In this post, Ayantika Nath explores the construction and examination of childhood in the films of the celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray, as well as the mediation of the child's subjectivity through quietness.
One of the reasons for Satyajit Ray’s wide popularity is his insight into the child’s mind and the portrayal of childhood in his films. Ray was the editor of the famous children’s Bengali magazine Sandesh, and he contributed two seminal figures of Bengali children’s literature - Professor Shanku and Feluda. In this essay, I want to take a close look at the depictions of the ‘quiet child’ in Ray’s oeuvre and understand how his depictions use this trope, how he uses literature and art to recognize the interiority of the child. Social class, the location of the child in the urban or rural milieu, and gender also impact the construction of childhood in Ray’s films.
In most Western psychological discourses, the ‘quiet child’ causes worry and trouble for the parents. Marti Laney’s book The Introvert Advantage explains how being ‘introverted’ is determined by one’s autonomic nervous systems. Quiet children are deep thinkers who derive their comfort from alone time. This goes against the notion of the enthusiastic, jovial child we are used to seeing. However, most children’s literature is often about an escape into a fantasy world where the good always triumphs over the evil. Fairytales are often useful in solving existential conflicts like sibling rivalries and separation anxiety in children (Bettelheim, 1976). Thus a child, as a consumer of stories, as a wallflower, is imbibed with a deeper and more genuine understanding of the world. Hence the quiet child, as an observer, is almost always more aware of reality than the adults, and Ray is a master at capturing this quality. In Bengali culture, we have a phrase for this child lost in their own world, “nijer mon e thake”, which could be translated to “they live engrossed in the whims of their heart”, and is an endearing compliment for the ‘quiet child’.
This depiction of the ‘quiet child’ is perhaps best shown in three of his films, Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), Pikoo’s Diary, Agantuk (The Stranger) and the 12-minute film fable Two. In Joy Baba Felunath we find a young boy of 5 or 6, first encountered listening to the mythological stories by their family’s Durga Idol maker. The inquisitive boy asks questions, deeply immersed in the world of good versus evil. Children in Ray are mostly listeners of stories, like Satyaki in Agantuk, whose long lost grandfather tells him stories of tribes who are Armadillo meat-eaters, about cave paintings of a wild bison, and of the mysterious land of Machu Picchu. He is the beholder of a truer understanding as, in Antoine de-Saint Exupery’s words, the child sees rightly with his heart, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” He is the first to recognize his grandfather as the ‘real’ one, not an imposter, while his father keeps planning experiments to verify his identity.
Fig. 1: Still from Agantuk/The Stranger (1991)
Pikoo, again a young boy living in a mansion, observes a day while his father has left for work and his mother and ailing grandfather are at home. Pikoo does not understand the implications of his mother asking him to into the garden, observe and draw flowers in his notebook, while Hitesh, a family friend, and his mother lock themselves up in the master bedroom. The temerity of Pikoo drawing the flowers breaks something in his mother Seema as she is unable to control her tears, overcome with an overwhelming sense of guilt. Hence the quiet child’s passive observance becomes a vehicle of exercising moral control, and his unquestioning belief becomes the reason for the mother’s regret.
In Joy Baba Felunath, Feluda, on his visit, sees Ruku standing on the precipice of their terrace. He is reprimanded by his father for doing so, and his only defense is his hero, “Captain Spark”, a daredevil figure from children’s comics who fights his enemies while cartwheeling on the terrace. Later Feluda enters his room, where he is found firing his ‘cap-bandook’ (a toy gun) and chewing bubblegum. Perhaps the quality that stands out is Feluda does not treat him as an adult would treat a child, which is how Ray also treated his child actors. “Most of us talking to children assume a different sort of posture, as if they are inferior or unequal, but Manikda treats them as equals, as people in their own right, not as half-grown human beings,'' said Soumitra Chatterjee. (Robinson, 1989). Feluda knocks on his door and asks for permission to enter and talks to the child in his own register of riddles. The quiet child gives Feluda all the information needed to decipher the location of the Elephant God statue he has been hired to search for when he says it with the ‘King of Africa’ and will soon go down into the ‘Atlantis.’ Later, it is found the statue was indeed stuck to the lion’s mouth in the Durga statue with a chewing-gum, and, if not rescued, would go with the idol into the river after its immersion. The interiority of space is also at play here, with the child fashioning a room of his own, to borrow Woolf’s phrase, and decorating it with his art, strewing his books all over the space. The small attic room becomes a space of self-discovery and the construction of the interiority of childhood.
