60 years after Pather Panchali had been released, a friend of mine went to rural West Bengal in the autumn months and saw fields of brilliantly white Kaash flowers. Breathless with excitement, he posted pictures, saying "It is that time of the year again, when Durga takes Apu to see the train!" I was struck by the hold of the film over the imagination of generations of cinema lovers.
It is 73 minutes into the film that the Kaash flowers and the steam train enter the world that Ray has created for us. What is possibly Pather Panchali's most iconic sequence lasts for 4 minutes, almost entirely without dialogue. Apu is running after elder sister Durga, who is annoyed with him. She runs away chewing sugar cane. Having come quite far from their village, they discover the mystifying hum of telegraph poles. He looks for her, lost in the Kaash grass that is taller than him, and eventually, to his peace, finds her ready to be friends again. She hears the sound of the train. They both run towards the sound and are thrilled at seeing what Ray calls "the mighty metal monster" – they had never seen one before.
Apu among the Kaash was the first sequence which Ray shot for Pather Panchali. At this point he had borrowed Rs 7,000 against his insurance policy as well as taken loans from friends and relatives. He knew that he and his team, entirely inexperienced in filmmaking, could only convince producers to support his film if they had some actual footage to show.
Remarkably, he did not choose to shoot some more dramatic, more obviously emotional and impactful sequence to show the producers. He chose this scene.
65 kms from Calcutta, a railway line ran near a field of Kaash which looked like "a sea of fluffy whiteness", said Ray. On 27 October 1952, the crew set out for their inaugural shoot. They were led by a director who had to be reminded by friend and newly designated art director Bansi Chandragupta that he had to shout "action" and "cut" when required!
In Ray's own words: "Apu took his position in front of the camera, the camera rolled and I shouted ‘action’. What this produced was a stiff zombie-like walk from Apu which had no relationship with the kind of walk called for... which the camera photographed using expensive raw stock." "I had learnt a lesson. All my preparations over the years – the transcribing by hand of notes on cutting takes while watching a film, the arduous reading of Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Rotha, Spottiswoode, my open disdain for the home-grown product, all these had finally produced was this one shot than which it was difficult to imagine anything more lifeless and futile." Ray now placed his colleagues, Bansi Chandragupta, production controller Anil Chowdhury etc at different spots in the Kaash field. He randomly placed twigs on the path Apu would walk on. Now, young actor Subir Banerjee had to walk, stepping across the twigs, while the assistants suddenly called out his name from either side of the path, making him look here and there. And this is how Pather Panchali's first sequence, Apu walking through the tall grass, searching for his sister, was shot.
"It was perfect and I could shout 'Eureka' for the discovery I made about handling a child who was not a born actor", wrote Ray in My Days With Apu.
But. When they went to shoot in the field the next weekend (because Ray was still working at his day job during the week!), they just found a field of small brown grass. Cows and buffaloes had come and "literally, chewed up the scenery". Ray even had the "suicidal notion" of dropping the idea of the Kaash field, but then decided to be patient, not compromise, and suspend shooting for a while.
In the Apu Trilogy, the train became a powerful symbol: In Pather Panchali, Apu discovers it as an awe-inspiring, alien object; in Aparajito, he grows older and uses it to leave Banaras and move away, literally and emotionally, from his mother; in Apur Sansar, he lives across train tracks as a young man in Calcutta and even considers suicide under its wheels. A whole journey in cinema that began because Satyajit Ray had chosen – and uncompromisingly stuck to – the white Kaash fields for their beautiful contrast with the black smoke billowing from a train, as it thundered past two small wonderstruck children.
First published by Musui Art Foundation
Juhi Saklani is a Ray while and Delhi based photographer.