Satyajit Ray's: Aparajito


Aparajito, which Ray chose to film, had earned tremendous reviews as a novel and achieved another milestone in the literary career of eminent novelist Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay But Satyajit Ray’s perception was exclusive. His scenario was based on reality — a concept which the masses could correlate and conjure as such he evaded the mythology or any alien culture.

The character Leela in the novel is thus transposed with the city Calcutta where chronological events in the life of Apu emerge within the framework of a modern city. To explore the psyche of Ray on cinema — an in-depth study of his book "Our Films Their Films" is particularly relevant. His perception on cinema —long before the idea of filming Pather Panchali emerged is evident from the essay "What is Wrong with Indian Cinema" in 1955. He writes " the primitive state films were much alike no matter where they are produced. As the pioneers began to sense the uniqueness of the medium, the language of the cinema gradually evolved.

And once the all important function of the cinema e.g. movement — was gasped, the sophistication of style and content and refinement of technique were only a matter of time. In India it would be seen that the fundamental concept of a coherent dramatic pattern existing in time was generally misunderstood. Often by a queer process of reasoning, movement was equated with action and action with melodrama. The analogy with music failed in our case because Indian music is largely improvisational."(1)

In Aparajito he aimed at redefining the parameters of film language analogous to a poet expressing ideas. For the film-makers story is plot only — intended to create ideas. A film maker takes a story —deconstructs resulting in a myriad of compounded shots — nomenclatured theoretically as deconstruction which the viewers consolidate and synthesize.

The events occur in time and place which creates an illusion of reality. Photography, maneuvers, manipulates, recreates and reconstructs reality. On examining the first sequence of Aparajito — period 1957 — it is evident that Ray in endeavors to establish Benaras and its famous scenario in 1920. He recreates reality to a great extent by arranging the shots in a pattern that give effect of a montage and the time dimensions are so arranged so as to create an abstraction. Let us retrospect the beginning of Aparajito.

Ray’s canvass aimed at vivid depiction of Banaras city from dawn to 8 or 9 O’ clock in a shot the span of which was restricted to 2-3 minutes. A film basically caters to 5 channels of information — visual, graphic, dialogue, music and incidental noise. Satyajit fully explores all these channels in the 2 minute shot. Varanasi — 1327 provides the graphics. The camera captures the train approaching Banaras from an angle followed by the vivid visuality of Ganga ghat. But Ray’s uniqueness is that instead of describing it in totality unlike an ordinary artist he composed the sequence on shot and reverse shot method.

The visuals of ghat and crowd are shot from a boat and shots of river, boat and crowd from ghat — which collectively converge the sequence of a group of community performing various actions —the sanyasis chanting hymns — the more mundane bathing while washing clothes — Kathakthakur reciting holy verses etc.

Satyajit Ray’s camera then indulges in a complete shift from generalization to particularisation as the frame captures lonely widow. The desolateness of the lady and the vastness of the ghat, manifest the abstraction of a crowd to particulariastion of a person — which in cine parlance is montage structure.

Etymologically montage is to assemble — a French derivative. The assemblies have a peculiar equation which does not move along the predicted lines of 2 + 2 = 4 as customary in films. A number of shots conjoin in geometrical regularity but the end product is not necessarily the consolidation of shots initially used for composition.

Ray by deft association of few shots presented Benaras ghat in a technique that enables the viewers to comprehend its vastness and contemplate the spatial arrangement and the physical significance of Benaras — emerging in cinematic realization a technique Satyajit Ray learnt from Sergei Eisenstein A reference can be made to the film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ particularly the ‘Odessa Step’ sequence where the beautiful display of the theory is evident.

A reverse to time is displayed where Ray condenses images of morning ghat of Banaras spanning over two to three hours in two to three minutes. While portraying all these suddenly Satyajit’s camera freezes before a small Shiva temple under a tree — here the tonality of light changes — music pattern changes — We are awakened to the fact the dawn has rolled on to late morning — a queer trick of cinematic, photographic and musical synthesis.