Fig. 2: The attic room in Joy Baba Felunath/The Elephant God (1979)
A remarkably different kind of ‘quietness’ is portrayed in The Two, where not a single word is spoken by the two child protagonists, but a lot is said in terms of social commentary. It shows the story of a rich, spoilt boy in his mansion and a poor child on the streets in a hut, connected by the will to play. The rich boy displays his fancy toys- an automated monkey that plays the drum, a loud trumpet, a fancy sword, a toy gun, whereas the poor child only has a flute, a tribal mask, a puny bow and an arrow, and a kite. There are no adults in this space, and the children can shed the role of outside observers to actively participate. The rich child tries to outdo by parading his new toys, but even after every toy of his is displayed together, the sound of the flute of the poor boy in tattered clothes piercing his mansion is a taunting reminder of how one’s happiness runs deeper than material possessions and cannot be snatched away.
Fig. 3: Stills from Two (1964)
This compels us to also ask the question: this quietness, this manifestation of the interiority of childhood through books and art – is it an imposition or a choice? While the nuclear family was booming in most upper middle-class households, and the “bhadralok” (a colloquial term for well educated, prosperous Bengalis of the upper classes) wives were finding liberation through hobbies, relieved of housework because Dalit-Bahujan women bore the brunt of it, the children were largely alienated in their gated homes. The urban areas did not have open community parks, certainly not those that could be accessed by children easily. Socialization of children was perhaps limited to school and family gatherings. Perhaps they turned to reading and drawing because that was the only activity available for a single child in the urban milieu.
The disquieting aspect of quietness is seen in the opening shot of Ray’s 1974 Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). It focuses on a young boy of about four, Mukul, colouring a peacock quietly at his table with his night light on.
Fig. 4: Sonar Kella/The Golden Fortress (1974)
The scene is eerily disturbing because children in most films are seen as jovial, smiling, carefree, and friendly beings. The audience is drawn deeper into the uncanny nature of Mukul’s behaviour when his mother wakes his father up and, sobbing, says, “What is this malady that has affected our child? No sleep in his eyes, no smile on his lips.” The concerned family peeks at the child, who is still deeply focused on his painting. His parents try to pacify him to go back to sleep, and he shakes his mother’s loving hand off of him to continue drawing. The ‘quiet child’ here is not one who is simply engrossed in his own world and drawing a deep sense of joy from it, but his uncaringness is almost hostile. In the father’s words, Mukul’s heart is always elsewhere. He does not concentrate on studies and remains engrossed in drawing as the world passes him by. It is assumed that Mukul often remembers memories from his previous life where he was a gemstone cutter’s son in Rajasthan. The newspapers come in search of this miraculous boy, and while photographing him, they request him to smile. Mukul replies, “Why? I don’t feel like smiling.” Mukul deviates from the stereotypical depiction of the quiet child because his quietness is disquieting. It does not help him to develop a constructive interior space that builds creativity and sensitivity, as is expected. However, Mukul’s family has the social and economic power to consult a parapsychologist who could delve deeper into the crevices of his mind. Mukul’s disquieting silence is eventually overcome as he smiles and points at the golden fortress. Hence, this quietness is tamed and reversed. This is captured best at the end, where Mukul sketches Feluda and Topshe, demonstrating his ability to socially connect with people and the present reality.
Fig. 5: Mukul’s sketch from Sonar Kella
It must be noted that the characters described so far were located in the urban milieu. Interestingly for Apu from Pather Panchali, a boy from rural India, no form of art or story books are available for consumption. However, Apu is perhaps the most quiet and observant young boy Ray has ever captured on screen. Apu develops his interiority and cultivates his quietness by observing the ecology of the village: its tall grass, mud roads, and rain-soaked foliage. Hence, the ‘quietness’ of the child should not be measured by modes accessible through literacy or material possessions.
