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OP-ED: Satyajit Ray’s prophetic Calcutta trilogy

  • Published at 02:43 am May 24th, 2021
Satyajit Ray in Paris in April 1967 | Facebook

Decades after his films were released, his films remain ever so relevant  works of art

If someone wants to look for a set of movies which underline the erosion of values in society to make way for hardcore, often unsavoury reality, then they should just pick up what is dubbed the Calcutta Trilogy by Satyajit Ray. 

On his 100th birthday on May 2, there were accolades pouring in from all sides and, though my personal favourite is Nayak, the 1966 movie about the inner torments of a film star and the travails of fame, three movies -- Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976) -- will possibly retain their relevance even in 2021. 

It’s not an exaggeration to assert that these three movies are even more significant against the backdrop of a social fabric ravaged by the coronavirus. 

The films focus mainly on the compromise of ideals. None of them actually ends with a “happily ever after.” On the contrary, in the end, we are just reminded of the famous saying by French philosopher Voltaire: “Let us work without reasoning; it is the only way we can make our lives endurable.”  

In the last decade or so, our society has undergone phenomenal transformations; on the one hand, there has been a rise of a wealthy middle class while, on the other, a very mercenary outlook has insidiously crept into our psyche. 

The zeitgeist of the moment is actually dictated by an acquisitive culture -- or, to say it in Bengali, the “dhor maar kha” ideology. 

This is not to say values have evaporated altogether but, within the inner layers of society, a sub-culture of avarice has metastasized like cancer. 

Ray’s three movies underline unemployment, the desperation to find a job, the discarding of social restrictions without scruples, plus the overpowering need to have social security.

That elusive job

In both Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya, the malaise of unemployment is used as a leitmotif. All throughout the films, there is the desperate desire to get work. 

Even when the protagonist’s main struggle to find employment is not shown, the movies focus on society at large along with the unmistakable signs of an economic morass. 

In Pratidwandi, the main character is driven by socialist ideas and, therefore, feels passionately that the fight of the Vietnamese people against the much more powerful Americans is one of the major events of the 60s while the interview board members think that the main event of that decade is the landing on the moon. 

Obviously, the protagonist does not get the job, alluding to the fact that unconventional thoughts are often not appreciated. You must conform to what the majority believes. 

So many years later, we often see that someone holding a unique understanding of socio-political history is often deemed a pariah. In Pratidwandi, Ray shows the conflict between a very orthodox approach to life versus one that challenges accepted beliefs. 

In the end, the main character is seen moving out of town to a remote place for work. 

Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewer to decide. 

Shrewdness is an essential art

In the film Simabaddha, the focus is on the usage of clever plans to maintain one’s social status and employment. This movie revolves around a debonair and charming corporate baron who is idolized by his sister-in-law as he has made it in life with a high-paying job, a beautiful wife, and a privileged social life. 

While much of the film is about the swanky lifestyle of the educated rich, the plot inexorably wades into macabre territory where ethics are twisted, and truth craftily manipulated. The protagonist becomes the engineer of an ingenious but devious plot to save the company’s reputation when a shipment of ceiling fans is found to have defects. To buy time to fix the problem, a plan is hatched for a fabricated civil disobedience which will also include some injuries and irate workers.

The plan is a success but in the in the eyes of the sister-in-law, the charming man has lost his halo because he was part of a crooked scheme. Nowadays, what the man did will possibly be seen as strategic thinking in corporate lingo. 

Some may find the protagonist to be devious while others may think he was clever. Ray does not impose his interpretation on us; he only ends with the man looking a little lost without the appreciation of a woman for whom ideals always took precedence.

Discretion is the name of the game  

Jana Aranya becomes even more audacious with Ray highlighting the decadence in corporate culture -- a taboo topic in the 70s. This film, released in 1976, shows yet another out-of-luck, ingenuous young man striving to find some sort of employment. 

In the end, he becomes a supplier of office items though his father has misgivings regarding such a business. As the movie progresses, pearls of wisdom about how a contractor should pursue possible clients is revealed.

In one sequence, an elderly man advises the young businessman to find out the weakness of a potential client and then indulge that vice. A master of symbolic shots, Ray uses one in Jana Aranya where the glove compartment of a possible client keeps on opening up when the car moves over uneven road to expose the rather explicit cover of a book kept inside. 

The film’s explosive parts come in the end when the rather guileless young protagonist is initiated into the closely guarded sordid inner circles of corporate life. He can only land a big contract to supply chemicals to a factory once he provides a female companion for the company’s top man. 

In searching for the right person with the help of a canny public relations consultant, he sees another social layer where feminine companionship is also a prized commodity. 

Here, Ray portrays a world where women, feeling the pressure to earn a livelihood for the family, are compelled to work as escorts. In the end, the girl the man takes to the client’s hotel turns out to be someone he knows, leaving him jolted. 

The final message is sobering: Reality tears down customs; survival instincts shatter inhibitions.

Remembering Satyajit Ray as we move past his 100th birthday, we must commend the Calcutta trilogy -- a celluloid tour de force, a cinematic commentary about how reality tramples on romanticism. 

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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