We experience the reverse shot technique comprising of incidental noise — characterization the photographic pattern — the distribution of light. Music changes to impress the feeling of transition of time. The created light the audience sees and assumes to be natural is neorealistic light — an invention of Subrata Mitra and Satyajit Roy as none had clue to this light till then.

Moving images are highlighted by three kinds of lights. One is basically expressionist lighting — chiaroscuro method which is presentation of light and shadow in a pattern that refers to European painting (particularly those of Rembrandt and others). Four point light employed by Hollywood to give prominence to one over other is another technique. For example a man is focused, the audience concentrate on the anatomy of the man in shallow focus, then light is distributed in a pattern to create artificial illumination to emphasize some light and de-emphasize some light.

Some statement in photograph is underlined. But Satyajit Ray while filming Aparajito resisted the use of this technique for he realized that the employment of this lighting to photograph could render the film an artificial statement of Indian culture as such he applied absorbers to create an illusion of natural lighting.

He introduced in the frame a believable source of light which could be sun light or any other created light with an absorber to absorb the extra light and the photograph was taken. The credit of introducing this sort of photography goes to G. Aldo in Visconti’s film La Terra Frema in 1948 (European chroniclers who are adamant in their supremacy have made an exception and credit Subrato Mitra and G. Aldo of the creation of this exclusive lighting). Thus emerged the beginning of a new kind of photography — the neorealist photography

Neorealism is the illusion of reality. Aparajito is basically the chronicle of a man who wanted to grow. But the story was redesigned as the whole nation was undergoing an identity crisis. 1957 witnessed the beginning of 2nd five year plan and this film aimed at helping the youth find their roots and reestablish their identity.

In Aparajito Harihar typifies the lower middle class that dies in poverty and dejection. His widow and son survive as she serves as house maid and a revelation dawns on her when she returns to her roots only to discover the alienation with her son which she cannot endure and succumbs to the ruthlessness and the son lives to explore a bigger horizon; an exposition of ‘mother - son relationship’ deeply rooted in reality — with no larger than life image; a very simple and contemporary scenario — which typified the situation through which India was passing.

This screenplay of Aparajito was the historical transformation of Satyajit Ray and not a representation of Bibhuti Bhusan’s novel. Satyajit wove into the fabric of this novel contemporary relevance. Substituting the persona of Leela with the city Calcutta Satyajit Ray wanted to highlight the emergence of rural milieu to urban, from feudal social set-up to urban set-up from collective living to individual life-style, the metamorphosis of personal and interpersonal relationship. It was actually a question of transformation of India and that is the pragmatism film Aparajito renders.

It has been suggested by an audience — that the director has rendered too extensive an interpretation — the transition from rural, feudal milieu to urban bourgeois set-up. The technical shortcoming of finding an actress to enact Leela’s role prompted Ray to recast the storyline.

In the course of reshaping he injected some rhythm and transformed the rationality of the story. Leela’s role could have ushered in some lyrical proposition or romanticism but what Ray aimed at exploring was the ruthlessness of human relationship —and to broaden the parameter of modernism he replaced the character by an apparently inanimate geographical space. He redefined the characteristic and limits of modern civilization in which the human values of love, affection, respect are more temporal compliances.



The BODY( death)

Level of perfection in Ray’s film is unique where even a minor character like Nandababu is contemplated with equal attention to details. Everything is depicted from the standpoint of a third observer. Apu is thus perfectly detached — unconcerned — observing, gaining experience from surroundings. Even his mother’s urgency fails to register and he leisurely collects the water from holy Ganga and is apparently in no hurry to get back to his father’s death bed. Only a genius of Ray’s stature could conceive that the eternity of death could have no profound implications on the psyche of a 10 years old.( SM)

This scene is also vital because of Ray's remarkable use of sound punctuating the image of Harihar in a close-up. That follows with the cry of Sabojaya which is dissociated with the image , but heard with the movement of the birds. It's remarkable how Ray builds the sequence with an utmost precision that is montage based. Ray, known mainly as a Neorealist filmmaker, deployed different editing technique to create tension through the course of the film.(NR)

The JOURNEY(Train)

The scene unfolds the reverse journey of Sabojaya and Apu. The train passes through different geographical places and Ray employed different artificial studio-created sounds. The sound of flute makes the viewer realize that this is Bengal — the archetypal representation in soundtrack — the sound system referred to the originality, core, basic of human journey that Sarbojaya was trying to reestablish her relationship with her son by coming back to her root. The effect of the sound is explosive. Satyajit aims at awakening our patriotism by the essentials available in our own soil.

