"Satyajit Ray's Calcutta Trilogy: Sketching the City as a Character"

"Satyajit Ray's Calcutta Trilogy: Sketching the City as a Character"

Kolkata. There is something fascinating about this city,  be it its culture or cinema or politics or its glorious past. Satyajit Ray captures the magnificent vibrancy, restlessness, and anxieties of this city in his Calcutta trilogy, focussing on its most vulnerable period when the thirst for revolution was in the veins of youths. Frustration because of poverty, unemployment, social inequalities led many young men and women to pursue socialist ideas and in this way,  Kolkata became the epicenter of this revolutionary thinking. In this article, I am going to talk about the three films of the trilogy: 

  1. Pratidwandi (The Adversary), 1970
  2. Seemabaddha (Company Limited), 1971
  3. Jana Aranya (The middle Man), 1976

 The trilogy is set during the Naxalite movement in Bengal. In this project, Ray captures the urban Kolkata city of this period and with his characters, we explore the old city, which is nothing less than a time travel. The city seems to be a very busy place, with every second something stimulating taking place. Strikers and revolutionaries were on the streets grabbing the attention of youths in colleges. Ray has shown all of this as if the city itself is a character in the trilogy. If one watches this excellent piece of work with any political prejudice, the person will not be able to understand the different dimensions of the trilogy:  what were the aspirations of that era, or why socialist ideas were dominating at that time.  All these factors were excellently covered by Ray. The Naxalite movement in India went through a lot of transformations and its early phase is completely different from what we see today. 

Pratidwandi (1970)

It is the first installment of the trilogy. Ray, through this film, did many experiments because of which later onwards this film became a landmark in the genre of surreal and neorealist films.  The film is based on a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. It is the story of Siddhartha, a middle-class young graduate seeking for a job, and is inspired by the socialist and revolutionary ideas from his college days. Ray uses a lot of new techniques in this film which makes this film most technically sound among all the three films of the trilogy. In the very first scene, Ray uses a photo-negative technique to intensify the scene where the protagonist loses his father.  No such technique was used in our film industry before this film. There is another scene where the protagonist goes into a flashback of his medical college days when he sold his medical books to get a book on Che Guevara.  He sees himself in the mirror, and his face resembles Che. This small scene tells us a lot about the way the protagonist thinks at that moment, his current situation providing a vacuum where revolutionary ideas once again make space in his mind. The scene is so beautifully done by Dhritiman Chatterjee and by the technical team behind the cameras making it way ahead of its time. 

The film continuously makes dark and witty comments on our society in many scenes. There are scenes worthy to mention. One of them is where Siddhartha waits at a roadside stop and notices a beautiful woman. He drifts back to his college days in flashback: the professor explaining the anatomy of the female breast. The scene tells a lot in a  short time that his college studies provided him the knowledge which gave him answers to many questions but now it has become useless as it can’t provide him a job to sustain his life. Another scene that stands out is the last interview scene. Here, the office treats interviewees like a flock of sheep, making Siddhartha frustrated. The scene ends with a disappointed Siddhartha realizing that the human body is not more than a skeleton used by capitalists for their profit. Siddharth realises that, in this crowded world, there is no place for individuality, all interviewees’ bodies were shown as skeletons. 

Ray, in this film, beautifully showed us the different variations of human emotions. The character of Siddhartha has many shades. We can observe the male egoist behavior in him when her sister has a job and he does not like when she spends her time with her flirtatious boss. Although he supports his sister in front of others, deep down he struggles with envy and insecurity. Somewhere or the other, he also feels jealous of his younger brother because of the latter’s determination towards his ideology. His brother is a communist revolutionary, who wants a revolution anyhow. Siddhartha himself also wants a revolution but never participates actively, because he lacks courage.

One more aspect of this film that is less talked about is its background score also given by Satyajit Ray, making every scene more gripping and intense. Masses know Satyajit Ray as a great director but he was also a great composer and holds two national awards in the best music composer category. From the very first scene, the background score binds you with the character of Siddhartha.

There can be different interpretations of this film but one thing is for sure that even after 50 years of its release, this film is still relevant. This masterpiece won the national award for the best feature film of that year. There are very rare films where we see a city in the central theme of the film. Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy is one such film series and Pratidwandi’s first film of the trilogy sets the perfect tone for the rest of the trilogy.

 "Satyajit Ray's Calcutta Trilogy: Sketching the City as a Character"

From the famous interview scene of Pratidwandi.

Seemabaddha (1971)

The second installment of the trilogy, based on the novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee of the same name, mainly focuses on the upper-middle-class lifestyle of the 70s Kolkata. In this film, Ray shows the city from the perspective of the well-known upper-middle families of the city. The film mainly focuses on how big multinational companies function in order to maximize their profit and how the ambitious nature of humans can gradually kill subtle human emotions. In his own pseudo world, man wants to be at the center of everything, and for this, he changes the status quo of his surroundings and society for his own benefit. 

