The Use of Trains in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy

The filmmaker used the railways for cinematic journeys both outwards and inwards
The Use of Trains in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy

Like most aspects of his filmmaking, Satyajit Ray shot trains and the sprawling Indian railways with remarkable dexterity to propel his stories forward and provide visual and aural cues in moments of profound emotional significance.

In the Apu trilogy, we see and hear trains, but we also look out from trains at the changing landscapes through the eyes of the characters. As the trilogy proceeds and the young Apu moves from village to town to city, the train and railway tracks run along the narrative, intervening in beautiful and poignant ways.

When people speak about the “famous train scene” in the trilogy, they usually refer to the dream-like sequence in Pather Panchali when Apu and his older sister Durga see a train for the first time. But before Apu sees the train, he hears it earlier in the film when the sound of the steam engine penetrates a quiet family moment after night has fallen on the nondescript village of Nischindipur, and he asks Durga where it might be heading. His curiosity is spectacularly rewarded!

As Apu and Durga run amid the tall, white kaash flowers outside their village, the train and its black smoke cut past the excited siblings like a massive, mysterious, metallic beast, making an awe-inspiring diversion through their pre-industrial lives.

The child Apu glimpses the future, and Ray, the cinematic poet, captures that magical excitement as only he can.

Later, when Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya, tells her husband, who is struggling to earn a living, that they should consider going to Kashi (Banaras) for a more assured source of income, we hear the faint but unmistakable rumble of a train. Harihar dismisses his wife’s idea, but soon enough, a tragedy—and perhaps, a train—will take them to Kashi.

The train which connects Pather Panchali to Aparajito in the opening shot is no longer an object of awe and mystery. But trains often evoke intense sensations of memory and nostalgia in the latter.  After Harihar’s death, there are moments involving trains where little is said, yet Ray manages to convey so much. When Apu and Sarbajaya again undertake an uncertain journey, this time from Kashi to the Bengali village of Mansapota, where Apu will grow up and go to school, she looks out of the train’s window, and slowly the semiurban ugliness and crowds give way to a picturesque vista. We know from her slight smile and Ravi Shankar’s lovely score that she is reminded of Nischindipur, Harihar’s ancestral village where Apu was born and which we became so familiar with in Pather Panchali.

When they reach their new home in Mansapota, there is another act of remembering, but this time Apu—who races to the door to see a passing train and excitedly points to it, shouting “Mother, train”—almost immediately turns serious. Nothing further is said, but Ray creates the cinematic space and mood for us to imagine Apu’s sudden recollection of the loss of his beloved sister, Durga, in another village not very different from this one.

After Apu gets a scholarship and goes to Calcutta, much against an ailing Sarbajaya’s wishes, the sights and sounds of trains become a cruel metaphor for her pining for him. The complex dynamics of the mother-son relationship as she wastes away waiting for Apu is the most heart-rending portion of Aparajito.

At the same time, Ray is already taking us away from a poetic view of what a train represents. In the train that Apu takes to and from Calcutta, bodies are pressed against each other in the sweaty heat, snake oil salesmen peddle their latest dubious wares, and harried commuters appear impatient to reach the end of the journey. There is pushing and shoving at the railway station in the big city and tracks snake out in different directions like a maze.

In Apur Sansar, the final part of the trilogy, any lingering romance with the railways meets the unpleasant urban reality of Calcutta. Apu’s shabby rented room overlooks the railway tracks. The train—and perhaps modern civilization itself—is now a screeching, unwelcoming and constant presence, too close for comfort and from which there is no escape.

As Apu, now a young man, walks home, pigs cross the tracks and an open gutter flows on the side. India is still a few years away from independence—we hear cries of “Inquilab Zindabad” in the opening shots of Apur Sansar—and the massive problems accompanying urbanisation as the Apus of the world shift to big cities in search of work are already a warning sign for the future republic.

But it’s always the personal Ray is more interested in. There’s a scene in Apur Sansar in which Apu’s wife Aparna, having heated the charcoal and taken the coal basket outside their room, shuts her ears with both her palms to ward off the sudden, harsh sound of the train below. A marvellous shot follows, revealing Ray’s mastery in conveying the psychology of the moment. Apu is insecure about the fact that he has brought home a girl from a well-off family to live in near-poverty with him in Calcutta. When he walks up to the charcoal basket, its smoke fills up the frame, clouding him, even as the train engine’s own smoke of a darker hue can be seen in the background.

But Ray, a lifelong Calcutta resident himself, was also acutely aware of a city’s freedoms. Away from the prying eyes of commuters, it is while walking on railway tracks, ironically the most public of spaces, that Apu finds the time and privacy to read Aparna’s letter. Given the centrality of trains in the three films, it is perhaps tragically fitting that the last time Apu sees Aparna is when she is leaving for her parents’ home on a train. She never returns.  

After her death, Apu reaches a very dark place mentally, which Ray depicts using close-ups and a mirror in what may have been a tribute to German Expressionism. In this disturbed state of mind, the train’s sound becomes a death siren and the railway track a site for suicide. Apu pulls back from the brink at the last moment—the trilogy too eventually reaches a more hopeful culmination—but the train journey and its symbolism have nearly completed a grand narrative arc of their own.

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