposed to be a “stolen”, key-hole type of look at the children which would look arranged and positioned if done correctly. Now it looks rather as if caught on the run, improvised, un-staged. TV news-like!
And thirdly, that Durga is already a thief of sorts is brilliantly suggested by her action of collecting in her palm what she has been munching—it’s almost certainly something from Sejo-bou’s garden and the gesture comes across as an intuitive admission of guilt.
Incidentally, the opening in the wall through which Durga appears and subsequently enters has nowhere been in evidence in the film so far. From the way it has been used in this sequence, both now as well as a little later when Durga is thrown out of the house, would locate it somewhere near the courtyard main door.
But other shots showing that corner of the house in passing, even those within this sequence before and after Sejo-bou, don’t suggest any such opening in that area. Clearly then, this is the widest liberty taken with this main set of the house and at considerable risk of credibility, and it should be interesting to work out what may have been Ray’s compelling reasons for doing so. The answer would fall somewhere within the following parameters: a) that it’s a creative offensive rather than a breach of continuity to be apologetic about; b) these are not the only arches in the house—similar arches were seen in the main living unit in the background when Harihar was pacing the veranda waiting for Apu’s birth; c) this is not the only brick-work either, for all kinds of bricks have gone into the making of this house; and d) that it is a part of the see-through motif used in a variety of ways to represent this very porous house.
Most appropriately, therefore, the house emerges as made up of a patchwork of architectural styles and textures, sustained through steadily depleting resources of its inmates. Much like the patched quilt on the clothesline in a later sequence.
Notice that Sarbojaya doesn’t immediately catch Apu warning off Durga but after a while. This serves two purposes—one, to enhance suspense whether or not the children are going to be caught, and secondly, to divert attention in this brief interval to Sejo-bou’s express meanness who suddenly stops the little Tunu accompanying her mid-sentence, suggesting that she may have even come to place a trumped up charge…
Durga finally appears for interrogation, denies the charge and is almost hit by Sejo-bou.
Notice that Durga, too, joins the group through the clothes-screen. All participants in the drama must cross to this side of the line—Apu is the only observer who remains watching from his post.
Also, as in the other scenes involving Sejo-bou, a sharp pan has been used here to associate with her acid-tongue and brusque manner—just as Durga denies the charge, she charges towards her in a tight frame, only to be countered by Sarbojaya, whereupon the frame eases back and a physical conflict is avoided.
Just when berries begin to drop from Durga’s pallu drawing sarcastic comments from Sejo-bou, enters Pishi dragging a large coconut leaf behind her and goes on to find out the matter.
Interestingly, the coconut leaf is as much a steal as the berries are! Both actions link Pishi and Durga as the eternal twosome. Apu in contrast never steals—except at the very end when he disposes off Durga’s stolen necklace in the pond.
Again notice that the sound has been withdrawn from this otherwise noisy action.
Secondly, the rest of the action almost stops while Pishi goes asking the two women what has happened. In fact Sarbojaya in the background finishes searching Durga’s knotted pallu and even waits before Pishi finally gives up in disgust. This composite shot ensures that the spectator can keep an eye on both progressions, even though one has been slowed down and the other perhaps stretched.
And thirdly, consider the cut from the long shot of the group to the medium shot mentioned above.
As the ground plan of the set up shows, the medium shot has been taken at about 90 degrees from the establishing long shot. So, in order to make a perfect match cut between the two, Pishi will have to take a right angle turn so as to get in between Sarbojaya and Sejo-bou and look by a turn of head at each as she does. But instead of accounting for such a turn, which would inevitably call for substantial extension of shots (also since Pishi walks slow), the turn has been assumed as taken—cheated, as it is called—and the shots cut on movement. There are many such cutting devices used, particularly in relation to Pishi, so that the pace of narration doesn’t slacken just because the character is old and slow.
The last round of bitter exchange between the two women leaves Sarbojaya in a face-away posture, her hand on the kitchen post.
Notice that instead of the facial reaction in response to a major insult, the view cuts to another composition of the same face-away posture.
Secondly, she holds on to this posture until after Sejo-bou has left implying thereby that she has been stung. Only in response to Sejo-bou’s final insult shouted to a woman outside—“Like mother, like daughter! A pair of thieves!”—does she unfreeze breathing heavily and call Durga over for punishment.
For Sejo-bou’s departure, the view cuts to a high top angle shot from among the branches and pans until she is talking to the woman outside.
Notice that the first and the last compositions of the shot use the branches in the foreground as major balancing elements. The viewing position of the camera has been chosen with these additionally in mind.
Also there is no attempt to follow the characters except in the most general terms—the view goes from inside to outside and so do the characters, that’s all.
And notice, finally, the use of sound. No foot steps, not even the sound of that rickety door through which they have obviously passed—the sound of the door to punctuate a character’s off-screen passage has been saved for a future use, that of Harihar’s return to find an all-but-demolished house at the end. Instead, a persistent bird sound—koel’s kook—has been introduced in this sequence to suggest ominous potential. This was first heard as Pishi enters the scene doddering, wanting to know what was going on. The same is repeated, in an even closer association, here among the foliage. (And it’s repeated once again at the end when Apu discovers the necklace and throws it in the pond.)
