Satyajit Ray and the Picturesque Varanasi

Banaras has been used as a part of the plot of many Indian films. I have seen (and enjoyed): films with Banaras in them in Hindi and Bangla. Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1956) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979) were the ones in Bangla that I had seen for just one reason: they are shot in Banaras. After having seen Aparajito, I was glad that I discovered it, because it’s simply the best amongst the films I have seen, shot in the city. The other films that I have seen with Banaras incorporated in the storyline are in Hindi: Sunghursh (1968), Ghatak (1996), Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai (BISKH 2001), Banaras: A Mystic Love Story (BAMLS 2006), Laga Chunri Mein Daag (LCMD 2007),  Raanjhanaa (2013). There are a couple of films in South Indian languages too in which I remember having seen my city. As I never saw them to the end, I’ll not discuss them here.

I will not go into the details of films in which the protagonist either belongs to the city or happens to come for a visit because such films only use the city as backdrop for few scenes, a dance number etc. The city is not essential for their structure, it’s only a kind of embellishment, providing the opening to the picturesque. Ghatak and BISKH belong to that category of films in which the protagonist leaves the city after fist few reels and goes to a larger city, read Mumbai, following his dreams.

Ray’s Aparajito presents the ghats and galis (and the mornings and evenings) of the city very beautifully and realistically, without any need felt for enhancements. The film begins with a long shot from the window of a train crossing the bridge that joins Varanasi with Mughalsasrai and beyond: the Dufferin or Malviya Bridge. The camera faces the south and introduces the audience to the most characteristic and majestic aspect of the city: the Banaras ghatscape and the crescent Gangaji.

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(The opening shot of the ghatscape)

The very next frame shows a regular scene on the ghats: a sannyasi calling wild pigeons for their early morning feed. The camera takes a close up of the stone of the walls of the ghats, foregrounding the carving, its texture and the play of light and shadow on it. The very next shot takes the pigeons to another characteristic feature of the ghatscape: the chhatris over the wooden benshes of the gangaputras. Then comes the long shot of the crescent ghatscape with the solid gigantic stone base of Darbhanga Ghat in the foreground. The frame isn’t static as the image on this page is. People move towards or away from the camera, there are boats on the river and pigeons flying. The camera is oriented towards Chausatti Ghat.

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(The Chhatris)                                                     (The ghatscape from Darbhanga Ghat)

The very next frame has the camera oriented towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, i.e. 180 degrees rotation. That is followed, in quick succession by the images of pigeons on the ghat and a lady (probably an old widow) meditating with her rosary in hand while the sun – that has just come out from behind the tree lined opposite bank of the river- spreads its golden rays above the river, boats and ghats. The lady is important here. She is old, in a sari that’s probably white, and is carrying her kamandal  and fuldani i.e. a receptacle to hold gangajal and a small brass basket to hold flower and paste of sandal wood to be offered to her god. She stands for devout Hinduism and also for one of the four stereotypical presences in Kashi: raand (widow), saand (bull), sidhi (stairs) and sanyasi (ascetic).

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(The old lady praying)

The frame has captured an all in one kind of a moment with the old lady also contains the bamboo umbrella above her and the stone base of the ghat under her, and, of course Gangaji. After this are shown common people, the men, women and children (Banarsis and pilgrims) taking the morning dip in the river, offering arghya to the sun, a mother washing her naked child on the ghat etc. In a film of one hour, thirty-eight minutes and eleven seconds the opening to Banaras is given four minutes and five seconds and then are we introduced to a character from the film: Apu’s father returning after his customary dip. He climbs the steps of Chausatti Ghat, the ghat that’s closest to the set of rooms he has taken on rent in Ganesh Mohalla.

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(Apu’s father returning)                                 (Ganesh Mohalla)

No invented topography is required or engineered here. The setting is everyday Banaras with its stone slab paved galis, houses of stone, and the muhalla of common people. It’s the natural Kashi that is picturesque. The house in which Apu’s family lives with its stone floors, stairs and columns looks like any other house in the city. The scenes inside the house present slices from everyday life of a Hindu family: the life as it is lived in the city. It is realism at its classical best. Ironically though while reading through pages that google found me, I got the following information:

                  The fear of monsoon rain had forced the art director, Bansi Chandragupta, to abandon the original plan to build the inner courtyard of a typical Benares house in the open and the set was built inside a studio in Calcutta. Mitra recalls arguing in vain with both Chandragupta and Ray about the impossibilities of simulating shadowless diffused skylight. But this led him to innovate what became subsequently his most important tool – bounce lighting. Mitra placed a framed painter white cloth over the set resembling a patch of sky and arranged studio lights below to bounce off the fake sky. (Source : http://www.cinematographers.nl/GreatDoPh/mitra.htm)

It simply means that the realism that I praised in the previous paragraph was actually the best planned artificial effect!

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

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