They return. But life refuses to move along the predicted line as Apu is exposed to new things — life flows on — civilization flows on — life becomes difficult. Civilization is progressive and abhors duplicity. Apu therefore does not become another Harihar — another priest but learns new things at school both scientific and technical and in the process questions the basic institutional framework of Indian culture. Apu is subjected to an academic awakening where he learns and unlearns. His awareness on scientific thoughts and global developments are evolved but he unlearns the relationship of the traditional Indian society — a contradiction in the development process. Modernisation makes mother - son incommunicado. He cannot relate to his mother, his rural surroundings — for Calcutta beckons him — which now is emblem of his sustenance. This is Satyajit’s cruel observation on civilization. Aparajito is a commentary on the historical progress on our society. (SM)

The use of sound contrasted with silence is remarkable in this sequence. Beside one should look at the use of the transition, that give this whole sequence a fluid passage of time and journey. The first dissolve helps us move from Benaras to the outskirts, and the second rapid movement (as the train hurls past houses) acts a transition; to the next shot of a cloudy sky, and the final transition(dissolve) with the music signals the arrival of Bengal, and the nostalgia that embodies the film. (NR)

The SPACE( Door/Passage)





The film would not be complete without mentioning how Ray molds the space. The space serves as a motif through the course of the narrative. The door and the passage becomes an integral part of the subject and their journey. And in each of these sequences, a whole body of emotions are intertwined: the arrival of the family from Benaras, Apu leaving for Kolkata, or the final arrival of Apu. All these important plot developments in the film grow, because of the deployment of the space that marks an impression through the course of the narrative. The absence of the mother can be felt when Apu arrives back home, as Ray's camera observes him from outside the door. The absence not only startles Apu, but it also gives us a feeling of not seeing someone where we usually expect them to be.

And when he leaves, the camera slightly trudges forward;to look again at the empty door- where is uncle stood. The absence again reminds us of his mother. Even the music which from the beginning functioned as a leitmotif, returns and flows with the camera movement, and carries on as we accompany Apu in the final leg of the journey in search for himself.


One of the earliest recordings on celluloid was the arrival of a train by the Lumiere brothers. Cinema is about movement, and so is the train, a journey- a form of human activity. Railways hold an important part in the film. A character itself. That not only becomes a bridge to the places of arrival and departure, but offers an expressive relationship and feeling with the characters.

Apu on arrival, on hearing the train whistle;hurls towards the door with joy and watches the train in the background. Something similar happens in the case of his mother, her feeling is evoked by the whistle of the train. In both the cases it evokes a feeling of joy, nostalgia and melancholy. This relation of the subject in the foreground with the object in the background becomes an expression.

The whistle, the sound of the train running, the images of the compartment, railway station and the train itself serves an important backbone to shape the film. They form a vehicle that unconsciously allows the characters to think, act and express their inner-feelings and desire in the film.

Part 1- An excerpt form Sanjay Mukhopadhyay analysis of Aparajito given at a Cine Club in 1996, republished here from angelfire e-zine. Part of Aparajito’s script is added to facilitate readers in understanding the situations.

Part2- NR.

(1) Every culture has its own aesthetic temperament. So the Western concept of harmony is alien to classical Indian music, which uses melody alone. The Western method of teaching music is through written notation while Indian music has an oral tradition of learning. A Western classical musician interprets a composition while an Indian classical musician improvises, developing upon a particular composition. Also, Western rhythm is linear whereas Indian rhythm is cyclic, having a precise beginning which is both a point of arrival and departure in every time-cycle.

