When the view opens after Harihar’s death, 2 or 3 things strike us at once.
One, that it’s a new interior, with kitchen cum living in the same room. Two, that Sarbojaya is now a widow—her white dress would signify that. Three, that spatially it’s an against-the-wall situation for her, literally so. A window would release that tension but that has been decided against. Also Sarbojaya’s sitting posture—she’s for the first time sitting on bare ankles—suggests a more menial, servant-like position that she now has come to acquire. And finally when she smiles to Apu, it suggests it’s been some time since Harihar’s passing. Just as after Durga’s death in PP, Harihar too had greeted the elders with a moving-on-with-a-smile gesture.
And not the least, the widow-smile here ‘patterns’ with the widow-smile with which the scene would end as the train carrying Sarbojaya and Apu leaves Benares and reaches Bengal.
A word about Sarbojaya’s new house. For that it’s not enough to go and shoot in a different house, perhaps a servant quarter of some kind. The elements of the new place should clearly contrast with those of the earlier house and they should all be available to see at one glance of the camera since you don’t have many scenes to play here. In fact what Ray chooses may not be a real house at all—it’s a set. In filmmaking you should be able to lie on a straight face as long as it is in the service of a larger truth. That should hold in all arts.
For most part, the set here is only a flat wall with some features. And therein lies its genius. The door is barely in suggestion at the left and the action is separated from the background mostly through lighting. One obvious source of light is the door through which Apu comes and goes but equally important is an unseen window in the opposite wall. Lit from these two opposite directions, the figures come nicely moulded for us.
The setting suggests a climb-down in the family’s situation after Harihar. There is probably no bed; they sleep on the floor (a sample of which was introduced earlier as Apu was woken up from the floor to get Ganga jal). The cross-bar in the foreground is a mysterious piece of ‘clutter’; impossible to decide what it might be. In the least it is ‘trailing off’ of the out-focus close foreground of the medicine bottle in Harihar’s death composition.
Altogether the set is like a template for her life after Harihar. It’s the liveable equivalent of what can only be described as a hole. And this is where she is getting the offer of living back in the countryside where space is not a problem. This ‘choke’ should be an additional motivation for her to eventually shift to Bengal, if one was needed.
Notice the composition.
It’s a wide view and static, with a lot of vacant standing space which gets filled up as Sarbojaya stands and gets back empty as she sits down. Often Ray had a way of striking a simple ‘average’ of various stages of action and go for a static composition to house them. The idea always was not to make the means explicit. Here for example Ray had the following alternatives. One, in the same set up to follow Sarbojaya’s action through frame adjustments completely eliminating the imbalance. Two, tighten the frame with a longer lens and do the same even more pro-actively. Both would imply degrees of intervention. Instead in this stock-taking situation after the tragedy, he opts for the static frame, keeps the imbalance to the minimum through timing Sarbojaya’s action and allows us to have our own way with the composition and the situation. In doing so he also saves the closer view for the exchange of looks between the visiting relative Bhabratan and Apu.
This first look of the old man is important since at the end of the film the adolescent Apu defies him and leaves for Calcutta.
Kitchen. It’s a kitchen only because cooking is going on here. And Sarbojaya is the one cooking.
It’s not large because there are no other cooks or helpers. It’s not ventilated either. There is no window because even here we cannot judge which floor she might be working on. But, unlike her living space, it is large enough to ‘release’ the camera to do a track around the hearth.
This is Sarbojaya’s workplace; the open air ghats were Harihar’s.
We have seen Sarbojaya at the hearth any number of times in Pather Panchali and in Aparajito but this one is different. She is now cooking for another family. And the difference shows through a telling detail. Dealing now with larger volumes, she has to stand up to stir the vegetables. The action is highlighted through using a longer lens so that camera has to tilt up with her.
Twice in quick succession between here and the preceding scene, Sarbojaya’s lightness on her feet is noticeable. This is the beginning of an idiom in the portrayal of her character subtly slipped in. Her getting up becomes more and more laboured towards the end of the film as she staggers to the door waiting for her son.
