Saturday, October 01, 2005

Aparajito and Ray's craft

Aparajito (The unvanquished, 1957) is perhaps the most accomplished of all Ray movies. The screen play, shot selections, techniques, characters and above all the specters of life and death are interwoven to create this timeless piece of art. It’s amazing to find Ray's precision of frame, space, speed, shot selection and the composition of individual scenes and how eventually they sequence themselves to perfection. In many ways this is a student's bible for film craft while establishing an august presence in the world of cinema.

“One must face the reality of life. The point in life is to live it.”
- Apu in Apur Sansar

The movie is the second part of Apu trilogy after Pather Panchali. In it Harihar arrives with his family in Benares after the death of his daughter and when the dilapidated house is ruined by rain. He ekes out a living at the banks of river Ganga as a priest where birth and death have an intermingled existence. Harihar's wife Sarbajaya continues to struggle in domesticity and to complete her misery, Harihar dies. She is forced to work as a part time maid. Fortunately she meets with a distant relative who invites her to his village where he trains Apu to become a priest. Apu joins the local school and turns out to be an outstanding student who would leave his mother for higher studies at Calcutta. His mother becomes increasingly isolated and falls sick. Apu returns home to learn that his mother is no more. Finally he packs his belongings to take the fight back at life.

Ray’s adaptation of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay's novel was very specific in recreating its intrinsic qualities with a firm grasp on the Indian vision of life, death and the state of continuous flux where the human actors are seen in the middle of traveling. Rather than dwelling on the entirety, let me talk about three scenes that Ray composed to drive the point home.

Scene 1: Apu prances about at the ghat (river bank) among the teeming populace who came in to take a holy dip in the moving water and first hand brush with karmic cycles of life, death and penances in between. The camera slowly moves away from the family and languorously widens the scope of the frame to people indulged in various activities such as funeral rites and dips and then on to exercising wrestlers, static boats etc in medium shots. Camera then pans along ghat across and beyond the actions progressing in the foreground. You learn the concepts of the passage of time symbolized by the river, the montage of the discreteness of birth and death and their quantum effect in the grand scheme of life. All in a masterful composition created in the medium of cinema, besides the essentials of Hindu thought.

Scene 2: Harihar is dying. He asks for gangajal (holy water from the river Ganga). Apu is sent to the Ghat. He scampers through the alleys of Benares and before he runs back home, pauses a few moments to watch the wrestler exercising nearby. Cut to a shot where a dome hanging onto the edge of river with a large flock of pigeons gather and you sense the impending event. Sarbajaya lifts Harihar's head for Apu to pour water from the pail into his mouth. Harihar inhales the last breath and drops back on the pillow. Cuts back to the pigeons fly away in a sudden swirl and stir while the background score evoke an exact same effect. You learn that the death is but an infinitesimally momentary disturbance in the eternal flow of time. Also you sense the moral and political stance of his camera that stays engaged as a keen observer.

“Mother, do not call me from behind
Don’t let your tear fibrils tie my legs.

Tread back after the half shut door
These teary eyes don’t see any path.
These cursed times never end.”
- Balachandran Chullikad1, Yathramozhi (Farewell)

Scene 3: Apu leaves home for Calcutta to discover the world beyond the rail tracks along the boundaries of village. He must tear himself from the old world and go through the painful process of transition which meant his mother once again is left behind. Even though she sports a brave face while preparing for Apu’s departure she is shaken by the impending desolation and solitude. Her health deteriorates even as a determined Apu labors through his night shift job at the printing press and intermediate course at the university. Apu stays back in Calcutta during a short recess and a haggardly Sarbajaya hovers by the door at the quadrangle of house, hoping her son would arrive.

The last train is seen whistling past from a distance. In her delirium she hears Apu’s voice. The camera stays still at a medium shot and then moves in for a close up of her expressionless face. Now she has a vision of her own death when the night at the front yard is set alight by a swarm of fireflies.

Ray gave us a classic and he kept the pedestal very high.

Note: 1. Noted Malayalam Poet.


Dev Kumar said...

Thanks Rajesh, for this well written blog on one of the best films ever made. The Brahmo Samaji Satyajit Ray's near obsession with Benares is fascinating, is it not? I often wonder at the fact that inspite of the revolution which has taken place in the form of digital media like VCDs and DVDs which enable one to see films sitting at home Satyajit Ray continues to be an unknown figure for the young in India today. Video cassettes did break the stranglehold that cinema halls had on films but digital formats have revolutionised the manner in which people get entertainment. All good schools and colleges should make it possible for students to view good films and to study film criticism. Many youngsters in India grow up without exposure to the best of our cinema. Which is rather sad.

Rajesh said...

Howdy Dev? Thanks for checking out the article.

Aparajito is indeed one of the best films ever made by anyone. The river metaphor must have been in Ray's mind for a long time. He assisted Jean Renoir for his film, The River.

It is also fascinating to read your social commetary alongside. We have a misguided notion of good and bad films in India, among other things. If we are ever to equip ourselves to learn and appreciate the treasures of ourn own, it should be done at the right age for youngsters, I agree.

Dev Kumar said...

Recommended reading. The maestro himself on the making of the Apu trilogy. My Years with Apu: A memoir - Satyajit Ray ISBN: 0140247807.

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