Thought Box

Satyajit Ray: 10 Great Sequences

Satyajit Ray: 10 Great Sequences

by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri May 3 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 21 mins, 41 secs

The films of Satyajit Ray have provided us with iconic moments that celebrate the many hues of life, all shot with the barest of resources. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at a selection of such great sequences. 

Apu and Durga running through a field of kaash flowers to catch their first glimpse of a train, ushering in a new era for Indian cinema as it were, the thrilling camel-train chase sequence in Sonar Kella for which Satyajit Ray used just one camera and memorably remarked that Akira Kurosawa would have shot that using a six-camera set-up, the evocative closing scene in Agantuk - Mamata Shankar dancing with the Santhals are some. Here I lay out 10 of the most iconic sequences from Satyajit Ray’s films. 

  1. The Train Sequence in the Kaash Field (Pather Panchali, 1955) 

Among the most talked-about sequences of the film, its celebratory mood and its reading as Apu’s first brush with modernity have obscured a very important aspect to it. Trains in the Apu Trilogy carry with them the presentiment of death. And this sequence is informed with that too, placed as it is between two sequences featuring Indir Pishi’s final moments. We have the premonition of death in her interaction with Sarbajaya, before the scene cuts to Durga, chewing on a stalk of sugar cane, listening intently to the humming of the electric pylon (note the aural continuity between the ‘death music’, accompanying Indir as she takes a sip of water from the jug and pours the rest, and the buzzing of the wires). 

Durga puts her ears to the pylon, before running off in the kaash field. Apu follows suit, looking for her - worried he is lost. The kaash stalks, taller than Apu, sway in the humming breeze as Ray builds on the moment. There’s an eerie silence. Finding Durga sitting among the kaash flowers, Apu asks: ‘Where are we?’ They have never ventured this far from home before and are just that bit afraid. Suddenly, Durga puts a hand over Apu’s mouth, asking him to shush. She has heard something - and now we hear that familiar chugging of a train. Both of them get up, look around, and through the kaash flowers we see the train belching smoke. Both of them make a run for it, as the train chugs its way through the field. Durga trips; she will never be able to see a train. The camera pans across the field… Apu reaches the lines… the train roars away, leaving behind a thick black cloud of smoke settling on the kaash bloom. 

It’s an ominous end to a sequence celebrated for its poetic beauty as it segues to the one where Durga and Apu stumble upon Indir Pishi’s dead body… 

  1. Harihar Learns about Durga’s Death (Pather Panchali, 1955)

The build-up to this scene is innocuous enough, almost joyous, and as beautifully poetic as the scene itself is heart-rending. The onset of the rains is captured brilliantly - water insects creating ripples on the pond, shots of water hyacinths… a dog and its playful pup… the camera pans across the courtyard as if inviting us to remember how it looks before the impending devastation…

Durga applies kohl to her eyes, all to the strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar… the paanapukur (pond covered with aquatic algae) starts to sway in the breeze… Sarbajaya rushes to collect the clothes hanging on the clothesline… the children run through the fields… a droplet falls on the bald-pate of a man seated next to a pond, it begins to drizzle, and soon we have a heavy downpour … the joyous strains of the flute and sitar as the children get soaked and take shelter under a tree. 

Then follows Durga’s last night as the rain wreaks havoc on the hut. The next morning the house and its courtyard is a picture of ruin. Harihar, who has been away all this while, returns having made some financial success of his travels - he looks at the devastation all around with the wry comment aimed at the fury of nature and fate, ‘Couldn’t you have waited a few more days?’ He calls out to Sarbajaya and the children, all the while surveying the desolation around him.

Sarbajaya arrives and starts attending to him, silently, immune to his attempts at conversation. He mistakes her silence for anger at his long absence. Opening a small bundle, he brings out his purchases - a belan chaki, a photograph of Goddess Lakshmi… Sarbajaya’s face, a picture of stoicism till now, crumples when Harihar hands her the sari he has brought for Durga, talking of arranging her marriage. The plaintive strain of the taar-shehnai is heard as Sarbajaya falls to the ground. The music overlaps the dialogue between the two as Harihar asks about Durga while Sarbajaya keeps shaking her head. As Harihar realizes what has transpired, he starts to get up but fails and falls back to the ground, burying his face on his wife’s body lying prone. Then he looks up and lets out the heart-rending cry, ‘Dugga … Dugga maa…’ as Apu, who has just arrived, looks on from a distance. 

