3. Staircase 


The staircase is another specific site in the sonic environment of the home that is connected to multiple layers of everyday social negotiations, personal transformation, and social dynamics. In many memorable film sequences, the staircase appears as a site for dramatic transitions. In Ray’s Aparajito (The Unvanquished 1956) there is a crucial sequence in which a mother decides about the future course of her life and the life of her only surviving son, the protagonist young Apu, as she descends the stairs. She listens intently to the sounds of her footsteps as they blend with the indoor and outdoor ambiences (the staircase serves as a bridge between these two realms). The sounds from outside permeate her host family’s orthodox Brahmin household, where she works as a cook, and she hears the stagnation within and the liberating movement of outside as an epiphany. In an abrupt cut, Ray jumps to a train journey of the mother and her son heading out into the wide world. The sounds from outside replace the ambience inside the house. 


In the final sequence of Seemabaddha (Company Limited 1971), another of Ray’s late works, the sounds of children playing in a small outdoor playground slowly disappear as the protagonist Shyamal ascends the stairs. The sounds of his footsteps increase until they dominate the auditory setting. When he finally arrives at the door of his tenth-floor flat, the audience hears only his filtered breathing reflected within the transitional setting of the stairwell, indicating that he has returned home to find refuge.


Similarly, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated masterpiece L'assedio (Besieged 1998) captures the indoor setting of a crumbling household in Rome with its two inhabitants, a young African migrant woman, Shandurai, who is studying medicine while working as a housemaid, and a British composer and pianist living abroad, Jason Kinsky. The nonverbal connection between these two individuals inexorably blossoms into deep affection inside the cozy yet empty confines of the composer’s apartment, where Shandurai lives in a small room just under the staircase. In one sequence, which occurs both in the staircase and the adjacent living room, their subtle nonverbal communication takes on an ethereal quality. Jason is working on a new composition, and the sound of his piano playing floats within a room full of ambient sounds from a very lively neighborhood. He is distracted and not in the mood to work. Shandurai is cleaning the room with a noisy vacuum cleaner. As they share glances full of affection, Jason begins to respond to the sound of the vacuum cleaner on the piano, and his composition takes an adventurous turn. The work is also influenced by the African songs he overhears on the radio in Shandurai’s room under the stairs. Shandurai stops cleaning and responds to the composition with discreet body movements indicating that she likes the tune. Theirs is a collaboration of nonverbal dialogue across space, emerging through intimate listening to affective presence, desire, and racial boundaries within the loaded sociopolitical context of a demanding outside world, where migrants gather to find work and to survive in Europe as they seek to escape war, famine, military coups, and poverty. The auditory setting of the staircase intimately blends with their respective socio-spatial positions within a narrative of resilience, camaraderie, and shared affective resonances.