The kitchen shot ends with an anxious look on Sarbojaya’s face and the next one confirms our own fears. She worries about Apu and for the first few moments we too are tricked into thinking the boy is really going astray. But a pull back reveals to the contrary. Apu is not stealing but picking grey hair from the old master’s head.
Once the humour of the situation passes, notice how the rest of the scene continues tantalisingly along the same elements that we had feared for the boy. The old man directs Apu to the drawer where money is and takes out the coin in his presence. Does it take long for an innocent boy like that to switch sides the next time round?
But even after the tip Ray continues to build on Apu’s innocence. What does the boy go and do with his coin? He spends it feasting with the monkeys! “The monkeys behave as if they owned the place,” Ray observes in his Benares diary. “A good possibility of a scene with Apu here.”
On the way the boy crosses a party of shehnai players who go singing and playing the background music that started with him getting the tip and is applied to the whole sequence even subsequently. Not very noticeable but included in the shot is a man riding a donkey and another crossing over on a camel.
Notice how the monkey sequence has been built. This is after all the peak of Apu’s activities in Benares and has to play out as a celebration at some length.
Having bought the feed in the long shot—rather quickly and in the dark, hardly noticed—Apu enters the temple and sees the monkeys spread out all over.
Amused then he sees sections of them—these would be largely improvised ‘studies’ but notice they are all in static compositions.
A group sitting over a tiger enhances the theme of folk-cum-religious art already introduced with Apu as he plays with other children in the lanes; another single scratching himself is advancement in having an audio component to his action. The sound of scratching is specifically added and actually heard.
Next Apu comes closer, takes out the grams from under his shirt and begins to call out for them—much in the same way, incidentally, as the lean bearded man at the beginning feeding the pigeons.
Just as the street sections between the ghats and Harihar’s house were repeated as style, monkeys assemble around Apu from the same shots that we have seen them in moments ago. Action builds until they are picking grains from Apu’s hand. (An unfriendly proximity by Sarbojaya had been rebuffed earlier.)
The celebration component comes with the monkeys jumping on the bells. This is cut purely on the bell sounds, their build up from scattered singles to purely cacophonic. The last shot of the sequence shows a monkey with bells carved in stone. By the time the scene ends Apu is himself munching on the same roasted grams. “Have you seen that monkey?” Sarbojaya had asked in her opening lines of the film.
This is the ‘resolution’ of the monkey in Aparajito. This is also the last that we hear of the temple bells in Benares. This is the only occasion in the film where Apu smiles in true happiness. Minus such a scene he would come across as a ‘sad’ child.
After Harihar’s death Sarbojaya has been uncertain about whether to stay on in Benares or to take uncle Bhabratan’s offer and shift back home with him to Bengal. Now her mistress, happy with her work, asks her to accompany them to their own village.
“Do you have someone here?” “No.” “Is there someone in your village?” “No.” “Then where is the problem? Come with us,” she tells her rather crudely. Sarbojaya agrees.
Notice the composition of the two-shot with the mistress.
The reclining mistress has been given much more than breathing space to her left whereas Sarbojaya stands with her shoulder cut by the frameline. A slight shift of the camera frame to the right would have them occupy equal space in the composition but that would be false in terms of their relative position in life. The present one becomes a more authentic representation of the two characters.
We have seen two interactions with Sarbojaya’s masters, Apu’s with the dozing old man and Sarbojaya’s with the well-fed, kindly mistress. Both scenes are followed by large verandas through which Apu and Sarbojaya pass. (They are not the same, by the way; only similarly shot.) While these spaces give us an idea of the size and scale of this household, they also lull us into believing that Sarbojaya has been lucky to find a good footing after the tragedy. (There is no evidence of Nanda Babu kind of threat here either.) This belief is crucial if what follows has to really work with full force.
