Satyajit Ray and the Picturesque Varanasi-2

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Little Apu enters the screen with his gang, playing in a gali, like any other gali of Kashi: with whitewashed walls on which the traditional paintings with animal and human forms are freshly made, and a cow tied in the gali. Along with its trough it occupies the whole breadth of the gali. The children do not mind its presence. Neither does the cow mind theirs. Their peaceful co-existence is seen in the city even today: remember the bovine element in the …saand… formula?

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At Darbhanga Ghat the Apu’s father recites religious texts to his audience composed predominantly of women in white saree. Apu is shown observing his father for some time, his face resting on a stone slab with carved margins and a temple projecting behind him. Then he moves on. The camera follows him and registers the river and boats, ghats, people on them and their activities. Apu climbs up to the roof of a bajda (big boat) and then returns to his journey on ghats. He meets a riyazi swinging his gada at Chausatti Ghat (I remember having seen similar gada and riyazis there, they can’t be seen there anymore).

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The non-Bengali riyazi speaks with the child in Bangla which is not very uncommon in the locality connected to that ghat. Bengali Tola is the name of the locality and it has been famous for being a densely populated Bengali locality. In fact the name of the locality itself tells its story. People pick smatterings of Bangla on the streets, shops, ghats and galis of the locality. Later on, the ghatscape is shown just as darkness starts enveloping concrete forms and lights start appearing on ghats and in the windows of the houses there. This showing of the ghat at night performs the function of informing about the passage of time and is not merely ornamental.

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In the scene with the Apu’s father meeting another pandit at Rana Mahal Ghat, all the other things viz. the persons chatting near boats under repair continue doing their things in their uninhibited manner. Life in Banaras goes on at its pace (or is shown as going on) and is not oriented towards the shooting of the film in any way (maybe it was all meticulously planned, a facet of Ray’s realism). The first time Kashi Vishwanath Temple is shown, it’s not merely ornamental. There’s been a prelude to the family’s going to the temple. It was mentioned that they would go there once they had settled down. So, the first appearance of the temple and their going to worship Baba Vishwanath indicate that they have been to the city for a time long enough to get settled at their new place.

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The second time the temple appears on the screen it performs an important function again. There’s nothing that’s merely ornamental. It also performs the function of denoting the passage of time from day to night, the descent of darkness (into their lives) or the passage of one of the phases of Apu’s life, or that of his father, as his condition is deteriorating and the Lord of Kashi would grant him moksha in the city of death. The last time that Apu’s father goes for ganga snan and falls unconscious while returning, after which people help him reach his place at Ganesh Mohalla, the ghat and the Banarsis are shown doing things naturally, in their routine manner.

Ray made the film as if he were recording the life in Banaras, as it happens naturally. In this he was never imitated (and there’s no question of his being equalled) later. In all the films that I’ve seen with Banaras, the films that came after Aparajito, the city and its inhabitants filling the screen exist to serve the purpose and fulfill the needs of he cameraman and the director. Even Ray could not repeat his performance in his Joy Baba Felunath that came twenty-three years later.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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