(Rekha Surya on North Indian Classical Music, published on Winds from The East)


Anonymous said…
Its an interesting observation of the door/passage as a representation of a journey, a transition from one phase/area to another, both in terms of space and time. I haven't watched Aparajito yet, but found the aforementioned observation fascinating, considering Ford also used it in The Searchers. The opening and the closing shots of the film are shot through a doorway, and even though its more a psychological transition for Ethan Edwards, than a temporal/spatial transition.

Considering how many films Ray watched, its hard to imagine he would have ignored the Ford film, and perhaps, its an interesting incorporation from the earlier film to a later one, of the same element, applied to evoke a different response.
Anonymous said…
*I stand corrected though, since both the films came out in the same year, which makes the similarity even more amazing.
nitesh said…
Thanks for the comment Anuj, good to know you found the information on the space(door/passage)interesting.

It's quite true that Ray admired the works of Ford, and the evidence of the emphasis on landscape and the relationship of subjects within the surrounding is something I'm sure he picked up from the films of Ford.

This influence and his love is evident in his essay on Ford- an excerpt:-

The distinction consist, as in all great film makers, in the manner of telling the stories; in how Ford uses his tools, how he stages his actions and photographs them, where he places his camera, and how the shots and scenes follow one another, how the place and the pulse of the film derive from cutting.

Btw, the shot of the doorway in The Searcher is definitely a classic. Every time I think of the film I'm reminded of the shot
Lots of good ideas here, though not sutured by a central thesis. That is an argument for another day.

You compare Ray's Ghat sequence with the Odessa steps. I am not sure if that is accurate.

Eisenstein disrupts the notion of time and space. There is no continuity in either of the filmic concepts in Potempkin. Ray is influenced by the Cahiers school of thought according to which the camera should faithfully reproduce physical reality. Editing and shallow focus should be kept to a minimum to allow the viewer to comprehend the space of the action as well as the time within which the action is taking place.

Kiorastami is a good example of this.
nitesh said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
nitesh said…
@ Kishore, Thank you for the comment. I’m not sure regarding the reference either, while I can’t offer a logical argument regarding the reference; since, the first part of the article is republished from a lecture by Sanjay Mukhopadhyay and I cannot justify his deduction.

However, it’s true that Ray’s camera was ‘stationary’ and he believed in observing the movement of his characters in the filmic space. But if we talking about just this film, Ray does play with different forms of narrative/lyrical montage: to create tension, transcend spaces, and provide a greater depth and scope of Benares. While ‘sound’ becomes an important element of montage to convey different feelings and emotions. So editing was an important part of this particular film.

Kioarstami on the other hand, does have the element of observation and stationary camera in his mise-en-scene, but I believe, it’s his long takes that gives his films the rigor and depth to the landscapes and different motifs. While in case of this film Ray’s editing takes a central importance in the mise-en-scene that gives rise to several key scenes and helps piece together the entire film.
Anonymous said…
I've heard the technique used by Ray and Mitra is called Bounce lighting wherein they reflect natural light off rough surfaces to give tehm teh "soft" nature.

Can anyone confirm?

And for, me Aparajito looked like a direct influence of the neorealists in its passivity. You can see flawed actions in the film not being cut off, like the fall of Apu after return, the numerous bugs that run around the screen etc.

I'll visit the film again after I watch Pather panchali...
nitesh said…
It’s true Srikanth, Mitra did work with the bounce lighting way ahead it was credited to the famed cinematographer in Seven Nvyist in American Cinematographer.I could be wrong on the latter but the former is true.
Received wisdom is one the most interesting and misleading things in cinema…could be. To see only a neorealist influence and not look at the way Ray “cut” this film would be wrong. Although, Ray particularly shot with a very little coverage yet he pays a lot of attention or emphasis on ‘montage’ to transcend and convey this film.
Oh, I love that particular scene, I was thinking…flawed or not flawed at least it appears natural, people can trip, and fall while shooting, and it’s not a problem at all. Although, Ray was shocked to get the prize at Venice, because he thought his movie was flawed, but I think beauty is in the imperfection that made this movie great.

Popular posts from this blog

Satyajit Ray, 'What's wrong with Indian Films?

Is Anyone Watching- Indian Documentary pt-2

Narrative Style of Satyajit Ray- in context Godard, Eisenstein and others.