The raga Pt. Ravi Shankar chose for the taar-shehnai piece in this sequence, played by Dakshina Mohan Tagore, was Raga Pat-deep. Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow recorded its devastating effect in his novel Herzog: ‘Recently I saw Pather Panchali. Herzog cried with the child’s mother when the hysterical death music started. Some musician with a native brass horn [Bellow mistook the taar-shehnai for the brass horn] - imitating sobs, playing a death-noise, his heart was aching; he too had a daughter.’ 

  1. Apu and Pulu’s After-dinner Stroll (Apur Sansar, 1959)

This sequence, starting around twenty minutes into the file, is rarely mentioned in the list of Ray’s great ones but for me epitomizes the undying spirit of Apu before the death of Aparna shatters it. Leading up to it, we discover that Apu has not been able to graduate because of financial constraints. His teacher advises him to continue writing. He has three months of rent, a princely sum of Rs 21, due to pay his landlord who taunts him. An article of his has been accepted for publication but he is refused a job as a schoolteacher because he is overqualified (he has passed his intermediate while the job requires a matric pass). At the next job interview, for a bottle-labelling unit, he downplays his degree. 

Enters Pulu, an old college friend. They go out to the local eatery where Apu has his first full meal in days. We also learn that he has given up a job at the railways when he discovered that he had been asked to fill in for workers illegally dismissed during a strike. Pulu tells him about another job prospect as a clerk while also cajoling Apu to accompany him to Khulna to attend his cousin’s (Aparna) wedding. 

Post the meal, they go out for a stroll and this is when the sequence begins with Soumitra Chatterjee’s (Apu) mellifluous full-throated rendition of Tagore’s poem ‘Bosundhara’, ‘Amaare phiraye loho oi basundhare’. He is in high spirits after a full meal. When a policeman shouts out, ‘Kaun hai?’, he answers, ‘Ami holam Hiamdri angaj Mainak’ (I am Mainak, the mountain, born of Himadri), before the two make a quick getaway. 

Apu informs Pulu that he won’t take up the job. He refuses to be tied down. He is free, single and has no one to take care of. Anyone who has any talent - he lists Dickens, Keats, Lawrence and Dostoyevsky - will not tie himself to a job, he reasons! In one of cinema’s finest monologues ever, Soumitra Chatterjee, his face a vision of hope and dreams, informs his friend about the novel he is writing. ‘About a poor village boy whose father is a priest but he is ambitious. He refuses to be a priest. [The famous Pather Panchali theme comes on.] It is through his struggle and his education that he learns to overcome his ignorance and his superstition… He will not accept anything without reasoning, yet he has imagination. Small things move him and make him happy. He has the potential for something great. But that is not important. He may be impoverished and unable to realize his potential… but he is not running away from life… he is not an escapist… he wants to live … he finds happiness in life.’

It is a life affirming sequence you can hope to find anywhere in cinema. 

  1. Apu Takes Kajol Away on His Shoulders – The Final Sequence (Apur Sansar, 1959)

This is of course one of cinema’s most iconic sequences ever - even sixty years after the film was made, the sight of Kajol on Apu’s shoulder, comparable to the final father-son sequence in Bicycle Thieves, is capable of moving the most hardened heart. 

After Aparna’s death at childbirth, Apu has abandoned everything, his dreams of becoming an author, even his child. He has become a vagabond and it is Pulu, his friend in the sequence above, who tracks him down to a colliery where he has taken a job. Pulu tells Apu about how his son Kajol is being brought up by his grandfather, devoid of all parental care. Apu refuses to go back, saying he has no feelings for his son. It is because Kajol is alive that Aparna is no more. 

Apu eventually finds himself at Kajol’s grandfather’s place. He has decided to leave Kajol with his relatives at Nischindipur while he goes on a long sojourn. His father-in-law tells him that Kajol is unwell, recovering from a fever. Apu approaches Kajol’s bed but cannot bring himself to face him. He sits next to a window looking out to the river where we see a boat - the strains of a bhatiyali song are heard on the soundtrack. When at last he musters up the courage to call him, Kajol opens his eyes, looks at Apu and runs away. 

