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.
And finally, Sarbojaya’s would be the 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.
The ‘discussion’ scene.
Notice the general strategy of the scene. Firstly, that it takes place separately among men and women. Then, it comes about through visitations while sorting and packing is going on. Both Nilmoni and his wife are present at the time of visits, she actively helping Sarbojaya and Nilmoni sitting by smoking hookah as Harihar sorts his papers. Among women it’s a single individual, Sejo-bou, that comes calling, whereas among men it’s a motley group of elders familiar to us from earlier scenes. And finally, the ‘discussion’ scene both begins and ends with Harihar; it’s his decision and his realisation after all that enough was enough and that it was time they moved.
Variation within symmetries is the name of the game.
Notice further that both conversations are more towards being monologues expressing their respective positions than being interactive, ‘argumentative’, trying in any way to affect the decision. Accordingly, there is minimal fragmentation and intercutting.
Harihar and his ‘scholarship’.
This is the first shot articulating the decision that they are leaving—through showing essential action on it. In so doing it also focuses on the essential loss, that of Harihar’s scholarly pursuits. His moth-eaten writings at this end and discovery of Durga’s spider-infested, stolen necklace at the other are the two specific things singled out by the narration.
Notice that Harihar is not sullen and sad from Durga’s death; he’s shaven and bathed and looks rather fresh, recovered. After a set back, moving on with a smile so to speak. Notice too that he hasn’t been shown carrying any heavy stuff although it’s inconceivable that somebody else may have brought out the sheaves of paper he is sorting. We have never seen him do physical work in the film and such an image would go against the essence of his character.
Sarbojaya and her household.
Notice that the space of the shot has been equally divided between the two women. For one, it upgrades the help being rendered by Nilmoni’s wife as a close friend through thick and thin. But more importantly—and purely in a manner of speaking—this cuts the Sarbojaya character to size. After Harihar’s return she is no longer the foreground character that she was required to be and has receded to her traditional role and its relative importance in the household.
Most cameramen would point to such a dead-frontal composition as flat, featureless and providing no separation. While all this is true as a general principle, not including flat compositions in your construct in some degree would itself make everything look monotonous, sugar sweet and featureless. How do you portray ‘against the wall’ situations, for example, if you look for ‘depths’ in compositions all the time?
Notice the dialogue between the two women. Appearing most casual, these are good-bye lines between two close friends of years. They also acknowledge a possible comment from sceptics as to how this was the only family so effected by the circumstances. “It’s our luck,” says Sarbojaya.
Notice that it’s the mangoes first, then the carrier. Sejo-bou’s is a character with a kink and this scene is the last chance of redeeming her from being completely black. And yet she cannot be fully absolved of the damage she has caused to Sarbojaya and Durga. So, it’s situational irony that’s been used through introducing her thus. Also, the film doesn’t want Sarbojaya either to conclusively forgive or even continue to hold a grudge against her. That would be difficult if the mangoes were to be brought later into the scene.
Notice too that there isn’t even an exchange of glances between Sarbojaya and Nilmoni’s wife at Sejo-bou’s explicit meanness. Anything of that sort would amount to bitching on their part which would ‘soil’ their composite image at the conclusion of the film. The film as it ends is all about this dense, stunning sorrow experienced by the family at having lost their daughter and having to leave the village, rather than settling personal scores.
Notice that the visual idiom of this scene is devoid of any ‘angular’, ‘edgy’ or ‘pointed’ features typical of Sejo-bou scenes throughout earlier. It’s as though all those features are now blunted and we are for once seeing a mellowed—de-fanged, if you like—Sejo-bou.
Besides Harihar, Sejo-bou and Nilmoni’s wife’s characters were played by professional actors. The kind of lines Sejo-bou speaks and acts in this scene, as indeed everywhere else in the film, cannot be expected from non-professionals.
As against Sejo-bou’s direct arrival, the elders take a long time behind Pishi’s bush. For one this helps us to get our orientation right, but equally this contributes to the steadily growing image of the wild overrunning human habitation and squeezing them out. The place seems to need an urgent ‘hair cut’. The snake shortly to enter the house and the family leaving are the culmination of this growth in Pather Panchali.
Elders settle down.
