In the middle of a great political unrest, in 1972, Satyajit Ray decided to return to Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, whose novels he had adapted into the Apu Trilogy. He expressed his deep admiration for Bibhutibhusan on more than one occasion, for the “encyclopedia of life in rural Bengal” he created, and for the amazingly authentic speech he used for his characters. The last made Ray consider him a “guru” in screenplay writing. But this time Bibhutibhusan had a grim picture of rural life to present, a life slowly falling apart under the pall of hunger. The novel that Ray chose to film was Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), written in the backdrop of the 1943 Bengal famine. He had been toying with the idea of making the film for more than 10 years. That he finally embarked upon the project when he did was not a matter of opportunity alone.
The decade continued to live under a constant threat of food shortage. Mrinal Sen brought actual footage of hungry, emaciated people from the streets to his Calcutta films of the time. Calcutta 71 (1972) used the theme of hunger to string together a history of several decades. One recalls Goutam Ghose’s documentary Hungry Autumn (1976) about the raging starvation of 1974. The 1966 Food Movement and the killing of hunger marchers by the police were still fresh in people’s memory. In a rare gesture, Ray walked the streets that year in a procession protesting against the arrest of the Food Movement demonstrators. Reflecting back on the 1943 famine, he felt he was too immersed in Western classical music and films, and too happy to have found a job, to form a proper response to the monumental human suffering unfolding around him. Being monumental, it did have a benumbing effect on many people. Bibhutibhusan’s novel, serialised in 1944-46, was left incomplete. Ray had always felt it had a true perception of the tragedy even though the story stops at the first hour of death, the first moment when the community begins to crumble. Not unlike Ray, the novelist was at a ‘distance’ from the heart of the famine. He was travelling in those months, and, after a long period of financial hardship he had just begun to earn enough to be freed of worry.
Ashani Sanket (1973) won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival, but it did not make everyone happy at home. In those radical years, Ray was often harshly criticised for what was seen as his lack of political commitment. The film was too lush, the heroine too well-fed, the tragedy was toned down in the celebration of natural beauty. Accompanying such complaints was a curious objection to the use of colour. Ray returned to colour in film-making 11 years after Kanchenjungha to capture the changing seasons, the shifting tones of the sky and the light, and to create a bountiful presence of nature. Nature’s abundance is closely related to want and privation in Bibhutibhusan. Ray wanted to return to that vision of Bengal, this time in colour. Perhaps he knew the decision would be met with suspicion. He explained in an interview during the shooting (and later in an essay) the reason for choosing colour at a time when its use was still rare in Bengali cinema. The beginning of human decay, the contrast between the plentiful earth and the inexplicable lack of food—he felt colour could do justice to these themes. The rice the Brahmin protagonist and his wife eat becomes coarser and changes colour. The garish blue shirt of the pimp taking advantage of the hungry women, the stream of water turning red with the blood of the rapist killed by women—the director could develop such thematic strains going beyond the novel.
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But colour itself was looked upon as an indulgence. In a review titled “Chocolate Cream Hunger”, the critic of the weekly Frontier wrote that the scene of the murder was mounted with the sole purpose of splattering the screen with Eastman colour blood! The scene, however, is the most violent in all Ray. And the famished hordes arriving in the village with begging bowls present a picture of unforeseen grimness in his oeuvre. He also takes his cue from the author and develops the theme of caste existence. The Brahmin priest touches a dying untouchable woman at the end. With social disintegration comes the dismantling of an unjust old order.
Ray had to pay the price, though, of not taking his film right into the middle of the devastation, for painting only its looming shadow. He borrowed from Bibhutibhusan a vision that embraced both those who perished and survived, both decaying and perennial worlds. His critics were perhaps demanding an engagement with only one term in the pair. The portrayal of flowers, plants, and a teeming, beautiful nature was dissonant for a time that demanded an angry response to starvation. Mrinal Sen’s films, for instance, were more in tune with that response. Following an international tradition of political film-making, Mrinal Sen often inserted in his fiction images straight from the streets. Ashani Sanket has a scene where a group of hungry people gather outside the Brahmin priest’s house and beg for food in a feeble wail. The shots have them looking into the camera, at us, as if the film has broken free of fiction for a moment to present a piece of reality shorn of all mediation. On the other hand, they remind us of the images created by artists and photographers during the famine of 1943. This was uncharacteristic of Ray, to say the least.
Among the many tributes Ray gave to Bibhutibhusan were these words: “He is one writer whose stories are a gold mine of cinematic observation, and it is fortunate that I developed a taste for him right at the start of my career. Even in his lesser works … his eye and ear produce marvels of observation” (“The Education of a Filmmaker”, 1982). Ray’s mentor also had a keen eye for food. His first and last novels ( Pather Panchali , 1929; and Ichhamati , 1950), for instance, carefully list what people ate in a Bengal village in the early twentieth and mid-nineteenth centuries, and what they dreamed of eating. It is part of the intimate detailing that Ray so admired. He admitted to discovering rural Bengal through the author before he had any first-hand experience. His first encounter with the novel was in 1944 when the 23-year-old Ray was invited to illustrate an abridged version for young readers. Over the following years, this experience germinated into a screenplay.