After the reassuring interview with the mistress Sarbojaya walks the whole length of the veranda before turning to the staircase.
She reappears at a landing and continues coming down. Offscreen the house has been humming with activity. At one point somebody calls for Apu and she turns to look in that direction. Although in a long shot, what she sees delivers its good at once.
In a full figure posture in an empty verandah, Apu stands blowing into a hookah chillum that he is carrying on order. Sarbojaya is stung. The image—her boy growing up to be a man servant in that large household—is the complete antithesis of all that she had ever dreamt for the boy.
In a tighter composition and quite shaken, Sarbojaya resumes descending. Each tentative step brings her down as well as closer to the camera.
By the time she is in a close up, her mind is made up. To a screaming train whistle, the camera swing pans to the right but is promptly slapped back by the undercarriage of a passing train that is just leaving the city.
Sarbojaya and Apu are on the train with Bhabratan as it passes over Ganga. Girders pass by the same as they had done at the beginning of the film but in the opposite direction.
Wistfully Sarbojaya sees the city they are leaving behind. She is leaving a widow but her son is securely by her side.
Examine Apu’s shot with the chillum.
There is a lot of clutter around his small figure but in addition there is an unexplained gauze, a net of sorts through which everything is seen. The fuzz of the clutter and the out-focus of the net introduce an element of criticality to the whole experience. Such elements have been gradually introduced at key points in the recent narrative. As Harihar lay sick there was a large out-focus bottle in the foreground and after his death, Sarbojaya’s new place has a bold out-focus wooden bar stretching across the frame.
The present application may only be the resolution of that device.
Similarly for the two verandah shots in which Apu and Sarbojaya walk after their scenes with the master and the mistress. Nothing much happens in them but they are there underlining the grandeur of the mansion and opulence of the family Sarbojaya serves. In a way Apu’s shot with the chillum, which too is a similar long space, is a resolution of the earlier two veranda shots.
Notice the ‘geometry’ of Sarbojaya’s descending shot before it merges into the train. It’s a static composition, carefully chosen on the lens and the height of the camera so as to provide a right mix of progressive enlargement and ‘tease’ with framing. The shot is a lower angle and tighter than the one before when she first spotted Apu. Lower than this and the camera would need to be tilted up as she approaches. That in Ray’s judgement would be overplaying the moment.
Notice, too, the stitching of the two shots in question; swing away from the descending Sarbojaya and swing along the rushing train in the opposite direction. The ‘collision’ expresses the impact of the moment the same as sighting of train had done for the little Apu in PP.
The train, by the way, cannot be rushing so fast just after leaving the station and entering the bridge; the shot has been cheated. In fact the unevenness of the train’s speed throughout the sequence has been levelled through clever use of train sound, at the end of which we get to have an a convincing feel of the overnight journey. The PP theme music and Sarbojaya’s smile would otherwise not work.
Much later Ray made Nayak which is an extended look at an overnight train journey from Calcutta to New Delhi. There too, besides the main story, the audience experience the feel and fatigue of the long travel between the two stations.
One ready temptation to end the Benares sequence would be to fade out on the girders and go directly into their new life in the village. Bridge to bridge, it would form such a neat bracketing of the sequence.
What Ray has done instead is to repeat the girders as well as incorporate them in a much wider scheme. While arriving it had been the family’s point of view (implied, not seen); now it is specifically Sarbojaya’s viewpoint as they leave. The girders now have been intervened by shots of the family and the journey continues even after clearing the bridge, over the suburbs and the villages and the vales and over the night and the next day. The first time we saw Sarbojaya in the train it was with a widow’s sorrow writ large on the face, the next morning it’s a crack of a smile as the train enters the Bengal countryside. Used only this once in Aparajito, PP theme music returns underscoring the moment and at once grows to be a resonance of the universal sentiment of homecoming.
Two snatches of the threesome achieve this effect. To begin with, all three awake—the old man eating—and seeing out of the window, and after a long stretch of journey, the old man and Apu are asleep while Sarbojaya, the new head of what is left of the family, awake. She has not slept a wink throughout the journey, by implication.