Nothing is ever abrupt in Satyajit Ray. Things happen after clues have been left earlier and on a graduated scale. Take the sudden appearance of Sejo-bou in the courtyard here. In the last chapter, we have already seen how her arrival brought instinctive fear on the faces of Durga and Apu as she came and began ordering sweets for her children. That was far, this one now is within ‘slapping’ distance, say.
Likewise this shot taken from high among the branches of a tree would look very jarring and arbitrary if a range of camera heights hadn’t been introduced in some form earlier on. In fact, the sequence begins with a play on heights with Sarbojaya sitting highest while feeding Apu who being small, sits lower and the dog at whom he trains his arrow, sits lowest being on the ground.
When Pishi comes and joins the group, it’s in a long and rather high angle shot, higher than all others until then. In addition, there was a koel’s kook applied to that shot which took its emotional reference somewhat higher still, so that it was only a matter of time and further drama (along with story’s thrust, no doubt) that the scene was ready and ripe for the highest level of the camera.
Needless to say that this scale of heights—or any other aspect of film technique—is not chosen arbitrarily but in conjunction with emotional-intellectual peaks of the narration. Consider the Sarbojaya-Sejo-bou interaction in this sequence. The story tells us that this interaction leads to Sarbojaya beating up Durga. Notice the scale used to measure and mark the rising level of Sarbojaya’s humiliation and how the same has been realized. Ray designs it to take place in three stages—first, the accusation that Durga has stolen; second, reminding Sarbojaya the money she has borrowed and not returned; and the third, “Like mother, like daughter! A pair of thieves!” The first charge is on Durga, the second on Sarbojaya and the third clubs them together as thieves. Also as it happens, camera is at its highest among the branches of the tree at this peak.
Notice the general posture of the two women as presented—Sejo-bou stands stolid and stable, charging, Sarbojaya moves about fidgeting, as if trying to escape the onslaught.
Notice the reaction pattern Ray devices for Sarbojaya when confronted with the three charges—hearing the first one, she mutters surprise as though her worst fears are coming true, and we see her in a medium close shot in one-third profile. The response to the second one is stunned silence, seen in a medium close up from the back and expressed through a posture using a plunging arch of the left arm. For the third charge, the camera cuts straight from high up among the leaves to a close up, slightly low and full frontal—even burnt out background provided by a choice of light colored clothes on the line—with Sarbojaya already flushed and heaving. Not only that, for the only time in the sequence, the view cuts from her to another angle of herself—a familiar one no doubt from her speechless response to the second charge—this time the head turning our way to look at and call Durga. From cumulative progression, thus, Sarbojaya has been reached at the peak of her humiliation, so that the narration is ripe and ready for the next stage, beating of Durga.
Notice also that Pishi had been asking Sejo-bou exactly what the neighbor later asked. The neighbor was answered while Pishi was completely ignored.
Durga’s beating is a construct of mainly three streams of action leading to her being thrown out of the house. The vigorous action is cut to a constant, sharp and fast drumbeat, which stops with the door closed on the girl. No other sound details—spoken word, crying and the like—are provided although they are all clearly seen. After the door is closed, a constant low wail, not quite identified whose it may be, is heard for sometime. It’s possibly Durga’s, even though Sarbojaya too is seen wiping her eyes later on.
The main visual stream is of course the beating itself—curses, body blows, dragging by the hair and finally pushed out of the house—and throughout shows both mother and daughter together in the frame. The second stream is Pishi’s, in which she runs to intervene, is thrown back, stands watching helpless, and finally sits down to collect Durga’s spillage in the box, all in separate segments of shots. The third is Apu’s, in whose reaction there is not much of variety (which itself is variety)—he’s transfixed to the spot and merely watches in horror. He has earlier done the same when the grocer-teacher caned a boy.
The cutting pattern in general follows Durga’s beating as the main spine of action, inter cut alternatively with Pishi’s attempts at intervention and Apu’s reactions of horror, until the girl is thrown out. Pishi is pushed back early, and Durga herself escapes once but is reached for and caught again. There are other minor obstacles on the way—the clothesline itself and the leafy shrub next to Pishi’s veranda—but more to mark out the progression of the two towards the door than for anything else. The key-bunch at the end of Sarbojaya’s pallu is a very light drag indeed but it does its bit to roll about the spills of jamun berries on the ground.
It’s interesting to note that for an action scene, there is rather less of camera movement here—there are many shots where the frame holds even static. The length of the shots and variety of angles, apart from the inherent action, is what the scene banks on for pace.
Once Pishi has been thrown back in the initial stage, the orientation of the main action vis-à-vis the camera becomes frontal—it’s either head-on or tail-away. In fact at one point, a head-on low angle shot of the two as they clear an obstructing clothesline, cuts directly to a tail-away high angle shot in which they continue to go away towards the door, Sarbojaya’s keys dragging behind her. Very interestingly indeed, this switch of angle has been used by Ray as a reference point for Apu’s viewing position—all of Apu’s close-ups so far had the wooden post on the left, while from now onwards the post gets to the right.
