As the view fades in we are inside a temple. First the main spire, then Apu and Sarbojaya approaching the entrance with a crowd of devotees and finally inside where aarti is in progress.
This is Benares’s famous Vishwanath Temple. This is the first time the film breaks out of the ghat ambience and begins to go wider. More such explorations would soon follow.
Examine the shot of Apu and Sarbojaya in prayer. One of the men in the group is rather a stern looking bearded youth. In the previous shot there was a bearded old man prominently placed outside the temple. Since none of the characters in the story wears a beard, such sprinkling of types is important for general representation of the populace. More importantly, notice another man behind Sarbojaya holding his palms together in prayer. Sarbojaya’s own hands by comparison are more crossed than folded. With a key-bunch hanging over the shoulder, hers is a housewife’s gesture of being god fearing rather than in prayer per se. Considering that there is a repeat reference to the aarti soon after in the narration, the temple visit may well be providing a godly dimension to the tragedy that is shortly going to befall the family.
The din of the temple cuts off giving way to Diwali fireworks gushing up into the night sky.
Sarbojaya is lighting earthen lamps when Harihar returns home indisposed and shaky. Notice the rich nuances of how this sudden development is handled in the film.
That Harihar is unwell gets noticed right away as he enters from the street in the long shot. Only Sarbojaya discovers it later. A serial cracker set off in the street provides ‘illumination’ on many planes. Apart from lighting up the exterior for a silhouette, it also contrasts the public cheer with individual suffering.
After Sarbojaya helps him with his things we see Harihar reaching out to the verandah pillar for support. This should be a subtle ‘seeding’ of the image since he is shortly going to do the same on top of the ghats with much greater impact. Once put to bed, he tells her how it happened to him at the ghat steps. All these details plant fear and anxiety in our mind for the next time he is going to be there. A whole mise-en-scene has been embedded in our subconscious for that imminent next time.
Sarbojaya wants to call a doctor but Harihar forbids asking her to give him a mixture from his bag. We were already suspicious of such medication ever since we saw him carrying a packet for a rheumatic; even Sarbojaya had expressed apprehension at that time. We are now infected with a morbid curiosity to see if what he had been giving others would work in his own case.
Notice the lighting when he is on the bed. There is no electricity in Benares yet. So it has to be an oil lamp—normally placed on a niche in the walls at eye level. That as the main source and occasional fire cracker from the street provide for the dramatic effect on Harihar’s face. Apu would experience electric light in Calcutta when he first enters his room and switches a bulb on and off.
Finally notice how under the ‘cover’ of another serial fire cracker—this time just outside Harihar’s window—Apu comes in full of cheer with a sparkler and his smile switches off.
This is a reassertion of how Sarbojaya had likewise reacted to Harihar’s indisposition just a while ago.
Next we have a scene between Harihar on the bed and Apu. Taking him away from fun with other children outside, mother has asked Apu to sit with the ailing father.
Harihar Come, sit down. Did you buy crackers? Which ones?
Apu Some colourful ones and some which burst with a small sound.
Harihar Here it is not as good as in our native place, isn’t it?
Apu is undecided.
Harihar Did you see that firework that lights the sky?
A boy calls Apu offscreen.
Harihar Who is calling you?
Harihar Who is Shambhu?
Apu He lives in the next street.
Harihar Your friend, who teaches you?
Harihar OK. Tell me, Apu is a good boy. How will you translate it in English?
Apu translates. The boy calls again.
Harihar Call him inside.
Apu He will burst crackers now.
Harihar You want to go with him?
Harihar (After a pause) OK, go.
This father and son scene falls in the same category as the one between Apu and Durga when Durga fell ill in Pather Panchali. There the children talk about plans to go and see the train once she is better; here too there is great cordiality and hope for recovery. Additionally here what the father talks about besides the fun of Diwali is significant. That Apu is learning English and whether it wasn’t better in their native place, both subjects relate to Apu’s education and future. That this talk should be taking place at the sick bed, which soon turns to death bed where Apu will be required to play a vital role as a Hindu son—pour Ganga water in the dying father’s mouth—loads the scene with added significance.
The idea is further advanced when later the same night Harihar feels better (a top angle view reminiscent of Durga looking up in the lens) and takes the medicine that Sarbojaya brings him. Interestingly, Ray does nothing to circumvent him from directly licking the mortar and pestle inspite of obvious Freudian associations. Instead he keeps it direct and simple, treating the act more in keeping with his frugal ways. Earlier before we saw him drinking milk wash before leaving the cup in front of Sarbojaya to clean.
Equally, she doesn’t sit with him, the same as Apu too wanted to escape and rather be with a friend.
Harihar reports progress on shifting house near a school which brings cheer to a harried Sarbojaya. For us however the subject has resonances when he is due to shift to another world. Both parents watch as Apu amuses himself with scissors and paper. The boy’s hum is in the same category and of the same level of interest and absorption as Nand Babu’s very adult and romantic tune a while ago.
The view from Harihar’s window seen briefly as the camera pulls back is worthy of comment. As we know Harihar’s house is a ground floor section of a 2-3 storey building but why should their bedroom window open on a height? This has to be a very shrewd set designing ‘coup’ to do so, for in one quiet stroke it reinforces the irregular topography of the terrain. A similar play is in evidence all along the ghats where the uneven river-bank landscape has been harnessed through multi-layered steps all along the running waters.
Likewise, notice in how many ways this sad Diwali night has been given festival touches. Besides crackers outside, both heard and seen, there is a subtle and unwavering sprinkling of earthen lamps all over the scene.