The ‘purpose’ of the travel-montage—Sarbojaya’s smile—over, the view dissolves to a shot of their new village, before it dissolves to them arriving in their new house.
The Benares sequence over, consider its mise-en-scene.
The narration tells us that after leaving the village at the end of Pather Panchali, the family shifts to Benares. In Benares two things happen. Harihar dies and after a period of uncertainty Sarbojaya decides to return to Bengal. Along with the plot, Ray’s mise-en-scene incorporates the essence of the ancient holy city. That’s how one gets the impression of a comprehensive feel to the city. “There is no reason why we should not cash in on the curiosity of the west about the orient,” he wrote in an early article. Indeed the next best thing to visiting Benares is watching Aparajito.
The first story, Harihar’s death, is on the waterfront while the second is exclusively in the household of the rich family. With everything else going in contrast, there are wider excursions taken in both cases. Apu exploring the ghats in the first and the boy feeding the monkeys in the second. Regardless of all kinds of developments, the boy’s ‘education’ continues.
Another thing common to both sections—and that’s Ray’s genius—are the steps! The long flight of public steps at the ghat and the private staircase of the rich house where Sarbojaya sees Apu with the chillum. On the former, action takes place climbing whereas on the latter it’s while descending. Besides the formal, there is no other reason to have the staircase to be the location where such a turning point should be brought about. I would be very surprised if this were to be in the book.
Post-Harihar Benares developments have to be seen as a design leading to the sudden departure of the family to the village. To this end, after a very casual mention—a mere whiff—of the village as a possibility through the visiting uncle, we are lured into thinking that mother and son are settling down nicely in Benares. The boy is happy, her cooking is liked, what else might she need in life? (Nowhere is the irony underlined that Sarbojaya’s cooking skills, barely mentioned in PP and praised by Harihar’s preacher colleague in Benares, have now become a source of livelihood for her.) But barely has she given her consent to go with the family, she sees Apu blowing into the chillum—in the long shot, not in a close up—and her mind changes. The opposite swish-pans one after another express mother’s fury as well as waking up from a long stun after Harihar’s death. It’s also like wiping the black board clean and starting afresh all over again.
Interestingly both of Sarbojaya’s options involved moving away from the present set up. With the old uncle to the village and with the zamindar family to wherever they were shifting to. At the time it was not uncommon for zamindars to have more than one home and live in each over different months. In his own way, old uncle does the same thing coming to Benares as he does. Without the prospect of travel away from Benares with the family, the impact of return to the village would be compromised.
A word about Sarbojaya’s employers. Having this home in Benares, the zamindars don’t seem to be particularly religious. Except that the master wears a sacred thread, which Apu wears too. That’s perhaps what got them the job in the first place. Traditionally brahmins used to be the cooks in rich households, which in those days were always high caste. The mistress too is not a scriptures-chanting woman. A leather-bound book in front of her (barely noticeable in the frame) would more likely be a Sharat Chandra novel than, say, Ramayan. Indeed Benares had other areligious aspects to its existence and in that sense it’s an enhancing foil to the experience of the city as a whole.
A large part of the richness of the post-Harihar Benares comes from the play on spaces. From the cramped hole where Sarbojaya lives, to a more spacious but underlit kitchen where she works, to the bright and spacious residential quarters which she serves. From the old master’s study, Apu comes out in the verandah, decides where to go (which is further open-air outdoors) and runs to the temple and the monkeys. From the fat mistress’s room, Sarbojaya comes into another verandah, then stairs, and decides where to go and ‘trains’ to the far, far away Bengal, home. That living quarters are on an upper floor is most subtly introduced when Apu runs to the gate of the mansion in a high angle shot, so that when Sarbojaya takes the staircase, it appears only natural that she should do so.
As I said elsewhere, Ray’s cinema has the greatest density of knots per square inch.