Satyajit Ray burst onto the world stage with the Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) – his first, second and fifth films respectively. The trilogy chronicled the life of Apu Ray from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Bengal, to his itinerant schooling years as his family tries to find sustainable livelihood, to his life as a young unemployed graduate in Calcutta city. The films were lauded for their simplicity of narrative as well as for the stark depiction of life in early 20th century India.
Ten years, 17 films and countless awards later, Ray kick-started a new trio of films, later referred to as the Calcutta Trilogy. These films – Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), continued in the same vein of showing real life, this time in the homes and on the streets of contemporary Calcutta. This was a turbulent time in many parts of India. Frustration from poverty, unemployment and social inequalities led many young men to pursue socialist agendas, frequently exploding into violence against all forms of authority – their version of “sticking it to the Man!”. The state of West Bengal and its capital city Calcutta was the epicenter of much of this “revolutionary thinking” while its more violent form was prevalent for many years in the smaller towns and rural areas across Eastern India. Simultaneously, the public and private sector were building up a culture of bribes and corruption, with the older generation teaching the youngsters how to “get ahead in life”.
In the first and third films, the protagonists, Siddhartha and Somnath, are graduates seeking employment in a stagnant economy with few available jobs. Young cinema goers at the time would surely empathize with the soul-numbing grind of applying for and attending job interviews week after week, being asked a series of random ‘general knowledge’ questions, second-guessing oneself after a while as to what ‘correct answer’ would impress the interviewers. In the second film, Shyamal is a successful marketing executive, living the quintessential yuppie life, while competing with another colleague for an upcoming Director position in his company.
All three films (especially the first and second) showcase strong dynamics between their male protagonists and the women in their lives. All of them have to deal with personal conflict and moral dilemmas in their efforts to settle down and find their place in society.
In Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Siddhartha seems constantly ill at ease in the presence of other women – his attractive sister who is blasé about her borderline flirtatious relationship with her boss while also harboring ambitions of becoming a model, the attractive prostitute with whom he has a brief encounter (he runs out of her apartment before she can get anything started!) and then a chance meeting with a neighbor (she hails him as he’s walking by to fix a blown fuse) which develops into a brief friendship. He is seeking some form of grounding, either a job or a relationship, but seems at odds with everyone around him.
In Seemabaddha (Company Ltd.), Shyamal and his wife are playing host to his sister-in-law (played by Sharmila Tagore) who is visiting for a couple of weeks. Sharmila’s character is envious of the ‘perfect life’ her sister and brother-in-law have, all the trappings of their city life – the parties at home, nights out at the club, day at the races, as well as his upward career trajectory. Later, when she discovers that he has bent the rules to get a promotion, he abruptly falls in her eyes. Her disappointment is so heartbreakingly evident (without her saying a word) that it deflates his sense of achievement, even while his wife is blissfully unaware and basks in the change of their social status.
Jana Aranya (The Middleman) opens with Somnath graduating from college but with lower marks than expected, which will impact his job prospects. His confidence is further shattered when his girlfriend (played by future filmmaker Aparna Sen) succumbs to family pressure and gets married to someone else. At home, Somnath struggles to have constructive conversations with his conservative father and insensitive elder brother. Instead, it’s his sister-in-law who is his true confidante, to whom he expresses his hopes and fears, who buys cigarettes for him on the sly when he runs out of money. After several failed interviews, he is persuaded by a friend/ mentor to “get into business”. His father is almost scandalized that his son is entering the wheeling-dealing world of business, but gives his reluctant blessing. The mentor (played by the always entertaining Utpal Dutt) sets him up as a middleman (“buying and selling anything”). After an initial period of success with small transactions, he gets into murkier waters and has to cross a key moral barrier in order to secure a big deal.
While the subject matter and characters of the films were very grounded, Ray’s cinematic technique was exploratory and avant-garde.
In Pratidwandi, the opening scene is presented in X-ray type negative print, to highlight how the death of the protagonist, Siddhartha’s father has turned his world inside out. Later, an encounter with a prostitute is presented in the same way, again giving us a sense of how deeply unsettling this moment is to Siddhartha.
In Seemabaddha, there is a dinner table scene during which the camera tracks metronomically between Shyamal at the centre of the table, and his wife and sister-in-law who are seated on either side of him. M. Night Shyamalan did something similar early on in Unbreakable with Bruce Willis in the train.
Another interesting feature of the films is how much all the characters smoke. Virtually every conversation begins with one or more characters lighting up – on the streets, in the office, at home. Calcutta is after all the headquarters of India’s leading tobacco company, cigarettes were ubiquitous and chain-smoking seems to have been the norm at the time.
Ray’s favourite actor was Soumitra Chatterjee, who made his debut in the third Apu film and worked with Ray in 13 other films (he is still acting at the age of 83!). However, for this trilogy, Ray opted for three other charismatic young men – Dhritiman (a.k.a. Sundar) Chatterjee made his debut as Siddhartha in Pratidwandi and continues to act at the age of 73, Barun Chanda made his debut as Shyamal in Seemabaddha and continues to act nearly 50 years later and Pradip Mukherjee made his debut as Somnath in Jana Aranya and continues to act at the age of 72!
Watching the 3 films back-to-back was a wonderful experience. Ray developed a light touch by this stage of his career and was able to deliver work that was layered and insightful, touched upon social and moral issues of the day, but did not feel exhausting or depressing to watch.