Apu follows him, calling out, ‘Kajol, I am your father.’ Kajol hurls a stone at him. When his grandfather raises a stick to beat him, Apu intervenes. But his efforts at breaking through to Kajol, fail in the face of the latter’s long-standing hurt. Apu decides to leave. As Apu is on his way back, walking away, Kajol follows him at a distance. Apu turns back and there takes place one of the most moving exchanges in the trilogy:

Apu: What do you want, Kajol? Is there something you’d like to say?/ Kajol: Where are you going?/ Apu: Will you come with me?/ Kajol: Are you going to Kolkata?/ Apu: Will you come with me if I do?/ Kajol: Will you take me to my father?/ Apu: Certainly./ Kajol: Won’t father scold me?/ Apu: Why would he, Kajol?/ Kajol (looks down): He won’t go away again, leaving me?/ Apu: Never./ Kajol: Who are you?/ Apu: A friend. Will you come with me?/ Kajol’s grandfather calls for him from a distance. He looks back, then again at Apu./ Apu: Come!/ Kajol: Dadu will scold me./ The taar-shehnai is heard on the soundtrack./ Apu (shaking his head, smiling): Dadu won’t get to know. I won’t tell him. Come!/ Kajol smiles and runs to Apu who picks him up./ The grandfather looks from a distance, smiles, turns back./ Apu walks away, Kajol perched on his shoulders.

  1. Charu’s Solitude and Boredom, the Opening Sequence (Charulata, 1964)

Another classic sequence of world cinema: Ray’s mise en scene is brought to life by Subrata Mitra’s tracking shots and zooms and Bansi Chandragupta’s art, as we see Charu walking aimlessly in her mansion, through rooms and doorways, idly browsing through books, knitting, running her hand over stately furniture, spying on the world outside, which, otherwise banal, seem full of life and movement to her confined world. 

The sequence starts soon after the title’s end (at 2 minutes 15 seconds) with a zoom back showing Charu finishing embroidering a handkerchief for her husband, Bhupati. On the soundtrack we hear a grandfather clock strike four. Over the next few minutes we have Charu going in and out of the mansion’s rooms, asking the house help Braja to have tea delivered to her husband’s office, deciding on a Bankim Chandra novel to read (humming ‘Bankim, Bankim’, she zeroes in on Kapalkundala), picking up her opera glasses as her attention is drawn to the sounds of a madari with a couple of monkeys in the street below, a palanquin walking past, and then a rotund man with a middle-hair parting whom she follows from one window to another - as Subrata Mitra expertly orchestrates tracking shots - till the man walks diagonally across the frame and out of sight. As the sequence draws to a close, Charu hears Bhupati’s footsteps outside, but he walks past without even looking at her. 

Charu walks out of the room and across the corridor, where the grandfather clock shows the time at eight minutes past four. Shot in real-time, the sequence too lasts approximately six minutes. With not a single word of dialogue, Ray establishes the protagonist’s confinement and boredom in a series of twenty-five shots so deftly put together that it almost seems like one seamless shot. 

  1. The Garden Sequence (Charulata, 1964) 

This lyrical sequence is, arguably, one of Ray’s most intimate. It is the first sequence in the film, which moves to the exterior from the confines of the mansion. Not surprisingly, it is when Charu experiences both the headiness, and is disconcerted, that arise from coming face to face with her feelings. Amal lies on a mat in the sunlit garden, Charu hums Tagore’s ‘Phoole phoole’, rocking back and forth on the swing. Subrata Mitra’s fluid camera holds her face in close-up for nearly a minute, as Madhabi Mukherjee brings to life myriad emotions - joy, eroticism and pensive reflection as she hums the line ‘ki jaani kishero laagi praan koray haaye haaye’ (who know what it is the heart pines for?).  

So seamlessly is the sequence cut that it almost escapes attention that there is more than one occasion. The first part (lasting approximately three minutes from 39m to 42m) ends with Charu promising to stitch a notebook for Amal to write in. Next (at 42 minutes 15 seconds), we see her tossing the notebook on the mat. A short burst of music bridges the two. 

