The Beauty of Blemishes

Hollywood has its own well-oiled, mechanised way of shooting a film. The Hollywood guidelines for writing a screenplay emphasise that every scene should either push the plot forward or help to establish character or setting. If a scene doesn’t do any of these things, then it ought to be cut out. But when I watch the cinema of Satyajit Ray, I realise that’s just one way of making movies. There are other paths too that screenplays can traverse, which can be infinitely more interesting and rewarding.

In the climax of Joi Baba Felunath, a child passes a notebook to his favourite author to get his autograph. The author uses an ink pen to sign and just as he finishes, a drop of ink splatters onto the page by mistake. He looks up at the child with a smile and asks if he wants another autograph because this one has a drop of ink. The child shakes his head and says it’s fine.

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Why? Why? Why is this little moment there in the film? Is it pushing the plot forward, as per the Hollywood constructs of a screenplay? No! But there’s something else that it’s doing. It’s showing us a glimpse of life itself. It’s simply a beautiful moment captured on screen, devoid of any intentions or end goals. It’s quite possible that this drop of ink wasn’t written into the screenplay and was a genuine mistake during the shoot. But, the true hallmark of a master is in using such blemishes to create magic.

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Last year, I got to watch the restored version of Apu Trilogy on the big screen. At that time, I had tucked away in my mind a couple of shots from Pather Panchali, not knowing what they signified. They were closeups of a scribbling on the wall outside Apu’s window. It’s shown at two decisive moments in the film. It appears for the first time when Apu and Durga secretly taste a sweet together (see above). The second time it’s shown towards the climax, when Apu rushes out of the house to throw away the necklace stolen by Durga (see below).

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Thanks to a Bengali friend, I finally understood the meaning of this scribbling. “Shri Apurbo Baku”, which roughly translates to “Mr Apu”. Like all kids, who like to imagine themselves as grown-ups, either Durga or Apu must have scribbled this outside his window, to suggest that this is his room. “Shri” is an epithet for a grown-up and Apurbo is Apu’s full name. But what is “Baku”?

Here’s the masterstroke. In Bengali, respected people are addressed as “Babu”. In their eagerness to write, the children ended up scribbling “Baku” instead of “Babu”, because they’re just learning to spell. A flaw, yes, but what a beautiful flaw!

But why is the closeup of the scribbling shown when Apu rushes out to throw away the necklace? That’s the climactic moment of the film. The entire film is about how Apu grows up to realise the harsh realities of life and this is the moment in which he truly gains respect when he tries to hide the crime committed by his sister. He becomes “Mr Apu” indeed. And what better way to suggest that Apu has grown up than to show a single, short, silent close-up of his own scribbling?

Side note: Going with the theme of growing up, there’s an earlier shot in front of a mirror when Apu’s attempts to fix a paper moustache on his face keep failing.

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Imagine any other director shooting the same scene. He or she’ll probably show Apu throwing the necklace into the lake and then use a slow zoom-in to the scribbling to emphasise it. Ray does nothing of the sort. The close-up is shown for a fraction of a second, when Apu jumps out the window. If you’re not alert, then you might completely miss it. I’m reminded of Robert Bresson’s quote from Notes on the Cinematograph.

“Hide the ideas but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.”

The drop of ink and the spelling mistake in the scribbling on the wall have made Ray’s films closer to my heart. Blemishes are indeed beautiful.

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