The novel has an overwhelming effect on its readers. It embraces a place, a way of life, historical and natural phenomena in a hypnotic weave. Rhythms of daily life create one kind of pattern, while another evolves through the sensory minutiae. Blades of grass, wild fruits, leaves, creepers, insects, animals—everything is infused with the breath of life. The protagonist Apu must carry the burden of attachment to a childhood spent in such fulsome embrace.
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This wealth of the earth stands in contrast to daily lives of unrelieved scarcity. Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) followed that principle closely. While the film was celebrated all around, it had its critics who felt such stark poverty should not be displayed to the world. A Member of Parliament was blunt enough to voice that opinion publicly some years later.
Pramathanath Bishi, a well-known writer himself, wrote that the apparent absence of class conflict and social unrest in Bibhutibhusan’s work should not be seen as a mark of distance from the modern temperament. According to him, the modern character consists in the centrality accorded to nature—nature not as backdrop, nor as an external force, but as a spirit inseparable from the hearth and home, from the sense of wonder that Apu carries in his heart.
The world of Apu
As he grows up through the following films ( Aparajito , 1956, and Apur Sansar , 1959, adapted from the second novel, Aparajito , 1932), Apu sustains the sense of wonder and a tenderness that hardship cannot extinguish. He is almost always in need of money, but he discovers an ever-widening world that keeps whetting his mental appetite. There is another sense of growing that Ray borrows from the novels and develops into a strong motif. He underlines the association of maturation and fullness with death. In Pather Panchali , Apu loses his sister Durga. Ray turns the sequence into something different from the novel. Durga’s death is preceded by a rainstorm, one of the most memorable scenes of rain in all cinema. It is mostly wordless. The first drops fall, making the water lilies, dragonflies, lotus leaves stir. The pond shivers in the breeze. Then comes a great torrent making everything soaked to the core. Durga dances against sheets of cascading rain. She huddles with Apu under a banyan tree, chanting a rhyme for the rain to stop.
The next scene shows her in bed, ill. She never recovers. The sensory density of the rain and the adolescent girl’s deep immersion in it create an impression of bracing fullness. Durga, who has never had anything good to eat or wear or play with, dances with abandon, her cheeks caressed by water, her long hair swirling in unison with the trees, in a moment before she meets her end.
The treatment of Apu’s wife’s death in Apur Sansar also deviates from the novel. In fact, from that point on until the end when Apu returns to his son, Ray rewrites the events quite drastically. Once again, he sets alongside a life bereft of the slightest material comfort a passage of great tenderness and beauty. Then death arrives to mark the point of maturity of the process.
The scholar Suniti Kumar Chatterji considered Aparajito to be Bibhutibhusan’s best work for the way it celebrates Apu’s conjugal life. Ray intuitively kept that experience at the centre of his film. The scenes from the brief married life of Apu and Aparna have a lilting flow. They are suffused with a sense of love as a new beginning. Aparna gets pregnant and goes to stay with her parents. Apu carries her letter around. The words in her voice keep buzzing about him throughout the day until he learns about her death in childbirth. The profound grief that engulfs him gives us, like the rain in Pather Panchali , another long sequence without words. As Apu wanders about aimlessly, Ray takes us through changing landscapes. We observe him close to trees and hills, at one point touching the leaves of a roadside plant. Nature is whisperingly alive around the bereaved man. Everything seems to have been taken away from him while we discover plenitude all around.
Death again forms a core theme in Aparajito . Ray has written how one particular element made him choose the novel for adaptation:
“After Sarbajaya’s death Apu feels relief, a strange feeling. It was one of the experiences in which there was an element of happiness. When the news came by wire, he felt happy to be free of bondage. But this lasted a very short while only, without his being aware of it, before being overtaken by grief and fear…How could he be so cruel, so heartless? Even so, he had to face the truth. He had loved his mother so much, yet the news of her death had made him feel light-headed for a split second…” (Satyajit Ray, My Years with Apu , 1994).
This could not be shown directly. What we see instead is Apu growing up and away from his mother and from the village where he leaves her as he goes to study in Calcutta. Sarbajaya has no one left. She has devoted her life to the care of her son who now must evolve into a citizen, a new man. On his occasional visits Apu does not enjoy the sleepy village any longer. There is no one to blame for the deep abandonment that Sarbajaya must suffer. This time wordless passages are used to underline her desolation. The rural surroundings become strangely denuded of life. An ailing Sarbajaya sits under the tree waiting, and just before her death, hallucinates about her son’s arrival.
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As the scenes alternate between the bustling city and the bare, forlorn village, we find a more complex, more historical, logic of association between growth, fulfilment and death playing out.
Aparajito has been considered by many, including Ritwik Ghatak, to be the finest of the trilogy, but it was the one that failed at the box office. Ray thought it was too much for his audience to stomach the essential cruelty of the mother-son relationship. Perhaps the film also disturbed the notion of the nurturing home the audience of the time retained.
Home is another central theme Ray borrowed from Bibhutibhusan. All the three Apu films centre around losing, leaving, and finding homes. But all this is not given in dialogue and action as adaptation does for most films. It is part of the image, sound and duration.
Moinak Biswas is Professor, Department of Film Studies & Coordinator, The Media Lab, Jadavpur University .