Ray was no pessimist. But, writes Shougat Dasgupta, the condition of Kolkata in the 1970s inspired arguably his darkest films.
Pather Panchali, Salman Rushdie wrote, is a film of “such lyrical and emotional force that it becomes, for its audiences, as potent as their own most deeply personal memories”. My own earliest memories of Ray’s films are that they made everyone I knew cry. I grew up in Kuwait, a dull desert outpost that could not be further, metaphorically, from the poverty-wracked villages of Bengal. But the small Bengali community did what communities of Bengali transplants do everywhere—gathered together to eat, gossip, organise Durga pujo, and put on plays, concerts, poetry recitals and children’s drawing competitions. There was also the odd weekend when everyone would gather in someone’s living room to watch VHS tapes of Ray movies through the night.
A typical marathon would begin with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or Sonar Kella for the kids, followed by the entire Apu trilogy, the dry airconditioned chill in those functionally decorated Kuwait Oil Company apartments becoming thicker, more viscous with each stifled sob, each happy sniffle. It didn’t seem to matter how many times my parents and their friends had seen the films. Those with the stamina for more would stay awake through Devi, or Kanchenjunga, or Mahanagar, or the then recently released Ghare-Baire.
What surprised me, as I got older and rediscovered Ray for myself, was that not once on any of those weekends did we half-watch through eyes smeared with sleep the films that were later grouped together as the “Calcutta trilogy”. These films—Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya—felt sharp and contemporary when I first watched them 25 years after they were made. How resonant they must have been for people who lived in Calcutta in the early 1970s. The Bengalis who ended up in Kuwait in the mid-1970s were there because of the conditions facing the protagonists of Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya—young, educated, middle-class men who had little prospect of finding jobs and taking the places in their households and in society that they had previously seen as their birthright.
Calcutta at the end of the 1960s, with the newly elected left-wing United Front government already at odds with itself, was a city in mutinous mood. The police killings in Naxalbari had catalysed a generation of young people into revolutionary activity, which ranged from protests and street theatre to bomb-making and coordinated attacks on policemen, university administrators and civil servants. The filmmaker Mrinal Sen said in an interview in the journal Jump Cut in 1976 that “the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 … The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere.” Sen’s own Calcutta trilogy (Interview, Calcutta 71, Padatik) was made between 1971 and 1973. For him, this “was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people … We have always been trying to make poverty respectable, and dignified… You can find plenty of this in Bengali literature. As long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed. The establishment will not act adversely as long as you describe poverty as something holy, something divine.”
There is nothing numinous about the poverty in Pather Panchali, nothing to sanctify the cruelty, the brutishness of that poverty, but those critics who didn’t accuse Ray of wallowing in poverty accused him of aestheticising it. As if the beauty of Pather Panchali, its plangent poetry—even the tragic scene of Durga’s death and her father’s grief is made beautiful by the shehnai; “a sound”, Rushdie wrote, “like the scream of the soul”— somehow ennobles terrible suffering. Of course, Ray’s juxtaposition of beauty and poverty is part of the point. How else to show the truth of Bengal? But, as Calcutta appeared primed for violent revolution, Ray knew he would have to find a new language, less lyrical perhaps, to tell the story of the anger and hopelessness so pervasive in his city.
In his biography of Ray, Andrew Robinson quotes from the director’s letters to Marie Seton, an earlier biographer, to show how discomfited but intrigued Ray was by what he described as the “present EXPLOSIVE atmosphere here—anarchy and revolution and violent anti-American feeling. I’m pretty tense about the possible reaction to my new film—certainly the first truly contemporary film made here—and basically though not blatantly pro-revolution—because I feel nothing else can set the country up on its feet.” The film Ray was referring to was, of course, Pratidwandi (1970), an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel written the year before. Ray had read the novel in October 1969, Robinson reports; by February, he had already begun production.
In a foreword to an English translation of the novel, Ray explained: “I happened upon Pratidwandi at a time when I was looking not just for any suitable subject, but for a subject of a specific type . . . The urban scene was then dominated by the youth . . . Joblessness, cynicism, the clash of generations, seething discontent exploding into violence… one couldn’t help reacting to it all and going one step further, wishing to put some of this into a film.” Ray found himself drawn by Siddhartha, the novel’s protagonist, a young man of refined lineage whose family, since the death of his father, is transforming like the city around him into something alien and frightening. He is inflated by his assumed role as head of the family but deflated by his inability to find a job—as his sister becomes the only earning member of the family— and by the distance between the grandeur of his self-image and the shoddiness of his present circumstance.
