Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 4: The Auteur and the Train – Satyajit Ray & The Apu Trilogy

The magical appearance of the train in Pather Panchali

So far my focus has been on Hindi cinema. I next want to turn my attention to Indian art cinema or alternative cinema, a genre unto itself, and the films of Satyajit Ray. Alloway’s view that ‘treating movies as personal expression and autobiographic testament has led to the neglect of the iconographical approach’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) strikes a chord since preponderance for the authorial approach is at the expense of formal properties of film genres. So what of iconography and its role in the films of Indian auteurs? In many ways, Ray is the perfect candidate. His status in the west as an auteur par excellence has ensued mainly at the expense of genre considerations.

Focusing on the work of Ray will make plain the divisions between popular Hindi cinema and art cinema are unhelpful, arbitrary markers of taste as the iconography of the train is an inclusive visual signifier. Furthermore, a brief analysis of the role played by the train in the films of Ray will debate Alloway’s claim that ‘the degree of personal expression’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) seen in auteur films can ‘only be determined after a consideration of the extent to which these films are iconographically normal or unusual’ (Alloway, 1963: 4). This is a question I hope to return to at the end. Ray used the train in many of his films but I will limit my analysis to The Apu trilogy since Robinson notes: ‘The sights and sounds of railway trains are the woof of the Trilogy, drawing it together into an epic work’ (Robinson, 2004: 102). The Apu trilogy is based on two novels by Bengali writer Bibhutibhusan Banerji: Pather Panchali & Aparajito that ‘tells the story of a Brahmin family in their ancestral village in Bengal’ (Raghavendra, 2009: 57) unfolding across a trilogy of films detailing the journey of Apu from a boy into a man.

Pather Panchali, the first film in The Apu trilogy, features one of the most celebrated depictions of the train. The sequence sees Apu and his sister Durga playing in a field of white kaash flowers when they unexpectedly come across a train. The first sighting of the train is at a distance via ‘clouds of smoke above the sea of white flowers’, (Ray, 1985: 41) presenting the train as an ostensibly invisible ‘symbol of the modern world cutting upon village life’ (Seton, 2003: 81). More importantly, since events in the film largely unfold through the point of view of the two children, the train is also represented as a magical object, emerging from the imagination of Apu. Once the children run after the train, the idyllic tone changes to one of uncertainty. As the train passes Apu, Ray cuts to the other side of the tracks so the train fills the frame, rushing past Apu so we only see fragments of him. Richard Allen labels this intrusive cut as ‘one of sharp disjuncture’ (Allen, 2009: 95) that marks a ‘radical shift’ (Allen, 2009: 95) in Apu’s relationship to the ‘environment that modernity brings’ (Allen, 2009: 95). As a metonym of modernity the train overwhelms Apu. This is reflected aurally on the soundtrack with the discordant sounds of the train punctuating the stillness of the pastoral landscape. Finally as Apu looks off into the distance traces of smoke from the train linger in the air.

Since all of this occurs from the perspective of Apu posits the train as a disruptive force, interrupting the natural flow of rural India life. By juxtaposing Apu and Durga’s sighting of the train (their first glimpse of a new modern India) to the death of Indir, their elderly aunt, establishes an elemental, defining conflict between tradition and modernity. In light of this juxtaposition, the train also becomes a harbinger of death, a motif constant through the trilogy. If we read the train as expressive of modernity ‘anticipating Apu’s future’ (Allen, 2009: 92) then Indir’s death can be viewed as the loss of tradition. Note that the death of Indir follows the sighting of the train. Symbolically the train racing through the landscape can be interpreted as carrying away the spirit of Indir, portending her looming demise. In The Apu trilogy the train is less of a traditional spectacle and more of a thematic presence.

In the second film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) Ray uses the train as a connection between Apu and his mother Sarbajaya. When Apu’s father dies Sarbajaya returns to the village with Apu. Later when Apu receives a scholarship to study in Calcutta he has to leave the village for the city. His transient state, shifting between the city and village is conveyed by numerous train journeys. Sarbajaya, increasingly lonely in the village, misses Apu, anticipating his arrival by the sound of the train whistle. By associating the train with Apu’s transient state fulfills a dual purpose; firstly acting as a narrative device and secondly functioning as a painful psychological connection reminding Sarbajaya of her loss and Apu’s absence. Similarly like Pather Panchali in which the train passing through the rural landscape prefigures the death of Indir, the train’s presence is noted aurally on the soundtrack before Sarbajaya’s death. Allen argues in Pather Panchali ‘the most evocative use of offscreen sound is reserved for the presence of the train whistle’ (Allen, 2009: 92), a sound that Sarbajaya hears repeatedly. It is at this point in Aparajito the train as a harbinger of death becomes firmly established as iconographically specific to the Apu films, embodying a set of expectations related to life, death and the inevitability of change.

The last sequence I want to explore is from the final film in the trilogy; Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). Now married, Apu lives near a railway yard so the sound of trains is constant in the background, providing a perpetual relation to his childhood. Ray says, ‘I thought I would take away the lyrical element of the train and have the couple live right on the railway track’ (Robinson, 2004: 102). When Apu is told the news about his wife’s death the trauma leads to a suicide attempt. Ray’s screenplay describes the sequence as follows: ‘Apu stands beside the railway tracks as a train approaches. A veil of smoke drifts towards him as he lowers his eyes in despair, unable to take the final plunge’ (Ray, 1985: 133). The train’s connection with death has been etched into consciousness of Apu from his childhood since the discovery of the train was juxtaposed to the death of Indir. The third film inverts the train as a symbol of modernity, as it can no longer be equated with progress, the future or change, as it becomes a source of severance, disjuncture and death. Yet Ray repeats the motif of the train as a harbinger of death, pushing this idea to its extreme when ‘the train rushes past, leaving behind a dead pig on the tracks’ (Ray, 1985: 133). The dead pig reminds Apu of the way death strikes suddenly. More knowingly, Apu’s despair is bound up in a history of loss, paralyzing him .

From the sequences I have looked at so far Ray’s view of the train is ambivalent, shifting from childlike curiosity and an emerging modernity to a more critical position in which the audio-visual representation of the train becomes bound up in the imagery of death. Ideologically, by the time we reach Apur Sansar the train is accepted as part of Apu’s life. Even in Pather Panchali, Apu’s first encounter with the train is depicted sceptically. In this context Ray’s attitude to the train changes over the course of the trilogy, offering a personal insight into his own anxieties regarding modernity and its impact on tradition. Ray often returned to the train in his films including most noticeably with Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962) and Nayak (The Hero, 1966). Whereas Abhijan saw Ray disillusioned with the train, Nayak uses the train journey as a narrative device to detail the recollections of a film star who takes the train from Calcutta to New Delhi.

I opened with Alloway’s proposition that only after considering the extent to which films are ‘iconographically normal or unusual’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) can we determine the level of authorial expression. Ray uses the train in The Apu trilogy to delineate many themes notably modernity and in this context it is ‘normal’ when compared to popular Indian cinema since they are both trying to convey the impact of modernity. What separates Ray’s use of the train from other filmmakers is the ‘unusual’ formal treatment, relying on realism (deep focus cinematography, naturalistic sound) that could be deemed as more authorial and less iconographic.


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