As the Satyajit Ray Season at the British Film Institute draws to a close, Bengali writer, filmmaker and singer Sangeeta Datta examines the importance and impact of Ray's highly-politicized 'Calcutta Trilogy'.
Satyajit Ray’s much loved Apu Trilogy put Indian cinema triumphantly on the international map.
While this follows a "Bildungsroman" structure of Apu growing from childhood to adulthood, Ray still highlights transitions from rural to urban, from frolic to epiphany, from romance to responsibility.
In the 70’s when Calcutta was rocked with political unrest and the violence of the Naxal movement, many filmmakers were making overtly political films.
Ray turned his eye to the grim city where the old order of families and values were disintegrating. The Calcutta trilogy shows Ray confronting contemporary Calcutta through the eyes of young urban protagonists. Recent screenings at the BFI's Satyajit Ray season offered a rare opportunity to revisit and reassess their relevance.
'Pratidwandi' ( The Adversary - 1970), based on Sunil Ganguly’s novel, tells the story of middle class Siddhartha ( Dhritiman Chatterjee) , who is trapped in social turmoil and forced to give up his education in medicine.
His younger brother is a Naxal activist and his sister is bent on a career. A corrupt system, widespread unemployment and social violence turns Siddhartha into the Bengali angry young man.
Commenting on his social responsibility Ray said, “As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. As a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause.”
Ray is stylistically experimental in the film, using techniques from the French New Wave; jump cuts, edgy frames and dream sequences.
'Seemabaddha' ( Company Limited - 1972), based on Sankar’s novel offers a glimpse into the upwardly-mobile world of the corporate officer.
Shyamalendu (Barun Chanda) is a successful executive in a fan company and is hoping for a promotion. He leads an active social life and when his sister in law Tutul (Sharmila Tagore) visits, she is taken to the colonial clubs, racecourses, restaurants and beauty parlours - all of which spell the good world for the aspiring Shyamal.
When there is a crisis in the factory, Shyamal engineers a lock out with the trade union. He buys into the inevitable corruption and ensures his promotion. At the end he falls in his own eyes and through his sister in law, we reject his vacuous world.
In a world of crumbling values, it is still Ray’s women who act as conscience. In the symbolic last sequence, Shyamal walks up eight floors to his apartment only to be left desolate.
I remember watching these films as a young child and it is only with every subsequent viewing that they have grown on me, their striking observation, sharp irony yet compassionate eye.
The world of the seventies darkens gradually till it reaches its bleakest world in 'Jana Aranya' (The Middleman - 1976). By now the middle-class youth have nothing in their world. Brilliant student Somenath (Pradip Mukherjee) fails to get honours and after several attempts at finding a job, finally resorts to becoming a middle man.
Finally, to appease a client and clinch a big order, he has to arrange a prostitute for him. He finds she is his friend’s sister and wishes to withdraw. But she needs her money and Somenath finally reaches her to the hotel. When he reaches home, the balcony is dark ( electricity has failed) and hiding in the shadows he tells his father that he has landed the order.
Ray’s control over his craft is evident through the 'Middleman', winner of the Golden Lotus Award at the 1976 National Film Awards. The film is densely framed, multi-layered, claustrophobic, yet hope shines through in the collage of Burabazar - the traders market where middleclass Somenath learns to crack deals and face life.
As the public and political worlds in India become increasingly corrupt, the experience of Shomenath losing his innocence, is repeatedly relevant in today’s world.
- Sangeeta DattaBLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS