By Pankaj Sachdeva

In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, there is a supporting character that marks its presence throughout the film. This particular character accentuates the theme of class differences in the Oscar-winning drama. In fact, Bong and his crew constantly referred to Parasite by this character while they were making it. As one can easily guess, this character is the staircase. Parasite uses staircases to depict the inequalities between the rich and the poor. Hindi films have also used staircases in a similar effect. Old films would have huge mansions, often with double spiraling staircases, to depict the lives of the rich. The lairs of the villains would also have stunning staircases. The other common depiction of staircases was as a cause of death, especially, for pregnant women. An evil character would make them slip often leading to miscarriage. While watching Parasite, I kept thinking of some of the memorable scenes related to staircases in more recent films.

As a villain

The first film that comes to mind while thinking about stairs, especially for those who have grown up in the nineties, is Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!. The saccharine drama about a large extended family of sweet-natured people has no villains except a staircase that brings a major upheaval in the film. The elder sister Pooja falls down the stairs in her parents’ house and dies leaving behind a few-weeks-old child. Her death makes the family members ask the younger sister Nisha to marry her sister’s husband. Due to a misunderstanding, Nisha agrees for the match sacrificing her love. It is left to Tuffy, their Indian Spitz pet dog, to sort out all the confusion.

As a state of indecision 

In Tamasha, the stairs play another starring role in one of my favourite scenes from the film. Tara often comes to read at Social café, secretly hoping for Don, the man whom she met in Corsica, to show up there. One fine day, Don turns up, and Tara cannot believe it for a minute. Her four-year wait has finally ended but she cannot share this moment with anyone. She immediately goes downstairs, trying to pretend as if nothing has happened. She pauses downstairs, then, comes back up, and again, rushes downstairs. She lets out an even bigger smile now and that smile has a feeling of contentment as if some long desire is finally fulfilled. She rushes up back again and composes herself to show that everything is normal. The musical beats of Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai play in the background accentuating Tara’s emotions splendidly. Deepika Padukone is terrific in this scene. Interestingly, there is another similar scene early in the film. When Tara is leaving Corsica, she surreptitiously goes downstairs without saying goodbye to Ved, but again comes back up. She goes to Ved’s room, and they sleep together, and then, she comes back downstairs again. The song Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai starts playing. Something similar happens again in the final scenes of the film at the tea conference in Japan. When Tara sees the ring on a teacup, she rushes to the elevator, but it closes, and then she takes the stairs. She goes out and sees no one, and comes back up. This time, she meets Ved, and they finally spoke like they did in Corsica. In a deleted scene that follows this, Tara and Ved come back down. Immediately, before this scene, the beats of Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai had played, when the storyteller baba told the young Ved the story about Ranjha going to meet Heer. In all the three cases of rushing up and down, Tara finds Ved in some way or the other and meets him. Tamasha is full of scenes of Tara near the stairs that can be seen throughout. Even in Matargashti, Ved and Tara are found near the stairs. I had written about this earlier here as well.

In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Anjali, dressed in all her bridal finery, stops at the stairs of her house, unable to take the last few steps to reach the mandap where her groom Aman is waiting for her. She cannot look at anyone else except the love of her life Rahul, crying over what could have been. It is only left to Aman to drag her down the stairs and do what Rahul and Anjali have not been able to do for themselves all this while.

As an image of sisterhood

In Lipstick Under My Burkha, there is a lovely moment at the mall when Bua Ji, the owner of a hundred-year-old dilapidated building takes her first trip to a newly constructed mall to buy a swimming costume. She feels a bit intimidated by the moving stairs there standing by herself until a little girl from a group of girls offers her hand to Bua Ji. All of them go up the escalator with hand in hand giving a perfect scrapbook image of sisterhood.

As a means of a journey to heaven and hell

In No Smoking, K visits the Prayogshala located in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai. When K reaches the spot, the man at the counter directs him to an underground bunker through which K has to pass to reach the Prayogshala. He descends into the manhole, and thereafter, he has to take more stairs to go further down. There is nothing at the same level and he has to keep going down. This descent of the stairs is nothing but the representation of K going to hell.
In Ship of Theseus, a young stockbroker, Navin, receives a kidney transplant. He learns of a case of organ theft involving a poor bricklayer, Shankar, and fears that his new kidney was the one stolen from Shankar. Navin wants to find Sankar to help him get back his kidney. In a particular sequence, Navin goes to the locality where Sankar stays and walks up a path of endless stairs as if he is going towards heaven to find ‘Sankar’. Stairs that take K to hell also take Navin to heaven.

