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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Notice that we have seen the crumpled ball of paper before the headmaster does.
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.
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.
“Get out, get out,” he goes after it in English.
From a strayed cow to another quadruped, this one a horse. And harnessed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Goes the school bell and the school is over. But in his office the headmaster is taking a ‘pigtailed’ teacher to task.
“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.
“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.
“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…!”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]