In this film, the main protagonist Shyamalendu Chatterjee played by Barun Chanda is a sales manager in Hindustan Peters which makes lights and fans. He was a good student who spent his childhood in Patna. Due to his hard work, he is now a successful man and now a part of upper-class society. At the beginning of the film, we observe a gripping background score by Ray himself and our protagonist is introducing us to his past and about his company. Here, we see the insides of a company and how there are rivalries between employees of the company to be in the higher hierarchy. Ray wants to show that this class of society is totally isolated from the rest of the world.  They are aware of the situation, problems, and political crisis of the society but these are only restricted to their drawing room conversation and debates. This reflects the hypocrisy inbuilt among the individuals of the upper-class society. For a common man, this whole world is a totally abstract place.  We can see it when the protagonist‘s sister-in-law (Tutul) comes to his house for a few weeks to stay. This role was played by Sharmila Tagore. Tutul finds herself in a whole new place. She experiences a new atmosphere, a social change around her. She realises that people here are more insecure about their position, money, and prestige, and they can do anything for their own sake. Shyamlendu tries to impress his sister-in-law from his position in the company and status in society.  He portrays himself as a successful ideal man. But later on, he also confesses to her that it is necessary to maintain it because of the society he lives in, and he wants to live a simple life. Here, we see a domino effect for more success. If one wants it anyhow then one has to follow a series of things that may not always be ethical. Ray wants us to show that for companies, workers are just entities that are useful for their profit.  They treat them less than a human. It was an idea that also resonated among the masses at that time. Lust of success and promotion also drives our protagonist towards unethical means. When Shyamalendu fails to export the fans to Iraq, he manages to spark a pseudo strike among the factory workers in order to find an excuse for not being able to export a lot of fans to Iraq. He even gets a promotion after this but when Tutul gets to know about this, Shyamalendu‘s ideal picture breaks. Shyamalendu feels guilty for his acts and regrets that he has fallen in the eyes of Tutul and himself. He is one of the top employees of the company but he feels lonely and deserted. This film won the best feature film’s national award of that year. It makes heavy and critical comments about private companies and their work culture where a  human is no longer a human but a machine, running in a rat race. The rapid modernization of the city is not uniform among all sections of the society, since it is biased towards a few and ignores other sections of the society creating an imbalance.

Jan Aranya (1976)

The final installment of the film is based on a novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee of the same name. It is the boldest film of the series and personally, it is my favorite film of the whole series. The film stars debutant Pradip Mukherjee as our protagonist Somnath with a very good supporting cast of evergreen Utpal Dutt, Aparna Sen, Santosh Dutta, and Satya Banerjee. The film explores many themes of urban Kolkata like the student movement in the universities, the urban rise of Kolkata, the employment crisis, slums of the city, friendship, and the Business rat race. It is the most political film of the series. Ray captures the raw and real politics of that time and how it affects the lives of common people. This film has one of the most gripping and powerful opening scenes ever shot in our industry. In the very first scene, we see a bored invigilator in the final year examination hall and the students are cheating as if there is no invigilator present. On all four walls of the examination hall students’ graffiti of revolutionary slogans with portrait Mao, clearly shows the resentment of the students against the establishment. There is a chaotic atmosphere in the examination hall, but our protagonist Somnath calmly gives his final year exams without getting distracted. When results are out, Somnath passes with moderate marks because of his small font handwriting. His father insists on examining his answer sheets, but Somnath and his elder brother resent the idea. Now Somnath is an unemployed graduate like many in the city. Ray, in this film, didn’t hesitate to put names, symbols, slogans, and even pictures of former contemporaneous leaders like Indira Gandhi. Ray uses politics in a very subtle way in this film but the impact of it can be seen in the whole film. Two scenes clearly show this feature, first one is when Somnath’s friend takes him to meet a local leader but we can judge his political affiliation by seeing a portrait of Indira Gandhi on the back wall of the office. In another scene where Somnath is roaming around, looking for a job in different places and on sidewalls of the road we see graffiti of Mao and revolutionary slogans. It shows the resentment of the common people on the prevailing situation and their anger towards the ruling class. Ray shows labor strikes, the crowd for applying for jobs and when Somnath is on his way back home, we see the same revolutionary paintings and graffiti blacked out and replaced by Congress Symbols and pictures of Indira Gandhi. This scene alone tells a lot:  The Emergency period is going on and there is a huge public resentment against it. Although politics is not the central theme of the film, it is about how man manipulates his true ethical nature just for the sake of profits. He can earn a lot through this but in the end, he loses his peace and always lives his life in guilt.

Like all other two films of the trilogy, the ending of this film also forces you to think about yourself and the society in which we are living. It makes you ponder over how this society changes you so that you can sustain in it no matter for good or evil. 

"Satyajit Ray's Calcutta Trilogy: Sketching the City as a Character"

Author Biographical Note: The author is pursuing graduation in Physics (Hons) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India.  He is working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern. 


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