Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Apu Trilogy

Part 1





The Railway Motif.
Prof. Satish Bahadur

I use the term railways motif, rather than the limited term train motif. The railways include trains and also engines, wagons, bogies, railway stations, platforms, human details on platforms, and in passenger bogies... also technological artifacts like rail tracks, shunting yards, signals, bridges, embankments, telegraph lines running along the rail track, and (add on) landscape seen from running trains, (... keep on adding...) rumble of a train, whistle of an engine... smoke from an engine.

The railways are in the ambience of the Indian landscape and the Indian socialscape. Hence, they occur in the background of several scenes in the Apu Trilogy. The fiction of the Trilogy is essentially a design of developing human relations of the Apu story, and the railways recur with the palpable consistency of an integral element of the design. We need to trace this in the design of the Trilogy.

Running the railways is an activity related to the human needs. In composing a film scene, some aspect of the railways (in the background of the scene) can be brought into an expressive relationship with the feeling of the (foreground) drama of human requirements, human compulsions, human tensions, human expectations... (add to this list, to include the entire range of human character and inter-personal relationships...).

A quick preview of some situations which occur in the Apu Trilogy. A train can take a beloved person away from you. A train can also bring the beloved back to you.... A train can be an object of wonder for a child. For a growing mind, the train comes from there, and goes there: the train can stimulate the desire to know the world out there.... An oncoming train can be violent, even lethal, it can kill man or animal. An engine steamed up for a journey exudes brutish power.... A whistle is a sharp reminder, even a warning.... One could be lonely in a train compartment or a crowded platform, even though surrounded by many others... and so on.


The Apu Trilogy is the fiction of Apu from birth through childhood and adolescence to early youth when he marries and has a son of his own. The time period is identifiable. Pather Panchali begins in Nischindapur with Apu’s birth around 1910. Aparajito opens in 1920 with the Varanasi episodes which fix the years of Harihar’s death and Sarbojaya’s return to Mansapota. Apu is about 16, when he goes for college studies in Calcutta. The end of Aparajito when Sarbojaya dies should be about 1927. Apur Sansar opens sometime in 1930. The offscreen slogan: Inquilab Zindabad from a political procession on the street outside can be heard as the professor encourages Apu to take up writing seriously. Apu is about 21. At the end of Apur Sansar, when Apu returns for his son, Kajal is about five years old. The year could be around 1935.

Throughout the late 18th and 19th century, the British administration had introduced several devices of modernisation, designed mainly to tighten the hold on the socio-economic frame of Indian life: the railways, the post and telegraph, revenue collection through the zamindars, money economy replacing the commodity barter system which destroyed the traditional basis of the village self-sufficiency, growth of ports and trading cities; education in the English language and in modern science and technology... These new elements interacted with the traditional factors in shaping he evolution of the Indian personality during the first half of the 20th century. One not-designed effect of these measures was the heightened sense of national awareness in the Indian mind. (The Apu Trilogy has shades of most of these in its composition.)

Thus the fiction of Apu’s life (1910 to 1935) is placed against such a backdrop of social and cultural change in Bengal.

Here we try to relate one factor of change, the Railways with the fictional events of the Trilogy.
Notice some decisions of the scriptwriter in the overall macro-shape of the script. There are several major village/ city locations of the Apu story. Can we place these locations in relation to the railways in a meaningful manner?

Pather Panchali is confined to Nischindipur, a small village deep within the Bengal countryside. It is not on the railway line, but not too far away either. Bengal is the first conquest of the Raj, and it has been ensured that the railway network penetrates deep enough into the countryside. The railway line is about three miles or so away from Nischindipur, and the children can hear the sound of passing trains in the stillness of night. Apu and Durga promise that someday they will go to see the train.

One excited afternoon, they wander that far away from the village and see a train. Apu has his first close view of the train as the wheels thunder past the little boy clambering up the embankment. (To anticipate the script design, in Apur Sansar the grieving Apu just about escapes coming under the wheels of a train in a last-moment-circumvented suicide bid.)... After the first shock of the family disaster, when Harihar Roy settles down for the night, he cannot sleep, and the sound of the distant train whistle is heard on his wide awake face, and we know this is the precise point when he decides to leave the village. The last shots of Pather Panchali show the decimated family in a bullock cart trundling away from the abandoned home moving towards the (not-shown) railway which will take them away to Varanasi... (Anticipating Aparajito, the precise point of decision to return from Varanasi also will be signalled by a train whistle on Sarbojaya’s face.)