This is as though to suggest that at one point Apu had to shift from one side of the post to the other in order to continue looking at what he was seeing. That he has never been shown doing so, doesn’t it suggest that so absorbed was he while watching, that he never realized he was shifting?
Finally when Durga is pushed out of the door and the door closed, in a lengthy “respite” shot both mother and daughter are still seen together, this time in an ironic composition which instantly makes nonsense of any real distinction between the indoors and the outside of the house. The suddenly cut music track serves to heighten the effect.
It was perhaps with this immediate payoff in mind that the arched opening in the wall near the door was introduced midway through shooting and further integrated through repeat use in a subsequent sequence much later in the film.
Notice the near-silhouette quality of this shot as also the earlier composite one of Durga and Apu as Apu was trying to wave her off. Again, while that first time the silhouette feel was merely introduced as a fact of lighting available as seen from that angle, its real payoff has been utilized here—namely that the device gives the whole action a touch of the abstract, while it helps at the same time to spotlight the simultaneous nature of the action between the two characters.
And notice, finally, the graphic poetry of the situation—Durga falls down on the ground as Sarbojaya closes the door and stands against it. But as the shot goes on, Durga rises and leaves while Sarbojaya slowly collapses along the door. A poignant graphic reversal, if you like. A more closely synchronized “rise and fall” has been deliberately avoided for reasons of subtlety.
This by the way has been the second of the three thrown-out-of-the-house scenes in the film. Pishi had at the beginning left and come back, Durga is called back the same as she has been thrown out just now and later on Pishi is again thrown out but not allowed to return. Furthermore, when Pishi was leaving the first time, Durga tried to stop her. Now Pishi tries to do the same in Durga’s defense. The third time round, Durga is munching away at a sugar cane stick far from home when Pishi is begging for shelter.
Notice also the similarities between the punishment here and the one meted out to a pupil of the grocer-teacher earlier on. Both, the pupil and Durga, for instance, resist coming to the teacher-mother when called for punishment. In the former case, another boy drags the defaulter by the ear, whereas here mother herself walks to Durga as she sits at her box.
From a lengthy long shot, to Pishi’s biggest close-up of the sequence. Conflict of volumes, as Eisenstein would say.
Although nothing much by way of action happens here, the shot wrings out the pathos of the whole scene. To make the spectator experience this moment was as though the purpose of all that’s been presented here. Technique-wise, it’s too many things at once—the drama of the rising head, the sudden hugeness of the close-up, the lone cry of the child after a loaded sound-track, the agony of that old, ancient face…
So far Pishi’s and Apu’s reaction shots have been alternating with the main action—Durga’s beating. Now for the first time, Pishi’s head-raise shot cuts directly to Apu’s by the post and we discover—subconsciously—that the two are the same matching size close ups.
The beating over, the two “reaction channels” have now converged to a final summation of pathos before the narration can move on to deal with the heal-up.
In Ray’s treatment, three factors help in the heal-up—Pishi, Apu and lapse of time. Notice with what brevity and grace—not to forget humor—has this been achieved.
Pishi is the first to take the initiative and begins to collect Durga’s things in her box.
Then a subdued Apu tiptoes across the courtyard—past mother at the door and Pishi picking up Durga’s things—to do his mother’s bidding a while ago, namely rinse his mouth from the meals.
The sweeping pan across the courtyard overseeing this action has as though a winding effect, which a dissolve later un-winds, this time not following Apu’s person but his words as he reads them aloud from his school text book.
Also notice that the un-winding shot is a perfect sun-drenched view in subtle but telling contrast with the whole sequence so far which has been shot in soft, shadow-less tones to simulate early forenoon. That’s the indication of time it has taken mother to heal.
To be sure, Apu is barely seen at the end of the shot when it cuts to the next, mother at the door, but even so we know he can’t be anywhere else except in that veranda, which is where we find him after the mother.
This is a little prank played there not to show him fully, because it’s a charming surprise to find him propped up cute behind that book and rattling away.
Notice that at the end of her shot, mother is clearly getting up from the door as she briefly asks him to go call Durga. Hint of her getting up is essential since it’s through the same door—now open—that Apu emerges and goes merrily looking for Durga.
Also notice that he has his bow again, which makes this last cut of the sequence—it’s a cut, not a dissolve—a jump cut of sorts. The snatch of bubbly music starting from the break of smile on Apu’s face helps to make it a smooth jump.
Notice as miscellaneous observations that the dog has continued to be integrated in the middle of beating as well as at the end, though it goes largely unnoticed. Also in one of his close ups by the post, Apu jerks his innocent head while watching the thrashing. This is more as a touch of humor rather than being realistic in the middle of a grim situation. Finally, the bird sound has again been brought in—although it’s a different bird this time—as Apu tiptoes across the courtyard and washes his mouth. As against ominous associations of the earlier two applications in the sequence, this bird is intended to underline the humor of the situation.
Given that the sequence is a continuous interplay between a number of characters in the same place, examining the Imaginary Line application should be worth a close look here.
[To be continued]