After a dense night, relief. Apu stands knocking at a door.
We are spared the agony of staying with Sarbojaya against those slipping, impossible odds. Reminiscent of and modelled after the bright morning after the night of Apu’s birth. It was good news then; let’s see how it turns out here, is how we respond. How is Durga? Did she pull through? We await confirmation as we watch.
As if to play on the uncertainty, the narrative here has switched to Apu’s point of view. He had been asleep through the troubled night and here he is at Nilmoni’s door sent to call his wife. All through the errand Apu keeps trying to check what might be wrong and he is constantly not told. Finally the viewer gets to learn of the fact through Nilmoni’s wife but the child has again been given the slip. “Is Didi sleeping?” “Yes, yes. Go call your uncle…”
Telling her barely seen daughter to sweep the courtyard—same as how Sarbojaya had told Durga at the beginning of the film—“Let’s go,” says Nilmoni’s wife to Apu at the door. And the view dissolves to the devastation.
Through a tilt down it’s an initial exploration of the damaged kitchen before the view levels up to a deep composition of Harihar’s courtyard in which Nilmoni’s wife and Apu appear.
Among the first details to strike is a dead frog among the utensils. In view of its widely acknowledged impact, there had been speculation that maybe the frog was a spot improvisation during shooting. But Ray confirmed that it had been in the script. Second detail that stands out from being in the middle of the courtyard composition is an earthen pot hanging from a fallen beam. And the third, as though in contrast to the frog, is a calf standing its size just behind the beam.
As Nilmoni’s wife and Apu enter the courtyard, they go wading through water. We are familiar with these sounds through an earlier association—when out to see the train, Apu had to walk through water to hear the humming telegraph poles. Pather Panchali abounds in such subliminal cross-references which help to hold the film together.
Nilmoni’s wife takes a momentary pause to look at the fallen kitchen. As they resume the view pans to include the family’s living unit to which both she and Apu climb. Oddly the living unit has a patch of direct sun over it. Was it a compromise to let such a shot pass in the thick of monsoon? Or would it be a welcome chance happening during shooting—indeed while the shot was rolling—enhancing the irony of clear weather so soon after a devastating storm? Schematically speaking, there is no sun in Pather Panchali after the arrival of rains. That was to heighten the grey mood of the film in that part of the film.
A technical comment before moving indoors. As the shot is passing over the frog, a drip falls creating a circle of ripples over water underneath. This telling detail lends a whole dimension of authenticity to the shot without which it would look lifeless.
Much in the same way that a falling leaf does in the bamboo thicket as children went following the sweetmeat seller. Or the fresh leaves do as Sarbojaya sits wailing in front of the kitchen.
And while at it, imagine how the drop may have been achieved. By way of preparations for this shot, the setting would no doubt be arranged and the courtyard flooded with water. (Even though “neo-realistic”, it’s not necessary the shot was taken after real rains.) Then just before rolling the camera, have the setting sprayed and wait for the excess water to drain. If a drop doesn’t fall during the shot, have it done through a clever assistant. Two drops would be one too many.
Inside the room, notice the framing of Nilmoni’s wife and Apu as they stand looking.
Through this section, Apu’s tininess has been emphasised in many ways. Even at Nilmoni’s door he tended to remain at the bottom of the frame. Here too he is on the edge. Withdrawing the camera a couple of feet from the actors would ease up the composition but it would lose on intimacy and emotion.
Check this composition in the context of different screen ratios. Composed for the Academy Aperture, the shot would be completely ruined if projected through the wide screen gate.
Notice that the way the scene is constructed, we are never allowed a stare at Durga’s face. Thus, for one, the actress is never challenged with having to hold breath for too long; and secondly, this is a ‘design’ decision—newly born Apu’s face too wasn’t clearly shown when Durga brought Pishi to see him. There it was a corner of the quilt which kept blocking the view, while here it’s Nilmoni’s wife’s person which keeps doing the same.
Much has been made of the flickering flame during the storm. What has often missed popular notice is that the flame after all survived the storm. It was the girl that went away. The flame still burns quiet and steady when Nilmoni’s wife arrives. Irony now is that it needs to be put out and nobody is paying attention under the tragic circumstances.
A lit flame here, by the way, is as much a contrast to death as the fresh leaves were to poverty a while ago.