His brother, like so many clever young men in Calcutta, has become a revolutionary, preparing posters and contemplating violence. His sister, only slightly younger than him, is encouraged by the family to leave college to take up a job offer, working for an older businessman whose wife turns up at their doorstep to accuse them of raising a homewrecker. Siddhartha himself has had to leave his medical studies. He is consumed by job hunting, sweating alongside thousands of other applicants for a three-minute interview for one poorly paid position. His only solace is a fledgling and sincere, if coy, relationship with a pretty neighbour whose family has moved to the city from Delhi.
For Ray, Siddhartha’s value as a character is in his refusal to become, like his brother, a political agitator. Like Sisyphus, Siddhartha persists in rolling the boulder up the hill, trying, like tens of thousands of others, to find a job, any job, only to find himself sabotaged by his own conscience. The film’s most famous scene is a job interview in which Siddhartha refuses to go along with the interviewers and declare the moon landing as the most “significant event” of the past decade. Launching into an inspired, even awed defence of “plain human courage”, he nominates the Vietnam War, or rather the “extraordinary power of resistance” of the Vietnamese people. His interviewers’ faces harden: “Are you a communist?”
Siddhartha may want a job, may want to escape his dreary circumstances, to make a new life with his pretty neighbour, but he will not compromise, will not say what the interviewers want to hear. His brother is an ideologue, only too happy to subsume his individuality in the party cause. His sister, similarly, is happy to sacrifice her sense of self to get ahead at her company, to gain financial independence and wrest control of her life, or at least the illusion of control, from her family. Among the flashbacks, dream sequences and unshareable thoughts—for instance, when Siddhartha spots a girl with formidable embonpoint crossing the street and he flashes back to a biology lecture about breasts—is a pastoral leitmotif, a holiday taken when Siddhartha and his siblings were still children. There is a memory of a particularly sweet bird call. Back then, Siddhartha believes with a fierce nostalgia, they were still innocent, still loving, still whole. The film is, in a sense, a quest to return to that prelapsarian place, to regain paradise.
In Gangopadhyay’s novel, Siddhartha leaves Calcutta and takes a job as a pharmaceutical salesman in the sticks. Despite what appears to be decisive defeat, he continues to rage, fantasising about a return to Calcutta where he will show the swines a thing or two. It’s a bitter, comic conclusion. Ray— whose Siddhartha is older, more contemplative—also has him quit Calcutta. Writing to his girlfriend, who has moved back to Delhi, he describes the difficulty of his days, the strenuous travel, the mean accommodation, the spartan life he has forced upon himself. But, he adds, he once again hears that birdsong outside his window. Pratidwandi starts with a flashback to Siddhartha’s father’s funeral, shown in jarring negative, the faces darkened and made grotesque. It ends with birdsong and the oddly soothing sound of another funeral, of mourners chanting “Ram nam satya hai” as they carry a body to the cremation grounds. The film has come full circle and Siddhartha is offered a redemption not available to him in Gangopadhyay’s novel. He has had to leave Calcutta, but he has preserved his soul.
Ray offers no such solace in Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya. In Seemabaddha—made in 1971 (a year after Pratidwandi), when the Naxalite movement had been brutally becalmed, and Calcutta was overwhelmed by a refugee crisis as Bangladesh moved towards independence—Ray shows the luxurious life of a smug executive at a British company. His life in Calcutta is conducted several storeys above the bombs, the beatings, the destitute on the streets of a grimy, despairing city. Where Siddhartha was forced to flee a cinema after a bomb bursts nearby, Shyamalendu, the aspiring “boxwallah”, can hardly hear the fading reverberations in his penthouse. A Calcutta boxwallah is a Naipaulian “mimic man”; “… educated,” Sir Vidia wrote mockingly, “at an Indian or English public school and at one of the two English universities, whose accent, through all the encircling hazards of Indian intonation, he rigidly maintains”. The Naxalites, the police thugs and the refugees do not impinge on the rounds of cocktail parties, lunches at the club and afternoons at the racecourse. Shyamalendu is up for a major promotion and neither he nor his attractive, frivolous wife can think of anything else. In the midst of this, his sister-in-law pays a visit. He last saw her as a girl in Patna— like the travails of the city, family is also kept at arm’s length, lest they intrude on Shyamalendu’s lifestyle—and she has grown beautiful, making him schoolboyishly eager to impress her with his success. Initially, she is impressed by his worldly sophistication, by his ease.