In Aparajito, we enter Varanasi in a train, rumbling past he massive girders of the railway bridge opening up the river front of the city. The British have provided a secure railway connection from the Bengal countryside to this ancient holy city and for the last lap they also made this bridge across the wide Ganga. Harihar’s family must have come along this rout: they will also return the same way. Some months after Harihar’s death we leave Varanasi on a train going out past the same massive girders of the bridge, closing out the view of the river front of the city. The train is carrying back the further decimated family, Sarbojaya and Apu, past the tile-roofed villages on the other side of the Ganga, speeding through the hilly nightscape in south Bihar into the next-morning-verdure of the Bengal countryside.

The mother and son are now in the village Mansapota in Bhabataran’s house. In the text few years, Apu will grow up and grow away from the mother. He will go away to Calcutta on the train. The scriptwriter’s question is... how to place Bhabataran’s house in relation to the railway. We locate the house with a back door, from where one can see beyond the fields, the rail track. For Apu’s growing mind the train is a constant beckoning of the world out there. This visual location of the house can be used in a deeply moving situation. A very ill Sarbojaya can totter in the evening dust to see the train from Calcutta, which may (or may not!!) bring the son to the dying mother.

In Aparajito, the rail entry into Calcutta is markedly different from the entry into Varanasi. The train carrying the older Apu for studies changes several tracks snaking along the wide railway station yard before entering the platform at Sealdah.

The unplanned growth of Calcutta had created railway sidings leading to factories, and for shunting, and handling of coal and bulk commercial products. Along these railway sidings grew slums and cheap tenement buildings. For Apur Sansar, the scriptwriter decides that Apu’s rented room will be on the top of a three storied building in a slum next to a railway siding. This is just about the lodging which the unemployed Apu can afford. The railway siding provides several interesting possibilities involving Apu. Apu will walk with Pulu one might along the railway track, excitedly recounting his autobiographical novel. The scene ends with Apu’s confused protest at his lack of actual experience of romantic love with a woman.... (Months have passed, Apu had married and had wonderful conjugal experience with Aparna... Continuing, as if, from that night scene, Apu walks along the railway track again, deeply absorbed in (the absent and the pregnant) Aparna’s letter, which sensitises him to prevent a neighbour’s child from crawling too close to the railway track.

This scene, in continuation, leads upstairs to Apu receiving the violent blow of Aparna’s death, which triggers off his ineffectual violence of hitting the hapless bring-er of bad news, all played against the impersonal ugliness of the shunting yard below. From this point, the drama moves on to Apu’s breakdown. An engine whistle and train sounds over Apu’s grieving face trigger off the passing possibility of suicide under shunting train which is circumvented by the shriek of a run-over animal... Recall the earlier departure scene at Sealdah platform: the inevitability of the guard’s whistle and the engine whistle on the faces of both, Aparna and Apu, as they attempt to make the most of the moments on the-already-moving train, carrying Aparna away from Apu... And earlier, the first morning of this family. The shrill engine whistle which had annoyed Aparna when she was struggling with the smoky coal sigri for cooking their first meal.

... Recalling Aparajito, the departure from Varanasi is, as if, triggered of by an engine whistle. Sarbojaya, now widowed, has been serving temporarily in the Varanasi household of a zamindar. She has just now been offered a permanent job in the Dewanpur establishment of the zamindar. Coming down the stairs, she sees Apu, down there, blowing at the tobacco chillium for the master’s hookah.... Apu’s future (?) as a household servant!! This is the precise instant of decision for Sarbajaya. The shrill railway whistle comes right on Sarbojaya’s face coming down the stairs, a swish pan away from her, and they are already leaving Varanasi on the train rumbling past the massive girders of the bridge closing out of riverside view of the city.

Likewise, one could take up a detailed analysis of the composition of all the scenes in the Trilogy where the Railways occur in some aspect, and show how the feeling-tone of the foreground human drama is appropriately expressed in the feeling-tone of the railway details.


The train is a vehicle, a mode of transportation in the Apu story. In the Trilogy we have numerous events happening at several locations in villages and towns. Logically it follows that a range of other modes of transportation would also consciously be brought into other scenes. This, indeed, is the case. And the formal symmetries in the script design are striking.

(In theory terms, if the train is a motif, the other vehicles oftransportaion are variations of the motif. In Metzian terminology, train and other means of transportation would form a paradigmatic relationship.... The richness of a design is due to the coexistence of a motif with its variations.... Recall the school-science example of the sound of a tuning fork of frequency N, or a vibrating sitar string. The richness of the sitar string sound is due to the main vibration at frequency N, and the simultaneous vibrations at the harmonics of N, like frequencies N/2, N/4, N/8, N/16, N/32... and so on... If N is the tone, N/2, N/4, N/8... are overtones.)