Nilmoni’s wife pressing Sarbojaya’s head to her shoulder is only a partial resolution to Durga’s death. For full resolution, Sarbojaya’s cathartic release must await Harihar’s return.
Notice the devices through which the part-resolution has been achieved.
Firstly and chiefly, Sarbojaya doesn’t breakdown in spite of the sympathetic embrace. Neither does Nilmoni’s wife to be sure. Nor indeed Apu, whenever that may have taken place. We simply have been denied showing any crying until the flood gates. In fact there isn’t even a standard over-the-shoulder shot showing Sarbojaya’s expressions. Instead the narration moves on to show her drag through the routine—drawing water, cooking, staying unresponsive to neighbour’s gesture of sending vegetables, etc. Similarly, Apu has now to be on his own, not only getting ready and dressing up by himself but even returning for that large umbrella before setting out for school.
Notice too that all these actions are being independently carried out by the two characters, and not, say, one helping the other. Imagine Apu helping mother with drawing water from the well! Or Sarbojaya calling after him, asking to take the umbrella!
And finally the music which triggered by Nilmoni’s wife’s gesture of sympathy soon takes the character of a ‘montage’ mode underlining the general, rather than a more specific, cathartic application which comes later.
This is not the first time we are seeing Apu learn his lesson either. Earlier when Durga received a thrashing and was thrown out of the house, he had promptly gone to wash his mouth and sat down chanting from his schoolbook. While that evoked humour, this one is tragic. Equally that was also the time we saw the family settling down after an unpleasant event and the same is being done here. As observed elsewhere, Pather Panchali, as indeed Ray’s cinema as a whole, is built on deductive logic. You saw it then, see the difference now. And draw your own conclusions.
So that hardly anything in the film would be new by now. Nilmoni’s wife handing over kitchen to her daughter before leaving with Apu is a subtle repeat of Sarbojaya having done the same when, having been called by her husband to hand over the salary, she had asked Durga to tend to the cooking. Equally, the woman’s gesture of help is itself also not new—we have earlier seen her helping in all kinds of ways.
Now for the details of the montage.
Interestingly, the two streams of action are independent and autonomous. Apu gets ready and goes to school while Sarbojaya brings water and cooks. Both streams are a variation on how we have seen those chores done before. We never saw Sarbojaya washing clothes, for example, and she isn’t doing that here either.
Notice that Apu’s cleaning of teeth by the pond has this time been shown in the reverse angle to the frontal first time. This gives the act a holistic, comprehensive dimension. The same principle has been used towards showing the devastation caused by the storm, first from inside the courtyard as Nilmoni’s wife arrives and later from outside when Harihar returns.
Similarly for Sarbojaya drawing water from the well.
The first time the narration had followed her to the well, now it starts from the other end, from inside the well, coming up with the bucket. Notice too that her earlier associations of rope ‘cutting through the frame’ are still retained at the beginning of the shot.
Notice that the two shots of the courtyard showing Apu coming after bath and then leaving for buying kerosene are from the same camera viewpoint.
This indeed is going to remain the main viewing angle—the ‘home’ angle, if you like—for subsequent actions in the veranda, like Harihar settling down upon return showing Sarbojaya what he has brought and the snake entering the house at the end.
This time Apu combing his hair is not an image in the mirror as it may seem. It’s a low angle shot looking up at the boy, the mirror being below the frame. Also, coming as it does between two similar views of the courtyard, the shot provides a good punctuation point even as it sums up the boy’s getting ready.
Since flooding in the rain, some order has been introduced through providing stepping-stones in the courtyard. But equally Apu doesn’t much use them as he enters. However by the time he leaves with the kerosene bottle, a new concept has been introduced in the shot because of which we do not see the courtyard floor. This time round the camera pans back and forth with the boy, with the tilt firmly locked.
This enables the narration to explore purely the graphic dynamics of the frame as the boy climbs up and down the stairs.
Associated earlier with going to school, Apu goes down the same dirt road, now by himself. Notice other differences between the two compositions. This time the camera is higher emphasising the lone figure. Could the spectacled bystander profitably be switched to this shot?
More associations have been built around the same location. Pishi was carried off for cremation down the same path and in a more magnified view, Apu munching grams was seen returning from school as rain clouds gathered. It’s interesting to note that none of the applications of this location are shot in a reverse view, showing the village settlement. It’s always a one way, outbound view.
