Satyajit Ray and the Calcutta Triology

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Satyajit Ray began his career with the poetic ‘Apu Trilogy,’ made between 1955 and 1959 as the study of a young man’s attempt to find himself and come to terms with the eternal conditions of life and its two opposite poles: love and death. Three of Ray’s films made between 1970 and 1971 in effect form another trilogy, the main characters being seen this time in relation to their work. It is a political trilogy, about how we are being shaped, and perhaps misshapen, by our working conditions. ‘Days and Nights in the Forest,’ the least direct of the three, shows a group of city executives on a country weekend, away from the suffocating atmosphere of Calcutta. ‘The Adversary’ returns to Calcutta, where a young man revolts against the inhuman conditions attached to his search for a job. And the third film, ‘Company Limited,’ once more takes the audience round the other side of the desk to show the manipulations and status-seeking at the top of a big firm. Satyajit Ray did not think consciously of the  ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ as a series but the idea that ‘Days and Nights in the Forest‘ (‘Aranyer Din Ratri’), ‘The Adversary‘ (‘Pratidwandi’) and ‘Company Limited‘ (‘Seemabaddha’) would form a new trilogy during the making of the third in the series.

He made ‘Days and Nights’ because he liked the story, and as for ‘The Adversary,’ he made it because the situation in Calcutta was politically tense. The students were very active, there was a lot of violence in the city, and if he was going to make another film it seemed it had to be about Calcutta and the young people there. Then in 1971 Ray read the novel ‘Company Limited’ based on the Corporate high profile of Calcutta, and he immediately thought that this was an important theme. After describing the young man looking for a job in ‘The Adversary,’ it was relevant for him to describe the people who have control over the jobs, the new upper class, the new breed that has grown up in India since Independence.

In this Calcutta trilogy Ray seems to have acquired a political awareness which was perhaps less openly stated in his previous films. Ray felt that politics had also come increasingly to the surface in the last few years. “You feel it every moment of the day in Calcutta: not just the bombs and explosions, but meeting people and walking the streets with the posters on the walls.” Of course he has never been unaware of politics, but he deliberately did not use the political issues as such in his films because he always felt that in India politics is a very impermanent thing. Political parties break up very quickly. Ray was a staunch Left supporter but then he lost faith in the Left. He is on record to have said, “There are now three communist parties in India, and I don’t really see what that means.”

Before Ray  made ‘The Adversary’ he was often been criticized for being non-political. After that film, they thought Ray had become politically committed, and it was very well received. You see Calcutta is very politically alive and you cannot remain non-political. There’s a revolutionary character in ‘The Adversary,’ which is enough for the most simple-minded people. They don’t see the depths of the film, they just see that there is some mention of politics and they think that’s it .

Ray’s  previous film, ‘Days and Nights in the Forest,’ wasn’t understood in India. They thought it very frivolous because of its surface, but they completely missed the implications of the structure, which I think makes it one of Ray’s best film. It’s a complex film with seven characters, and in its almost like a musical fugue. The lack of a real storyline mean that it’s bound to be rather difficult for an audience. It’s rather a film about relationships, and very complex in structure, like a kind of fugue. The audience kept saying, What is it about, where is the story, the theme? And the film is about so many things, that’s the trouble. People want just one theme, which they can hold in their hands. Ray made the film primarily because he was fascinated by this aspect of people being taken out of their normal surroundings, and the way their characters emerge in an unfamiliar setting, away from their daily routine.

The second film in the trilogy, ‘The Adversary,’ got a lukewarm reception from some European critics, who suggested that from a stylistic point of view it was more hesitant and less structurally complete than the other work. Ray uses a lot of flashbacks, dream sequences, and scenes in negative. There was a change in style. Everything Ray did was of course quite deliberate. The main character always dictates the style of a film; and particularly in this case, where you identify totally with the young man. He’s a hesitant character, full of doubts and inner conflicts and problems, and with him at the center of the film Ray could not have thought in terms of a smoothly told story in his usual ‘classical’ style. He felt all the time when he was writing the scenario that if he took a straightforward line and was stylistically orthodox, then it would be wrong. That’s why he introduced stylistic factors which are new in his work.