The trilogy is observing the changing life styles of the people in this fiction. The train is a vehicle. Wherever it is possible other vehicles have been brought into the film composition, indicating the rich diversity of transport vehicles at the different levels in this changing society. Let us see how

At the end of Pather Panchali, a bullock cart carries Harihar’s family away from Nischindipur towards the train to Varanasi. In Aparajito, when the decimated family returns from Varanasi to Mansapota, the bullock cart is used again in the last lap from the railway station to the village house. We had seen boats on the huge Ganga river front at Varanasi. A tiny boat being poled on a tiny water channel in Mansapota as the family returns from Varanasi. A horse drawn phaeton brings the Inspector to Apu’s school at Arboal. The street in Calcutta has a motor car coexisting with hand carts. Boats of all kinds float on the Hooghly, even big smoky steamers triggering off thoughts of going abroad.

The romantic Apur Sansar journey to Aparna is in a large sail boat, appropriately suffused with poetry recitation. The bridal chamber in Aparna’s house overlooks the river and the distant boatman’s songs... The (to-be-rejected) epileptic bridegroom arrives in a traditional palanquin, along with the English style band playing "He is a jolly good fellow"... In Calcutta, Apu brings the bride in style in an expensive horse drawn carriage to his room in a slum adjoining the rail shunting yard. Aparna’s bedroom in Calcutta has the constant presence of railway shunting noises all the time, day or night. Returning form cinema, the privacy of a closed horse drawn carriage provides Apu and Aparna the space to dream of the soon-to-arrive-Kajal... Five years later, when the repentant Apu faces for the first time the-long-arrived-Kajal, the preferred gift from father to son will be a toy railway engine. At the end of the Trilogy, when father-and-son move towards a possible new future, the toy engine is forgotten, abandoned in the hands of the old grandfather.

And so on and so forth...


A train is a train is a train, a whistle is a whistle (is a whistle)... In the film medium, everything is what it is and not another thing. The main quality of the film image is its verisimilitude: the image looks exactly like the thing which is imaged. The running boy on the screen looks like a running boy, a passing train on the screen looks like a passing train.

If we pose a question seeking a one to one relationship of the kind: What do the Railways symbolise in the Apu Trilogy?), and expect a smart one-line answer, we have made the initial mistake of posing a wrong question... and we should never expect a correct answer to a wrongly posed question. It is important to realise that the fiction of the Trilogy traces a complex design of changes in traditional lifestyles and character traits under the impact of modernisation of a (definite) cultural segment of society during a (definite) historical period of 20th century India. Hence, the significance of a single element like the railway motif can be understood only by exploring the details through which the numerous aspects of the railways are integrated in the growth of the human design of the Apu Trilogy.

We have attempted a first level exercise of this kind in these notes.

Rounding off, one may not that a symbol is something which stands for something else. Theatre is a symbolic medium, so is Dance. Hand mudra gestures in dance stand for a range of meanings. Verbal language is, in this sense, a symbolic system. The sounds produced by a speaker stand for the meaning of what is spoken. The black markings of paper which you are calling "reading" stand for the idea which is triggered off in you by this sentence.

Also, in actual cultural life around us symbols work effectively. A cross stands for the presence of Christianity. A building with a cross may indicate a church or Christian dwelling. A cross on a garment or a neck would indicate that the wearer is a Christian. A film will photograph these symbolic devices realistically. And symbols can be used effectively for identifying traits of the characters in a film plot in many subtle ways. Pather Panchali opens with Sejobou on the roof shouting the little child away from the guava orchard below. Shejobou is dressed like a married woman. Between this day and the next time we see her, sometime Shejobou’s husband died.

This death is not shown in the film, but is symbolically reported to us when Shejobou accuses Durga of the theft of glass bead necklace: she is in (a Bengali) widow’s white weeds. The Aparajito headmaster, Paresh Babu, in a very Bengali dhoti and buttoned-up coat, also identifies himself as a Christian; he has a tiny cross on his pocket watch chain. (The missionary had also come to Bengal along with the British Raj...). In fact, when the Inspector of schools is visibly moved by Apu’s recitation of the patriotic poem, Paresh Babu is quietly touching the cross in prayer. For the headmaster it is a happy moment. The performance of a student is being approved by a government official!!

Satish Bahadur, one of the leading film scholars of India, the essay was originally published in 1998 and republished on Arup/Asim Ghosh now dead e-zine in 2003. I have later added the pictures for this part of the essay.


Salik Shah said...

your blog is a treasure! this is a great delight...

Wamba the Fool said...

Fantastic article! Just finished watching the trilogy and have been looking for opinions on the significance of recurrent shots in the film. Glad I found this.

Greetings from Portugal.