<A hastily written tribute the great man on his death anniversary>
He had a vast oeuvre, but Satyajit Ray is often remembered, quite justly, for that iconic scene in Pather Panchali where Apu and Durga see a train for the first time in their lives. The majestic steam train billowing black smoke in the backdrop of of the white kaash fields juxtaposed with the innocence of the kids makes it a memorable scene.
Thinking of this scene last night, it occurred to me that Ray had an eye for shooting in and around the railway tracks: from Apu looking out of the window as the train leaves Kashi in Aparajito, or a grown up Apu living next to a railway yard in Apur Sansar, the famous Feluda and company chasing a train on a camel in Sonar Kella, to Nayak, made completely within the cramped confines of a train over the course of half-a-day’s journey. Whatever was his motivation for shooting such amazing sequences, those of us who love anything to do with trains are richer for it.
There are others, but here are my three favorite scenes from Ray movies involving trains.
First, the Pather Panchali sequence as already mentioned:
This following scene from Abhijaan is rather under-rated. As such, Abhijaan wasn’t among Ray’s best works (Ray wasn’t even supposed to direct originally and took over at the last minute) – Soumitra as a hard-boiled, cynical Jat did not really cut it. But Rabi Ghosh, playing Soumitra’s side-kick really stole the show, especially here as Soumitra is trying to overtake a train on his car. Keep an eye for the tensed expression on his face:
And of course, the other iconic scene – camels chasing a train in the deserts of Rajasthan:
(unfortunately, this is not the complete scene but could not find the full sequence on youtube)
I have not come across any article talking about this particular aspect of Ray’s film-making, and not aware if he had any particular fascination for trains. But it is obvious from Ray’s own writings and others that the scenes from both Pather Panchali and Sonar Kella were shot meticulously (but then, meticulous attention to detail was his hallmark anyway). It is also amazing how some of these incredible scenes were shot on minimum budget, personnel and equipment. The story of how he was financially-strapped during Pather Panchali and how the movie still got made against all odds is that of legends. But even the relatively complicated scene involving camels and trains in Sonar Kella was shot with a single camera mounted on a jeep and finished in three takes! As Ray describes in Ekei Bole Shooting (This is What Shooting is About), three takes were required only because in the first one, the engine driver stopped the train when he saw Feluda’s signal! In the second instance, the engine driver’s assistant was busy watching the shoot and forgot to feed coal resulting in no smoke coming from the steam engine, which would have totally ruined the effect!