I have deliberately not used political issues ... in my films because I have always felt that in India politics is a very impermanent thing.Satyajit Ray, 1972
A landmark in global film history, Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959) – has long been the gateway through which critics, audiences and film culture more broadly enter the cinema of Ray. With its lyrical, humane realism, this coming-of-age saga has dominated the discourse and preoccupied the canon, particularly in the west.
Yet, between 1970 and 1975, Ray completed a second trilogy, far less well-known but the equal of the Apu films in its creative sophistication and socio-political depth. Known collectively as the Calcutta trilogy, The Adversary (1970), Company Limited (1971) and The Middleman (1975) documented the radical changes Calcutta (now Kolkata) was undergoing in relation to a growing body of disillusioned youth.
In this period, as the rise of India’s Parallel Cinema movement (a new wave equivalent to those happening in Europe, Brazil, Japan and the US) heralded a new way of making films, Ray – an older and more established filmmaker – would enter one of his bleakest but most adventurous periods. This phase of his career begins with films such as The Hero (1966) and Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), which not only demonstrated a partial shift in style but also began to tackle darker themes, especially masculinity in crisis. This topic continues into the Calcutta trilogy, which finds Ray deconstructing and critiquing modern-day middle-class Bengali patriarchy, as characterised by uncertainty, corruption and political ambiguity.
Ray and Calcutta were inseparable. His films return again and again to the city where he spent most of his life as an outspoken resident. But by the late 1960s and early 70s, it was a place of great social and political turmoil, a city defined by high levels of youth unemployment, the displacement of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), de-industrialisation, political agitation and labour strikes. In 1967 the United Front (UF) coalition came to power in West Bengal with a left-leaning zeal, sweeping aside traditional Congress rule. Parallel to this radical shift in power was the Naxalite movement, a peasant insurgency beginning in Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal, which would lead to a wider leftist mobilisation and protest in India – felt most immediately in Calcutta.
Radical Bengali counterculture – expressly the ‘Hungry Generation’ of poets – wanted to do away with the old forms of literature, opting for a raw, unfiltered street-based poetry. Disaffected students, mostly middle class, aligned themselves ideologically with the Naxalite cause while also professing an internationalism (including solidarity with the people of Vietnam), leading to iconoclastic attacks directed against educational establishments and statues of leaders. Inevitably, political dissent was met with brutal repression from the state, traumatising the city.
It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Ray embarked on his trilogy. Up to this point in his career, Ray had often been accused of refusing to deal with the here and now, but with these films – as critic Chidananda Das Gupta has noted – “Ray faced up to the Calcutta of the burning trains, the angry political processions, the agonies of the unemployed.”
- Spoiler warning: This article reveals plot details
The first of the three films, The Adversary concerns Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a young unemployed graduate who wanders aimlessly through Calcutta looking for a job. Beginning with the funeral of his father (shown in negative), the film strikes a tone of disillusionment indicated in the opening image of Siddhartha, a traumatised young man shown to be paralysed by the uncertainty of the era and the destabilisation of the family.
What made the film a change of step for Ray was not only the re-imagining of Calcutta as a nightmarish, claustrophobic cityscape, but also this choice to open with a negative image. With The Adversary, Ray started to question the realist film image he had practised over the course of his career and which had come to define his work. In his book The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Das Gupta claims this use of a stylistic gimmick occurs only in The Adversary, and was “never again in evidence in Ray’s later films”. Yet the opening to Company Limited uses split screen, while The Middleman includes freeze frames, suggesting the influence of the new film syntax of Parallel Cinema. It was as if Ray was responding to filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen, in showing that he too could shoot from the hip.
After the opening funeral, the film’s title sequence follows Siddhartha journeying through the city to the first of two job interviews. The interview is interrogatory. The panel of stuffy executives try to decipher Siddhartha’s ideological allegiance. When asked what Siddhartha considers to be the most outstanding event of the last decade, he argues it’s the resistance shown by the Vietnamese people to imperialism, which he considers more significant than the moon landing. The shadow of neo-colonialism lingers throughout The Adversary – an enemy that urban Naxalites in Calcutta were intent on exposing and eradicating. It’s a political theme that finds a direct equivalent in Interview (1971), the first part of Mrinal Sen’s own, contemporaneous Calcutta trilogy, completed by Calcutta ’71 (1971) and The Guerrilla Fighter (1973).
