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.
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.
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.
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.
Apu is outside on his roam, this time at a well where water is drawn by a team of bullocks.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally when he is home, Sarbojaya brings him up closer as she pours from the lota over Harihar’s mouth.
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.
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.
His father gone, Apu is led through some post-death rituals at the river bank and the scene comes to an end.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.