The hearth and the view tilting up along the cooking pots.
Notice the concept of the shot. In one continuous even-paced tilt along the set up—hearth, the pots, the broth inside ‘eager’ to brim over, finally to Sarbojaya’s stoned, lost looks as vapours play in front of her face—it’s a whole story of her state of mind in one go.
Nilmoni’s daughter brings vegetable.
Two things are noteworthy about this scene. One, where in the house has this new kitchen been set up? And two, the shot division. It’s never directly been established that after the collapse of her kitchen, Sarbojaya now cooks in Pishi’s veranda—exactly where Pishi used to cook. This fact has been underplayed; perhaps more than this would be making an issue of it which would distract from the immediate business at hand, namely the steady and systematic build up to the grand cathartic discharge from Durga’s death.
In the first shot of the girl, it’s extremely important to include the courtyard door, howsoever briefly, because that provides the viewer a firm reference point to the geography of this sub-location. Minus the door, we’ll never make out that it’s Pishi’s veranda.
Then the girl goes past the camera and eventually stops by at a distance from Sarbojaya, both facing away from the camera. The view then match-cuts to a frontal of the girl as after getting no response from Sarbojaya, she begins to leave the vegetables on the veranda floor. The visual anchor here is the tulsi plant in the background. Finally in the same shot, and all the time looking at Sarbojaya, the girl withdraws.
Notice that more than half the acting of the girl is covered by the facial type that she is. The rest is asking her to just keep looking at Sarbojaya as she goes through her action. Plus, if you can imagine, Ray’s cool, minimal, instructions as the shots are rolling.
But how do we know this girl is Nilmoni’s daughter? Well, the same as we knew that the balding man standing by as the doctor examined Durga was Nilmoni. Purely through proximities and associations. The “circumstantial push” in both cases suggests the characters’ identities.
Additionally, the girl comes with her hair in fancy plaits if you notice. Well, Durga too used to ask her mother for something like that!
Finally, Harihar’s arrival.
Sarbojaya is the first to react—with the vapours still playing around her face, the lone bangle on her hand slides down a notch as she comes alive. (No sound, though; the image is big enough.)
Notice that the whole scene is built around Harihar’s discovering in stages the damage caused by the storm, the ultimate damage being Durga’s death. That’s the concept of the scene, just as our first look at Apu after birth was through Pishi’s return to the household. Both are the presiding logic of the scenes, so to speak.
While the first two shots give an indication of the damage through a smaller branch, he discovers (as we do too) the large trunk fallen across the boundary wall only in the third shot.
Then as he moves towards the door, the view pans to show more damage, stopping at a rich composition just short of the main door.
As noted earlier, this view of the damage is the exact reverse angle of (and therefore complementary to) what we saw during Nilmoni’s wife’s visit just a while ago. So much so that, whereas that view was from inside the fallen kitchen, this leaves out the kitchen space altogether. The damage to the house is shown in sections that add up.
The shot holds on as Harihar exits towards the door, opens it offscreen, and reappears inside at an unhurried pace. We have seen a whole range of shots built around such a concept—Apu briefly bending outside to spit by the pond, a blank view waiting as the slate reappears suitably crossed, Apu going in and returning with the umbrella. Even otherwise, there have been so many entries and exits through the courtyard door that holding back from showing it this once is a beauteous stance by itself. And if it catches your attention, it’s ironic that that singularly fragile structure, the courtyard door, should have still been the one to hold out in the storm.
That’s when Sarbojaya appears and the two climb the steps to the veranda. There had been no formal farewell when he left and there are no greetings now as he returns. Harihar ascribes her stoic silence to the damaged house, we decide.
Once the action reaches the verandah, it’s largely played out in the ‘home’ angle view. Harihar stands uncertainly with his bundles as Sarbojaya goes in and out of the room bringing him things to wash his feet. We are by now fully familiar with the custom and look for when and how he is going to receive the big news. Finally as Sarbojaya is about to leave, he stops her and settles down right there in the veranda to show her what he has brought.
Stage is now set for the grand cathartic discharge.
The mega feel of the famous scene comes from the fact that it is actually a two-in-one catharsis. One, Sarbojaya’s long held opening of flood gates and two, Harihar’s own response to the news of his daughter’s death. Since the two play out without interfering with each other’s space, the impact is a multiplied, compounded one.
