Saturday, July 7, 2012

Ray and the Railways

A piece I wrote for The Hindu maybe five- six years ago.

A homage to the enduring love story between Satyajit Ray and trains… which feature prominently in many of his movies.
Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Visual metaphors that resonate: Satyajit Ray.
The reclusive Satyajit Ray had admitted in a rare interview to a French journal that he familiarised himself with Calcutta suburbs and nearby villages through short train trips outside the city when he was contemplating making “Pather Panchali." It is tempting to link these trips of the young auteur brimming with hope and uncertainty along with the influence of early European cinema to the recurring image of a train in many of his films.
The leitmotif of the railways defines the Apu trilogy. The feuding siblings, Apu and Durga, are reunited by a train’s appearance in “Pather Panchali”. In the much debated and discussed scene from the film, the children are seen only through the gap between the carriage and the tracks. The light that falls on them appears to bring them together after their short bitter quarrel. They turn back home carrying the wonder in their eyes only to discover their dead aunt a short distance from their doorstep. In his affirmation of life’s journey through the use of the clever metaphor, Ray braces his central character for a spate of deaths of near and dear ones that Apu would encounter all through his celluloid history.

In “Aparajito”, the disillusioned mother awaits the arrival of her son from the city. She knows death is waiting to claim her anytime. As she sits outside her ramshackle house, she hears the approaching train. It is the wrong one. By the time her son arrives it is too late. The circle is completed in “Apur Sansar” when the distraught protagonist contemplates suicide by a railway track. He is all ready to throw himself in front of a speeding train when the cry of a dying pig stops him in his tracks.

Visual link
The train is the constant in all the three films. Even when it does not appear on the screen, it makes its presence felt. The sound of it is used in “Pather Panchali” to signify the death of the old aunt as well as the young Durga. Was the genius falling back on some trite symbolism to illustrate the continuous thread of life that death cannot obliterate? Or is the rationale as mundane as a cash-strapped filmmaker falling back on an existing recorded sound to weave his scenes together. Perhaps only the crew who worked with him on these films can throw some light on this.

While the Apu trilogy uses the moving train as a deliberate ploy to signify multiple factors including progress and transformation of a society, many of the later films make quixotic use of the same device. In “Aranyer Din Ratri”, four friends venture out to the forests for a holiday in a car. The first evening finds them at a loose end and they decide to spend it in a local toddy shop. This is an important sequence as it would introduce a young tribal woman, played delightfully by a young Simi Garewal, in their lives. She is brimming with raw sexual energy that is innocent as well as compelling. The camera suddenly pans on a moving train for no rhyme or reason, leaving the viewer dumbfounded. Maybe Ray, who was blessed with a unique sense of humour as many of his films indicate, wanted to cock a snook at all the self-styled critics who were discussing the train scene from “Pather Panchali” ad nauseam.

Especially since the train had played such a significant role in the earlier “Nayak”. The train journey is more than a metaphor for the angst ridden superstar’s life. In fact, it becomes the third significant character besides the hero and the young journalist. The long journey affords the superstar the much needed pause to reflect on his life. The manipulative scribe becomes his sounding board to share all that has gone wrong with his life. By the end of the journey, he is shorn of all his trappings and she sees him as vulnerable as any other human being. The train has deprived him of his sheen but vested him with humanity.

The delightful double bill “Kapurush-O-Mahapurush” that preceded the saga of the superstar had the train concluding one tale and initiating the second one. The repenting script writer in “Kapurush” leaves a note for his estranged sweetheart, now married to a middle aged man, enticing her to elope with him. He finally has the courage to make the decision that he was unable to when he was younger. She arrives at the railway station but only to reveal her own vulnerability. The unfortunate Amitabha Roy is left behind to take the train on his own.

In “Mahapurush”, the mischievous Ray peeps out right from the opening shots of the fraudulent holy man surrounded by his disciples on a railway platform. Nowhere is the genius of the master filmmaker who believed that scripting his own screenplays was an integral part of direction, more evident. The train is marrying the pathos of the first tale with the farce of the second. The silent chortle of the creator is audible to the discerning audience when the holy man thrusts his feet out of the moving train to a devotee who is hankering for his blessings. It is as if the train is essential to make sense of the complex human psychology that can veer from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But the most delightful use of the railways was reserved for the all-time favourite of Bengali children — “Sonar Kella”. The train is omnipresent in this fantasy. It leads to all the interesting plot points in the film, including the breathtaking denouement where the criminals meet a just end at the hands of the ubiquitous “Felu Da”. Not to mention that riveting first meeting between the detective and “Jatayu”, famous writer of detective fiction inside a train. You don’t need to be either a Bengali or a Ray fan to laugh out aloud while watching this scene, rife with understated humour.

Ray must have been eternally grateful to the Indian railways for letting his creative juices flow unabated through the filming of so many of his classics. We, as appreciative audience, can only pay homage to this love story that endured all through his prolific film career.

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