Company Limited, the second in Ray’s trilogy and another underrated work, seems to be a world away from the disaffected, instead exploring the capitalist rat race through the eyes of Shyamal (Barun Chanda), a merciless sales manager and corporate climber who works for a British-owned fan manufacturing company.
When Shyamal’s sister-in-law Tutul (Sharmila Tagore) comes to stay with them, her outsider status offers a fresh perspective on Shyamal’s egomaniacal, faux middle-class aspirations. Shyamal and his wife live comfortably in a swanky apartment, insulated from the stark realities of Calcutta, and on to this setting Ray maps a narrative about privilege and entitlement. No matter the ugliness of Calcutta, socio-economic boundaries such as class and caste remain undisturbed. While Company Limited is the more conventional of the three films in terms of film form, the sardonic tone with which Ray energises the characters and situations develops into a piercing critique of the city’s Boxwallah – the new Indian elite who often worked for British mercantile companies.
In an attempt to forge a link with Tutul, for whom Shyamal harbours repressed affections, he gives her an old wristwatch – a symbolic gesture loaded with sexual anxiety and consumerist ideals. Conversely, Shyamal’s treacherous path to the top of the corporate world involves the manipulation and betrayal of the workers at the factory, instigating a strike so that he can protect his corporate ascent. Tiwari, the watchman at the factory, is badly injured at work when a bomb goes off, a direct result of the strike sanctioned by Shyamal.
Having schemed his way to the top, resulting in his appointment as a company director, Shyamal returns home to share the news. But Tutul cannot hide her disappointment at her brother-in-law’s cutthroat nature. In returning the wristwatch, Tutul severs the fragile bond, denouncing Shyamal and making him question the cost at which he has attained social and corporate mobility. His is a hollow victory, riddled with corruption – a theme that culminates in The Middleman, the final and bleakest film in the trilogy.
The Middleman has been labelled an ‘Emergency film’, since it was made and released against a backdrop of national paralysis as the Congress government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of Emergency (1975 to 1977) and suspended democracy. Closer in tone to The Adversary, it concerns Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee), a middle-class history graduate in search of employment.
Ray opens with Somnath sitting a history exam, with other students openly cheating. Corruption is no longer subtle or intermittent but prevalent now, infecting every strata of society. Plastered across the wall of the exam room is a Maoist slogan – “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” – which provides a visual link to the ending of The Adversary, when Siddhartha’s departure from the city is juxtaposed with political slogans, many of them endorsing Naxalite revolt. In The Middleman, Somnath’s father (Satya Bannerjee) lives in a state of permanent despondency: he’s anxious for his son’s uncertain future but also – given the crippling unemployment crisis – somewhat sympathetic with protesting youth.
It’s Bishuda (Utpal Dutt) who introduces Somnath to the world of the ‘dalal’ (broker) or middleman, which Somanth takes on reluctantly when he goes into business for himself as an order supplier. Somnath’s descent into a world of bribery and corruption is rapid and dehumanising. He’s unable to recognise exactly what he’s being asked to surrender. While the middleman is a necessary evil, it’s Mr Mittir (Robi Ghosh) – an embodiment of a totalising corruption – who crudely instructs Somnath how the best way to do business is to find a man’s weakness and exploit it.
In the final sequence, Ray stages the endgame of the trilogy, a sordid representation of the failures of post-independence India and the moral disintegration of Calcutta. In securing his first major contract, Mittir coerces Somnath into procuring a sex worker for his client as a form of bribe. In so doing, Somnath temporarily becomes a pimp, a literal manifestation of the middleman, occupying a dubious space in which any inklings of self-respect are erased. Corruption is supreme; both malignant and irreversible.
Ray’s Calcutta trilogy has often been discussed in parallel with Sen’s Calcutta trilogy, which adopted a more radical and confrontational agit-prop style. In Sen’s films, Third Cinema combines with a political modernism to take an altogether more rounded view of Naxalite revolt. By contrast, Ray avoids explicit references to the Naxalite movement, contentiously steering away from dealing with the figure of the revolutionary Naxalite, who is rendered peripheral in The Adversary.
Yet Ray’s trio demand revisiting and reclaiming from the shadow of both Sen’s films and his own Apu trilogy. Taken together, they amount to one of the richest imaginings of Calcutta on screen – not only critiquing the city’s neo-colonialist upper class but also, more importantly, encapsulating the disillusionment that shook Calcutta’s middle-class youth to its core and brought a city to its knees.
The Calcutta films are screening as part of our Satyajit Ray season.