Examine the viewing level of this two-shot composition. It has been taken from an angle higher than the sitting Harihar but slightly lower than the standing Sarbojaya. The shot has been composed so as to catch the raised gifts—particularly the sari which he insists her to touch—in the centre of the frame. Thus the close view of the sari when it comes becomes a perfect ‘inset’ of the two-shot, necessitating raising the frame to capture Sarbojaya’s breakdown. With this begins a sustained dialectic of ‘rise and falls’ between the frame and the action in the rest of the sequence.
The raising of frame showing Sarbojaya’s breakdown has been synchronised with the start of the persistent, high-octave tar-shehnai music, triggering off the emotional discharge. Sarbojaya collapses out of frame and is first ‘collected’ in the two shot with Harihar where he had been showing gifts, and then rolls over, lying across the frame in the ‘home’ angle composition. Her face hidden from view, the burden of the scene now transfers to Harihar and begins to build up towards his outburst.
Harihar has so far been taking the shocking news, vivid but unheard. His instinctive first reaction on learning of Durga’s death is to stand up. But almost immediately he feels his energy drained—‘weak in the knees’—and sinks back, resting his head on his wife’s sprawling, sobbing body. Finally overwhelmed, he raises his head and gives out a long, agonised wail.
For this single uncut shot, it’s again a fluid camera (this time on the rails) that continues with its rise-and-fall play with the action. As Harihar begins to rise, there is no effort to tilt up with him—instead the view waits (seeing his trembling hand in the process) as if knowing he would soon have to return, which he does. The view then recedes as he raises his head from Sarbojaya’s body and at the end gives out the long wail.
As noted throughout this commentary, Ray’s camera engages with the character as though in a dialogue. It’s not a formulaic ‘coverage’ of the action but its selective, ‘intelligent’ delineation directed towards generating emotion. There are any number of examples worth a close study from Ray’s cinema in this regard.
Notice, too, that after a selective reporting of voices through the scene, Harihar’s wail is played out full-throated, loud and clear, carrying outside the house where Apu stands listening by the pond. For one, this brief partial restraint followed by an uncontrolled expression is a repeat—an echo—from Sarbojaya’s own outburst, only here the release being almost immediate. Secondly, in the scheme of camera movements, notice the ‘conflict’ of movements across the cut as the scene concludes. The camera first tracked in on Harihar, then it eased out from him and across the cut once again tracked in, this time on Apu.
Notice the magic of wind in this concluding shot when it plays all around the boy, not only among the leaves and branches in the background but also blowing his clothes and hair as he stands holding a man size umbrella under the arm.
Has this montage been a development over one single day? Or is it an account of their way of life in general after Durga’s death and therefore happening over many days?
To be sure it is a combination of both. While the chronology of activities could add up to a single morning chores—Apu stands cleaning his teeth at the pond, Sarbojaya brings water from the well, Apu gets ready and leaves for kerosene, Nilmoni’s daughter brings vegetable to a lost Sarbojaya, who only comes to when Harihar calls—they have not been taken from the same single morning. One detail that helps enforce this is Sarbojaya’s bindi which is smudged the day she is at the well and normal otherwise. In fact there is evidence to suggest even some ‘recovery’ by the time Harihar comes. For one, Sarbojaya’s sari grows somewhat less tattered than the condition it had been in through Durga’s death and earlier.
Harihar decides to leave.
Notice first the ease with which the film deals with such a major decision. The man lies awake at night and a train passes in the distance. Almost Haiku in its grace, wit and brevity. Ordinarily such a step would ‘demand’ a scene discussing the issue. In fact such a scene is there but after the decision has been taken and even announced to the villagers.
Secondly, watch the composition of the shot. Again a classic Academy Aperture Satyajit Ray. Harihar lies big in the middle of the frame, while Sarbojaya and Apu sleep huddled in the leftover space, barely noticed. And yet picture of a family, with the head deciding. Next the family would be seen in a single static composition like the present only at the very end of the film, on the bullock cart.
This would be Sarbojaya’s soundest sleep in months. Having managed in the breadwinner’s absence all these days, the charge is back to where it belongs.
Reminiscent of another noble example from the times: Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monagatari. The dead woman’s ghost looks after the child in her husband’s absence and quietly leaves once he arrives and takes charge.
[To be continued]