Key to Shyamalendu’s promotion is an international order he has negotiated for his company’s fans. At the last moment, a defect is discovered which would mean a delay in the shipment and the incurring of costly penalties. The entire edifice of Shyamalendu’s life hangs on a gossamer thread. Seizing on a joking remark by his sister-in-law, he plans, with the aid of a personnel officer, to foment a strike at the company’s factory and thereby create a legitimate reason for the delay. In the unrest, a guard is injured by a pipe bomb—acceptable collateral damage.
Duly winning his promotion, Shyamalendu returns home after several rounds of office backslapping to find the lift out of order. In a masterly, if slightly sententious, last sequence he climbs the stairs to his flat, skipping up the first few floors but finding each successive flight of stairs more steep, the air thinner, the climb more arduous. His throat tightens, his shoulders slump and his pace slows to a crawl: he is no longer the man he was at the start of the climb. He rings the doorbell and his wife is, predictably, ecstatic about his promotion. Shyamal calls for his sister-in-law who wordlessly returns a wristwatch he lent her when she first arrived. He correctly interprets this as her rejection of him, his entire way of life. The film ends with him sitting alone, his head buried in his hands.
Somnath—the protagonist in Jana Aranya, made in 1976 while the Emergency was still in place— at first appears to be another Siddhartha, born into an educated bhadralok family with the high self-esteem and selfregarding virtuousness of that class. But his is a time of widespread unemployment, of autocratic and corrupt politicians, a squalid, cynical moment with little patience for bhadralok pretensions.
It’s hard to watch the opening scenes of the film and not think of something like the ongoing Vyapam “scam” as students cheat without fear or scruple. At one point, a local tough walks in with an answer paper and hands it to a candidate. What is the worth of such university qualifications?
Armed with his mediocre degree, Somnath finds himself, like Siddhartha, competing with thousands of graduates for a handful of jobs. It enables the interviewers to ask insultingly irrelevant questions that emphasise only the power of the interviewer to get away with asking them. What, asks one, is the weight of the moon? In the original novel, which like Seemabaddha was written by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, Somnath’s friend Sukumar is driven literally mad by such questions, wandering the streets unkempt and unshaven, quizzing himself on obscure “general knowledge”.
Somnath tries his hand at making himself into that most un-bhadralok of creatures: the business entrepreneur. He throws himself into his work. Keen to secure a contract to supply stationery, he approaches a notorious PR man for advice on wooing a potential client. It turns out that Somnath’s potential client has a weakness for prostitutes. Will Somnath deliver a prostitute at the appointed hour? He does what is necessary to secure the contract but in one of the Greek twists of fate that characterise these films, the prostitute turns out to be his friend Sukumar’s sister. She laughs at Somnath’s belated scruples, chiding him for being childish, though hypocritical would be more appropriate. Somnath, like Shyamalendu, gets his reward.
Jana Aranya is the angriest of the three films, acerbic about a society that rewards its most corrupt, its most cut-throat and cynical. Grace, so intrinsic to the Apu trilogy, is almost absent from the Calcutta trilogy. Only in Pratidwandi’s birdsong is there a hint of the Ray who made the Apu trilogy; the director who could evoke in his middle-class audiences a feeling of exquisite sorrow. In the Calcutta trilogy, though, Ray found a style to mirror the city Calcutta had become; the country India was becoming.
He is not a pessimistic filmmaker, but the Calcutta trilogy is profoundly pessimistic, disgusted by the grotesqueries of city life. It’s not that Ray is arguing that this sort of moral corruption is endemic to all cities; he is documenting how Calcutta, his city, has grown monstrous. The causes of Calcutta’s ruin—not enough jobs for startling numbers of freshly qualified graduates, kleptocratic politicians, indifference towards inequality—are still recognisably Indian conditions. No wonder my parents and their friends, running from that country—from themselves in a sense— had no desire to look in that mirror.
These are harsh films, ugly, scornful of who we have allowed ourselves to become. If sometimes it appears as if Ray is looking down his nose, it doesn’t change the truths these films tell about a society that brings out the worst in its people. Young, educated people in the late 1960s and early 1970s still dreamed of revolution. Ray didn’t care about revolutions, only individuals. By the time he made the Calcutta trilogy, he could no longer show a world in which Apu walks off into the future, his young son on his shoulders. The future at the time of the making of the Calcutta trilogy was bleak, with individuals stunted, distorted versions of themselves.
The angry young man of Bollywood, of whom Siddhartha in Pratidwandi was a predecessor, offered ordinary people catharsis. But for Ray there is no catharsis, only disappointment at a society that has failed individuals. These three films are as true and unsparing a reflection of who we were then, as who we are now. The Calcutta trilogy remains distressingly relevant.