Notice the cut as one of the men sits on an unstable trunk, then shifts. A close examination of the action across the cut shows that it’s basically a situation of forced match of action through aggressive cutting. All four visitors—non-professional, elderly locals—generally file in and go for their assigned places to sit. One who has speaking lines makes a loud gesture in response to Harihar’s getting up to remove a trunk—he’s the jatra man from the grocer-teacher scene. Then, as they are generally settling down, comes rather a pre-mature, sudden cut to another closer view of the group where a glum, moustachioed man—the first rain drop man—sinks on a trunk that promptly gives way. The resulting humour tides over the physical mismatch of the action of the speaking character who from standing in the previous shot is already otherwise sitting in this one.
However this is not a situation of cover-up through editing. On the contrary, it’s a very witty device and the humour is intended—how else can you possibly match action of half-a-dozen bodies trying to settle down across a cut?—and so are the technique and strategy for achieving it.
But again, why humour in a grim situation like that? Will it be missed if it weren’t there? It’s more an issue to reflect upon than answered. Incredible as it may sound but it is to ‘wake up’ the audience, freshen them up, from a stun and stupor resulting from prolonged grimness. The anger we experienced a short while ago at Sejo-bou’s hypocrisy provided the same variety. Rather than distract, a mix and blend of different emotions heightens the experience of a given presiding rasa.
Notice that it is a long uncut shot, with Harihar’s occasional off screen fillers, as the elder man goes on saying his piece. Apu, who has been helping father, keeps going up and down the stairs providing an occasional blur in the foreground (but no footstep sounds). As observed earlier, it’s not a close question-answer rhythm of a discussion but more like the elders saying their bit and Harihar his.
Also notice the variety of characters, types, built, ages and indeed their postures and positions in the frame, where without talking they are all supposed to be supporting what the eldest amongst them is saying. None of them is making any kind of head gestures of consent and support, as both professionals and non-professionals tend to do in such acting situations. It’s very difficult for people in front of the camera just to be and not try in some way to ‘help’.
Harihar’s lines are interestingly similar to those of Sejo-bou, certainly in respect of the need to move to new places. “Staying at one place for too long makes you mean,” she says. “Look at me…” Likewise Harihar says, “There are times when…
Notice the composition of the shot. A little looser than the opening tilt-up from his writings a while ago, this one here includes Nilmoni at the back. (Nilmoni is not arguing; being close to the family, he’s already on Harihar’s side of the divide on the subject.) Rather than equally share the frame as in the case of Sarbojaya and Nilmoni’s wife, Harihar has been asserted here at the centre. Which really places him as the man of the moment—unlike Sarbojaya’s assertive position in the frame in the earlier parts of the film, he’s in charge at the moment.
Also relative positions of the host and the guest in both the compositions have been reversed—Nilmoni sits left frame while his wife with Sarbojaya was on the right. The formula is to break the formula.
Notice also that Apu hasn’t been run in this shot. Not only would it be overdoing him in the present context, he has been also saved for the immediate next.
Apart from the emphasis it denotes, track-in movements of the camera have also been associated with a certain conclusion in this part of the film—akin to end of a paragraph. The scene of Harihar’s return ended a brief while ago with the view tracking in on Apu by the pond. Thus, at the end of the present shot when the view tracks in to Harihar’s close up—the same size by the way as at the beginning of this scene—the audience knows the scene is concluding.
Equally, why doesn’t the camera track in on the elders? Say, when they are talking about his three generations having lived in the village which he is now leaving? The answer is: the filmmaker is sympathetic to Harihar’s position, rather than the elders’ trying to persuade him to rethink departure. Tracking in on both parties would suggest an evenly poised situation, waiting for a resolution one way or the other.
Notice across the scene the range and variety of household goods chosen to represent the family’s accumulation over the years. Harihar’s wasting writings, Sarbojaya’s trunks full of knick-knacks (Nilmoni’s wife is seen carefully rolling a conch shell in a cloth band while Sarbojaya is handling items from her dowry cane box), the large wooden divan in the courtyard on which elders are seated. By way of the children’s ‘wealth’, only the chance-find Durga’s stolen necklace represents the whole lot. Durga’s trinket box, if included, is bound to ‘share’ the emotional payoff with the necklace and blunt its sting.
And what does the boy do with the necklace? Acting from his newly acquired grown-up status, he runs out and tosses it in the pond. This in all respects is his independent decision arising from his own judgement. How much of their things are they carrying with them anyway? A lot of it has been left behind sold to pay up debts, as Harihar tells the visiting elders. Had it not been for this whole range of household goods ‘planted’ through the scene (indeed through the film) the necklace’s disposal would not score as a major moment in the film as it does.