The opera glasses feature again in this second part of the sequence. Unlike the opening sequence where the opera glasses provide Charu a view of the world outside, here Charu is sitting outside, looking in. We see Charu observing Amal through the opera glasses, correcting a spelling (Amal thanks her and she hums ‘Thank you, thank you’ in the same way she had hummed ‘Bankim Bankim’ in the opening sequence). She turns the glasses on the foliage in the garden before it comes to rest on a mother and child at a balcony. A change of expression comes over her face as she lowers the glasses. She now focuses her gaze towards Amal, busy writing. We witness a hint of a smile on her face that almost immediately changes to shock - seemingly surprised by the realization of her feelings for Amal. 

  1. Arindam’s Dreams/Nightmares (Nayak, 1966) 

Though most studies of the film analyze the dream where we see the star wading in a sea of currency notes, the second one is actually the more telling of the two. Taken together these dream sequences, among the most haunting created in cinema, reveal the insecurities of the man behind the mask of stardom, the frailties of his mind. 

In the first, Arindam has dozed off in his berth. The camera zooms in slowly to a big close-up of his face, which fades out to a shower of banknotes. Hypnotic music comes on the soundtrack. A smiling Arindam - probably the one time in the film he actually smiles - walks on the mounds of banknotes, his slow, balletic movements suggesting happiness. He throws a pile of notes up in the air, running from one mound to another. The light changes and he is suddenly enveloped in a pall of gloom. The mounds of money begin to resemble heaps of scrap. The wind howls. One can hear phones ring on the soundtrack. He looks around for the source and stumbles upon a skeletal hand holding a receiver. He runs but the hands are everywhere. We hear the dirge chant of ‘hari bol’ on the soundtrack. He starts sinking in a quicksand of notes and calls out to his mentor/guru Shankar-da, sitting on a mound - he then approaches him. But it’s a corpse of Shankar-da with skin flaking off that extends one hand. Arindam cannot reach him and is sucked into the quicksand. He wakes from the dream as Ray cuts to the star flailing his palms. 

The second one begins with a close-up of Arindam, a light meter next to his face, as someone shouts ‘Action’. He wanders on what seems to be the set of a film (Moner Manush, we see a cut-out), shouts of ‘inquilab zindabad’ (recalling his betrayal of a trade union friend) mixing with the sounds of an announcement of trains departing… his co-star (and mistress), Promila, calls him, her coquettish laughter echoing on the soundtrack. He follows her through the jungle and finds himself in a well-manicured garden with people in suits and shades, almost cardboard figures. A clock strikes eight gongs… one of the men in shades gets up and calls him a scoundrel. A brawl ensues, recalling the one reported in the newspapers at the beginning of the film, and Arindam wakes up, a series of rapid cuts later, shaken. 

  1. The Memory Game (Aranyer Din Ratri, 1969)

Probably the pièce de resistance of the film, this sequence lasting seven minutes offers a delectable shorthand to the six principal characters in the film - the four young men who have come to Palamu on vacation and the two women they befriend. The names they come up with, the reactions the others have to the names, the way the director cuts or pans from one participant to the next (Ray shot the sequence himself, seated on the ground), reflect the personalities of the characters. It’s a masterly deconstruction of their psychologies. Interestingly for a memory game, to begin with, Jaya (Kaberi Bose) gets Ashim’s name wrong, calling him Sanjoy (another friend, played by Subhendu, whom she tries to ‘seduce’ later). No wonder she is the first one to have to leave the game saying Prafulla for Atulya Ghosh! They settle down on the mat in a circle: Ashim, Hari (Samit Bhanja) to his left, then Shekhar (Rabi Ghosh, who puts on Rini’s sunglasses), Rini (Sharmila Tagore) to Shekhar’s left, Sanjoy to Rini’s left and Jaya between Sanjoy and Ashim. 

In a shot that encompasses all six - Rini explains the game. At around 17 seconds, we have a two-shot of Shekhar and Rini, pan left to Hari, before Ray pulls out to reveal the six again and the game begins. Jaya starts off with Rabindranath. Cut to Sanjoy (who says Karl Marx). Cut to Rini (she says Cleopatra). Cut to Shekhar (in a two-shot with Rini - he says Atulya Ghosh). Pan to Hari (who goes over all the names but forgets to add his own, till he is prodded by Shekhar). He says, ‘Helen’, prompting Shekhar to ask, ‘Helen of Troy or Bombay?’ The tension starts mounting as first Jaya and then Shekhar make a mistake in remembering the chronology. Hari gets up, stating his inability to continue. 