As a romantic spot

In Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Rianna takes Rahul back to her school when they are in Mumbai. She shows him the stairs which were the secret kissing spot where all the couples used to come. Rahul takes it as a signal that Rianna likes him and leans forward to kiss her. Rianna backs off making him realize that she had no such intention. Rahul is embarrassed to the core and walks away leading to a crisis in their friendship. Towards the end, Rahul realizes his mistake and meets Rianna. They sort it out while sitting at the stairs again. He does not get a kiss this time but he gets a hug from her.

In Tere Ghar Ke Samne, Rakesh and Sulekha climb up the narrow stairs of Qutub Minar to reach its top floor. During their ascent, Sulekha says that she can hear the sound of the bumblebees. Rakesh replies that he can only hear the sound of his heart. He keeps flirting with her asking if her heart is making the sound of love. They spend a few moments at the top admiring the view. While descending, Rakesh serenades her by singing the lilting Dil Ka Bhanwar. The narrow stairs with its turns provide them the opportunity to be physically close. By the end of the song, Sulekha falls in love with Rakesh. It is a beautifully choreographed song that remains memorable even now.
In Sairat, the first time Aarchi and Parshya see each other in the film is during the Yad Lagla song sequence that is shot at a stepwell. Parshya jumps into the well without realizing that Aarchi and her friends are there as well. Aarchi asks him to leave. He walks upon the narrow stairs where Aarchi is standing coming physically to her and the song plays in the background that means, “I have gone insane.”

As a depiction of the struggle to reach the top

In Queen, Rani goes to Paris alone on her honeymoon after she is jilted at the altar by her fiancé. When she reaches the hotel, she struggles to carry the luggage on the stairs while the song with the lyrics, “Kaandhe yeh bhari se din ko, dho nahi pate“, plays in the background reflecting the internal baggage that she is carrying with her, reminiscent of the scene from Dil Chahta Hai where Tara, too, struggles to carry her stuff inside. Both women bring with them a lot of emotional baggage. In contrast, there was Mehak in Phobia who is finally able to overcome the demons of her past and leave her apartment to walk down the stairs in the film’s climax.

As a test of love

In Chennai Express, Meenamma and Rahul run away to a village where they pretend to be a newly-married couple. One of the traditions in the village is that the husband has to carry his wife over three hundred steps of a temple as it was believed that this test makes the marriage strong. Although they are not married, Rahul carries Meenamma all the way up making everyone bless them for their future. It is at the precise moment when Rahul has Meenamma in his arms over the stairs she realizes that she has fallen in love with him. He is physically carrying her in his arms and she is emotionally carrying him in his heart.

As a site of meeting ghosts

In Paheli, there is a beautiful scene shot at the stunning stepwell at Chand Baori where Lachchi sees a bluebird following her when she goes down the stairs for ablutions. She is stunned by the chirping of the bird. Moments later, the bird disappears and footprints of an apparition coming out of the well can be seen. Lachchi is visibly perplexed by the same and runs away. The architectural marvel of the site just adds to the beauty of the scene.

As a signature motif
A staircase is another signature motif in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The houses in his films usually have sprawling staircases. In his films, there is also a scene usually where someone runs down the stairs. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Nandini walks down the stairs leaving Sameer mesmerized by her beauty. In Devdas, Paro runs down the sprawling stairs in her house when she learns Dev is breathing his last at her doorstep. Bhansali’s other films, such as BlackSaawariyaGuzaarish, and Bajirao Mastani have similar scenes. In his last film Padmaavat, Rani Padmavati walks into the fire with all the other women of the kingdom while descending the stairs among the chants of Jai Bhavani.

As a power center

The staircase, like in the older films, often shows the differences in the power of the people. In Udaan, Rohan and his father have a confrontation at the stairs outside their apartment where his father burns and throws away the diary of Rohan’s poems as if trying to burn his dreams. The scene is shot in a way that depicts the more powerful man at the top in the relationship. I am also reminded of the scene in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna when Rhea and Dev fight after she informs him that she refused a job offer to move to London. In this marriage, Rhea is the more successful one, hence, she seems to be standing at the top. In another beautiful staircase scene from the same film, Dev stands over the staircase sandwiched between Rhea (his wife) and Maya (his girlfriend), where his wife asks his girlfriend to return him to her.
There are many more scenes from films which I am obviously missing out here. It is never-ending. But I want to also add one of my favourite childhood memories from the world of television which also involves a staircase. In the hilarious Dekh Bhai Dekh, Sameer, played by the amazing Shekar Suman, always slips over the stairs of his house while coming down from his room. He thinks something is wrong with them and waits for his wife Sunita, the awesome Bhavna Balsavar, to trip when she walks down. But nothing happens to her and she walks down without even noticing the stairs. So, he tries one more time to walk down and slips yet again. It is such a funny scene and I still laugh thinking about it. It can be watched here. I miss such shows.

[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]