And finally, did the women’s visit, men’s visit and throwing of necklace happen sequentially or simultaneously? Where exactly are the women sorting things in the house? Are they and Harihar within each other’s earshot? Why aren’t they in that case heard in the background? Again these are all questions relating to Ray’s characteristic space-time treatment discussed at length in chapter 2.
Apu stumbles upon the necklace.
We are familiar with this visual idiom from early on in chapter 2 when Apu had similarly reached for a cup of oil from the same shelf for Durga’s tamarind paste. Except for a slower pace here, these are identical camera set ups, again all static, but fewer in numbers.
What is the coconut shell doing in the shot of the necklace? Sure, Durga had hidden the necklace in it but why have her hide it in a coconut shell? The idea is to make the moment as poignant as possible and the coconut shell helps to connect this present context with the specific day when first the children had fun licking the tamarind paste (a ‘stolen’ pleasure) and later when Durga stole the necklace. Music application, the repeat of the sharp drumbeat used over Durga’s thrashing, does the same on the sound track.
Then there is the spider walking away. Not an easy detail to shoot, mind you, and yet it’s been incorporated. Apart from its sensual and cultural associations, the image provides an echo of the larger meaning in the present context. The spider too has after all been dislodged from its place of residence. And not to forget besides that images also work in clusters. The spider here, a snake further down, the upturned frog a little earlier…
Apu disposes off the necklace.
Notice that the scene is in long shots and close ups. (The tree trunk fallen across Harihar’s compound wall has since been worked on.) Secondly, the poignancy of the moment comes from the unanticipated, unexplained, sudden decision of the boy to do such a neat job of the disposal and so simply. To have thought up all that, the boy certainly has grown, we say to ourselves.
And Apu’s ‘acting’. As so many times before, there’s none per se! As established in the Soviet director Lev Kuleshov’s experiment with neutral expressions way back in 1918, the juxtaposition of closing moss with the low angle of Apu looking brings about the necessary pathos, not the boy’s emoting. The situation may well be a perfect example of that famous experiment.
Notice finally the lone bird sound used after the splash of the necklace on water. A similar application was noticed as an eerie punctuation earlier when Durga had received a thrashing from mother at Sejo-bou’s instance.
From solitary bird to the chorus in the morning. The top angle shot of the deserted courtyard. That it is deserted is suggested by the fallen clothesline. Snakelike?
Notice the introduction of the snake. It’s first seen in a close view and just a slithering section appearing among the stones. Then it is seen crawling a ‘lovely’ length across the veranda, entering the house. Music. Is the family still there? Is it going to be another parting kick before they leave? “Couldn’t you have waited?” Harihar had said to the fallen tree upon his return a little earlier. It’s a perfect situation for him to repeat the sentiment. Similarly, we felt relieved when we saw that the children had returned just in time while Pishi was still alive and breathing. Similar is the kind of apprehension that we experience on seeing the snake enter the house.
Relief. Safe outdoors, open skies. A bullock cart on a dirt road, with no suggestion of the village even in the farthest background. The family—what remains of it—is leaving safe.
As the view pans with the bullock cart, the emphasis is on the ‘travelling system’ that it is—the hanging lantern, the two wheels, the dangling stand-stick—rather than the thatch under which the family would be sitting. Having travelled the night, the lantern is still lit you notice as the wheels cut through a clear patch of water. A perfect ‘hangover’ image from Durga’s death when the lamp had survived the storm and continued into the daylight.
Altogether the departure has been conceived as an effect-and-cause scheme. You first see the deserted house, then the family that left it. The other way round would have to drip with sentimentality. There would have had to be a full-blown ‘departure scene’, with each member leaving the rooms, carrying the last bit of luggage, crossing the threshold, the first turn of the bullock cart wheels, the last look at the house, the pond. Would they be seen off? By the Nilmoni family? All those inessentials have now been done away with. The family lost their daughter, the boy consigned her last stigma to a watery grave and they now leave.
How do you seat the family in the bullock cart for the final scene? Where can you possibly shoot them from? What are the options? Why can’t Harihar be next to the driver in front—a single-axle two-wheeled cart such as this is usually balanced in seating for optimum mechanical advantage—Sarbojaya looking back at the receding road, and Apu perhaps sleeping? Wouldn’t they all have appropriate charge of symbolism, richness of meaning and even variety of angles suitable for ending a great film? Why can’t it be a see-through angle of view with the driver and the road also seen, with the whole thing moving into the sunrise?
In other words, why should the family seen in one go and against opaque background be Ray’s chosen option to end Pather Panchali?
That for once should be home work for the reader…
[To be continued]