Morning begins with a monkey at the tap. And Harihar steps out to go for bath.
That the monkey gives a fright to Sarbojaya was not in the script but incorporated once the happy accident took place. I wonder what the original scheme may have been. That Sarbojaya shoos off the monkey and washes the tap in the same shot until Harihar emerges? Friendly monkeys, like friendly cows? We’d never know. The accident however has revealed the authentic, true nature of that otherwise very sociable cousin.
After Sarbojaya regains composure she suddenly notices Harihar come out ready to go for bath. She tries to stop him but he has already made up his mind.
Amidst the spread of sun shades, the usual din of bathers at the ghat.
Having finished Harihar picks up his Ganga jal filled lota and begins to climb the steps. As we know, he wouldn’t go far before he collapses and is carried home.
Notice, to begin with, that the general shot of the ghat is not a mere repeat of any others used at the beginning. This is a longer view and unlike earlier ones, taken from a static boat. Secondly the priest handing glasses to Harihar is expectedly the same man (and in the same composition) as before but an old woman has been added to pass it off as another day.
Interestingly, this ‘sameness’ of all other earlier references en route home, of people and places, is retained throughout the subsequent development here.
Examine the mise-en-scene as a whole. We have already seen Harihar’s routine at bath and here it is again in this new context. We know the route and can imagine the hurdles that the ill man is up against. The chief hurdle of course is what he faces immediately, the steep climb. Ray builds on this fact.
Notice the gentle shift of focus from close foreground to the depth of the flight of steps as Harihar wears his glasses. This he does at the edge of the frame—we barely sense the action—but the shift focus registers. The view is tighter this time, taken with a longer lens. As well as the frame is locked. What we now see represents his view of the steps.
The earlier view of the steps had a somewhat fluid frame since it had followed Harihar from picking up his lota. This time he is allowed to walk the frame for much longer. Even so, the dissolve when it comes doesn’t help much—at the end of it he is still in the middle of the steps, somewhat doddering. The moment of reckoning is here, so to speak.
Notice the details of this reverse angle, top view composition. The water body is now reflecting the sun directly into the lens. Only once have we seen this angle of view in the morning hours; at the very beginning of the film, when the camera rose from the pigeons to the rising sun. Otherwise we have known this side of things only from Apu’s wanderings in the evening. And once again the camera is back to a fluid frame, ‘nervously’ adjusting all the time until it has to swing-pan with him at the last moment.
The frame being wide open, Harihar can be given any desired route to follow. The one chosen for him here provides three specific framing compositions. One, at the beginning that includes the thatch at extreme right where he was given his glasses. Two, that which after panning away from the thatch comes to include the bobbing boat on the left as he climbs and comes closer. Three, the final composition after the swing pan that includes the unexpected support pole and a part of the building on the right.
Notice inclusion of two visual elements in the shot which are not essential to the plot but critical for its success. The empty boat bobbing in the water and a flight of pigeons that crosses the sky when Harihar struggles at his support. The boat’s ‘chemistry’ is difficult to explain. It’s a poetic image capable of multiple interpretations, the more obvious being that Harihar leaves the firmament of the thatch and comes upon ‘watery’ territory. The pigeons however are part of the larger scheme that he has been building towards Harihar’s death. They would peak as he dies.
To me the moment is reminiscent of that famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin where a baby’s pram is critically poised at the top of the steps as bodies are falling all around from soldiers’ fire.
How have the pigeons been ‘directed’ for this shot? They wouldn’t be missed if they weren’t brought here as much as the boat too would not be missed. But here they are crossing the frame just before the shot cuts and are making an unmistakable contribution to the moment. As we know from Ray’s memoirs, they were using a cracker bomb to send the birds flying in formation. My guess is that unless the unit were really lucky, executing this shot would be as demanding as that famous composite shot of the dog getting up and following the children on the sweetmeat seller’s call in Pather Panchali. Harihar’s shot here could never be okayed without the correct timing of the birds.
And if this is already not genius, consider the next two shots. Having saved himself from tumbling down a hundred steps, Harihar finally crashes just at the entry point to the lanes. This is shown from the reaction of alarm of an old widow coming down in a composition familiar from Harihar’s first return from bath.
And what does she see? A backlit, silhouette with much of the composition blocked by black on all sides.
From a wide open shot with threatening gulf behind, to a closed, dark outlined opening in which Harihar’s figure falls ‘safely’. He has been lucky, we understand. A major mishap has been averted but would he live?
The silhouette composition is an echo of a similar boxed-in composition when Harihar came home unsteady on Diwali night.
Let’s spend a moment talking about the ‘choreography’ of this present shot. Given the already reduced visual space of the composition and in the long shot, Harihar’s fall is arranged to ensure that the lota falls away from the body. He almost aims it that way. (Lota, in this context, is a carry-over from PP where one had rolled down the pond steps.) After the fall, the wind billowing his shawl to cover his face and the clear flutter of it over his body has be a chance but not entirely. It’s a windy day and the doorway being a small outlet, the passage should work as a funnel for the wind.
Notice the presence of wind in this entire development. Unmistakable evidence of it begins right from the priest handing Harihar his glasses. A cloth (not represented in my illustration) flaps in and out of frame. It gets windy as you get higher, so after-bath wraps are fluttering on the improvised lines. Notice that minus his billowed out dhoti, Harihar’s collapse would not look half as threatening and menacing.