Fig. 6: Apu and Durga from Pather Panchali/The Song of the Road (1955)
The gendered aspect of ‘quietness’ should also be considered. The construction of childhood in Bengal since the 18th century was gendered and carried an upper-caste male bias which endorsed a privileged space for boys. When the girl did find a mention, it was in the form of either a ‘chaste wife’ or the ‘frightening divine’ (Mukhopadhay, 2019). Girls, especially South Asian girl children, are often lauded when they show quietness, endurance, calmness, and obedience. They are praised for being “mature” and “caring.” This is a reflection of gender roles being imbibed in girls from the youngest age who are being conditioned to put their needs last and comply with the demands of the patriarchal society to become selfless caregivers. Their unruliness is disquieting. The four prominent girl characters in Ray’s films are Durga from Pather Panchali, Ratan from Postmaster, Doyamoyee in Devi, and Mrinmoyee from Samapti. Doyamoyee is worshipped by her father-in-law, who believes that she is the goddess incarnate, ‘frighteningly divine’, and one forgets that she was also just a child bride. She had no agency of her own and suffered deification at the hands of the patriarch Kalikainker.
Fig. 7: Doyamoyee, the child bride in Devi/The Goddess (1960)
Durga and Mrinmoyee are scolded by everyone in their village neighbourhoods for being “boy-like”, stealing fruits from trees, climbing them, and running around with their untamed, unoiled hair. There is a desperate attempt to tame these girls, and Mrinmoyee’s transition from a carefree, indomitable young girl to a contained, loving wife is something to be celebrated, something that interestingly also marks the “end” of her childhood. Quietness in the girl child is rarely marked by an act of reading, neither by the consumption of any mode of entertainment. The girl child transforms quietly into a woman as she plunges herself into the dutiful tasks of a wife- cooking, cleaning and embroidery. Ratan too shows maturity when she refuses to take any money from the postmaster, so does Durga when she sits down to offer prayers to the Ganges.
Thankfully, it was refreshing for me to find better representation of Indian girlhood in books and films in the 2000s, but I, being a quiet child myself, was always disheartened by the limited/almost non-existent representation of girl children in Ray. My reception of the films changed over time too. As a child viewer, I loved the Feluda mysteries and did not find the children remarkable, although I greatly admired the prowess of Feluda’s wit. Pikoo was my least favourite because like him, I did not understand the subtle implications of the story. Durga and Apu were more like historical figures rather than flesh and blood characters. I did not relate to their game and fights, being a single child brought up in the city. Revisiting them as an adult was a bittersweet experience. The unconditional admiration and enchantment surrounding the stories I had are gone, but viewing them with my parents, already knowing what to anticipate and still going on, I was reminded of Arundhati Roy’s quote from The God of Small Things “. ..the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. …. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.” Ray’s films are the cultural touchstone, a rite of passage for Bengali children. As an adult trained in critically engaging with stories, the ‘quiet child’ in Ray’s works bared its multifaceted character to me.
Alison Waller explains how by rereading/re-watching older texts, we engage in the auto topographical approach, which helps to tease out further connections between the remembering reader, past reading self, and the social and spatial context in which childhood books are encountered through the life space. Hence perhaps more importantly, on a sentimental note, Ray let me quietly reread and remember my childhood through his films, and partly shaped my identity as a quiet South Asian child reader.
1955 Pather Panchali / A Song of the Little Road
1961 Teen Kanya / Three Daughters
Monihara / The Lost Jewels
Samapti / Conclusion
1974 Sonar Kella / The Golden Fortress
1979 Joy Baba Felunath / The Elephant God.
1992 Agantuk / The Stranger
Bettelheim, Bruno. (1976). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Thames & Hudson.
de Saint-Exupery, Antoine. (2018). The Little Prince. Translated by Irene Testot-Ferry. Wordsworth Editions.
Laney, Marti. (2002). The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World. Workman Publishing Company.
Mukhopadhyay, Anindita. (2019). Children's Games Adults Gambit: From Vidyasagar to Satyajit Ray. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Robinson, Andrew. (2004). Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. I.B. Tauris.
Roy, Arundhati. (1997). The God of Small Things. Fourth Estate.
Waller, Alison. (2019). Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Woolf, Virginia. (1929) A Room of One’s Own. Hogarth Press.
Ayantika Nath is pursuing M.A. in English at Jadavpur University. Her research interests include cultural memory studies, marginalised histories, feminist theory, death and war in childhood studies, the child reader and the postcolonial bildungsroman focusing on South Asia. She looks forward to a career in childhood studies as a researcher and educator. She hopes to combine her academic interests with her creative pursuits like making mixed media art, paintings, and comic narratives.