The film opens for instance with the death of the father, shown in negative, and there were many reason for doing it that way. The scene describes the death of a person whom you don’t know, and who is not a character in the film. It is a totally impersonal death scene, and death is very difficult to portray on the screen. If it had been in positive, everybody might have looked for signs of life because they are not emotionally involved with this character. And that mustn’t happen: the theme must immediately capture the audience. So Ray started with negative, and since he had done it once maybe he thought, why not do it again later. In the dream sequence I also find it perfectly valid; and use the effect in another sequence, which might equally well have been in positive. That’s the scene where a friend takes the young man to a prostitute, and he becomes disgusted and runs away. At one point the prostitute starts to undress, and she is just in her bra and lights a cigarette. Bengali girls don’t usually smoke in public, and in India the audience is very conservative, so to soften the impact of that scene Ray used negative.

The problem with the young man in ‘The Adversary’ is that there are a lot of things going on in his head, and he has no one to communicate his thoughts to. For instance, he goes to see his sister’s boss, and suddenly – bang-bang-bang – he stands there with a revolver shooting the boss. And then you find out that this is only happening in his mind. In fact, he had been rather polite and nervous, so how could Ray suggest that he actually wanted to murder the boss? There was no way other than an imaginary flash-forward.

Since people have become used to a certain classical style in the films of Satyajit Ray, the criticisms would come. If it had been the work of an unknown director, the critics would probably have accepted it. Maybe in five or six years when they see it in retrospect, they will find it all right. Ray wanted it to be apparent also in the style that this was his first political film: a different film from what I had done before, so let it be different.

Ray chose to make the film about the young man who has doubts about his role in society, whereas his brother, who is a revolutionary, is a background character. If  Ray wanted it to be a really political film, why didn’t he make it about the revolutionary? The reason could be that
a person with a definite political view is often psychologically less interesting: revolutionaries don’t think for themselves all the time. Ray was more interested in the young man who didn’t have any firm political convictions and who wanted a job under no matter what regime. He thought for himself, and therefore he was suffering. Besides, he carries out an act of protest on a personal level, which to me is a marvelous thing because it comes from inside and not as an expression of a political ideology.

In ‘Company Limited’ there is also a revolutionary character in the background. In fact, we don’t see him at all, but we learn that he is the boyfriend of the sister-in-law, the character who is obviously the moral center of the film. The character of the sister-in-law is in a tragic situation, because she came to Calcutta in order to find out what social success was like, and what her elder sister’s life with her executive husband was like. She’s disheartened by what she finds, but on the other hand she is not so sure that she can go back to the revolutionary and marry him. She doesn’t know how seriously involved with him she is. The brother-in-law asks her why she didn’t tell him she had a boy friend. And she says, ‘If there was anything, I would have told you.’ She is in Calcutta because she had this great weakness for her brother-in-law, when she was a little girl in her teens. She hasn’t seen him in six or seven years, and now that maybe he’s such a success, let’s see what he is like, whether he has completely changed or whether he is still a human being. Let’s see if it’s possible to remain a human being in his circumstances. So she arrives, and at first everything seems all right. But when the crisis comes at the factory, he collapses completely. It’s evident then that he can only think about his own success, his own career going ahead no matter at what cost.

Ray’s intent is not to suggest that this lady, in her relationship to the revolutionary, really poses a moral political solution to the problems the film raises. Well, in a way she is in the same situation as the young man in ‘The Adversary.’ She’s uncertain, though at the end of the film she probably will go back to the revolutionary because she’s so completely disillusioned with the other kind of life she has witnessed. But she first needed to be exposed to this kind of life in order to make her decision. Ray felt that you must know two sides of a problem before you can make up your mind. Then you can make a really strong decision which, as in ‘The Adversary,’ is not based on the dictates of an ideology but mainly springs from your own, human experience.

In ‘Company Limited,’ Ray suggests that the main character is essentially a product of bad social circumstances, rather than bad in himself. It is certainly the system that makes him was he is. He’s part of a bureaucratic and commercial machine, which has no place for one single man. If you want to live in society, you immediately become part of the pattern, and that drives you into something you may not have been from the beginning. This man clearly has two sides: he has his private feelings and his conscience, but the system forces him to dissemble them and to think only of his security and advancement. But it’s an open film and it doesn’t make any final statement.

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