Ultimately, it comes down to Rini and Ashim - Rini goes through all the names and adds her own, ‘Kennedy’, prompting Ashim to ask, ‘Which Kennedy?’ In between, Sanjoy gets up to fetch a pillow for Jaya. Ashim, trying to remember twelve names that have gone before, snaps at Shekhar who has begun singing a song. Ultimately, realizing that for Ashim it has become more than just a game, Rini gives up, feigning forgetfulness, allowing Ashim to win.  

This is a classic for both the technical virtuosity with which Ray shot the sequence and the economy with which one sequence reveals the character traits of the film’s protagonists. 

  1. The Interview (Pratidwandi, 1970) 

As the 1960s came to a close, Ray was criticized for the alleged ‘apolitical’ stance of his films and the fact that his films did not mirror contemporary Calcutta with all its tumult. Leading the criticism was well-known film scholar and critic Chidananda Das Gupta, his friend and co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society. Ray’s riposte came in the form of Pratidwandi (1970), the first of his Calcutta trilogy, and arguably his angriest film. 

We are introduced to the film’s protagonist, twenty-five-year-old Siddhartha, in the first sequence (chillingly shot in the negative), attending to his father’s funeral. No longer able to afford medical school, Siddhartha must now start looking for a job in a city coming apart at the seams. The city, the adversary of the title, is out to grind him, but though he is offered a job in a mofussil town, he is reluctant to leave Calcutta, the city full of ‘life, rotten life, but life still. At the core of the film’s reputation lie two sequences of great power, which bring about a change in Siddhartha’s attitude to life. 

The first of these is the memorable interview sequence early in the film, around the ten-minute mark. Over the course of the interview you get the sense that Siddhartha is somewhat bored with the banality of the questions; ‘Who was the prime minister of India at the time of independence?’ he is asked. He cheekily responds, ‘Whose independence, sir?’ Or when asked, vis-à-vis botany, if he likes plants, his response is a sassy, ‘Not unconditionally… some I like, some I don’t.’ 

And then comes the question that sets up the film’s most famous moment: ‘What do you regard the most outstanding and significant event of the last decade?’ Siddhartha is silent for about ten seconds before answering: ‘The war in Vietnam…’ 

When prodded if he thinks it is more important than the moon landing, Siddhartha reasons that one always expected the moon landing to happen, but ‘no one knew the Vietnamese people had it in them… it’s not about technology but plain human courage…’, takes your breath away. 

His politically loaded answer leads the interviewer to ask: ‘Are you a communist?’ Siddhartha, however, is no political ideologue, he has no political agenda. In the words of Andrew Robinson, ‘He (Siddhartha) is Ray’s archetypal man of conscience… [but] too much the individual to submerge himself in politics, let alone revolution.’ And his answer is as eloquent: ‘I don’t think one has to be one in order to admire Vietnam.’ The interview is over and it does not take one much to imagine that Siddhartha will not get the job. 

  1. The Office Ransacking (Pratidwandi, 1970) 

The follow-up to this sequence comes almost at the ninety-minute mark by which time Siddhartha has been battered beyond endurance by the city. It begins with a crowd of young hopefuls in the corridor outside an office for another job interview. There aren’t enough places to sit and only one fan lazily rotating, offering little comfort. The candidates are anxious, fidgety and uncomfortable in the sweltering heat. As the interviews drag on and the day wears on, a candidate collapses. Siddhartha goads the others that they should make a demand for extra chairs. Rebuffed and insulted by the authorities, he comes out chastened till something snaps in him - in a cinematic masterstroke, Ray has the young people around Siddhartha appear like skeletons to him, with a voiceover of a class from medical school describing one. 

Giving in to months of pent-up anger and frustration, Siddhartha charges into the interview room, shoving the doorkeeper on the way. In what is the angriest moment in any Satyajit Ray film, he demands of the interviewers, ‘Are we animals… Your servants, are we? What right do you have to treat us like this? I want an answer.’ There’s an exchange of blows, following which he overturns the table, hurls a chair and stomps out. 

An exceptional actor, making his debut with Pratidwandi, Dhritiman Chaterji would go on to epitomize the youth of the era with his portrayal of Siddhartha - these two scenes in particular making him an instant star.

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