Jana Aranya: Satyajit Ray's most cynical, ruthless film resonates with today's world
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
“I have made both kinds of films — those dealing with contemporary problems, and I have also gone back to the past, to the nineteenth century, and made films on the stories of Tagore and other writers. There, one could think of a noble and heroic character, but no longer today — people have become diminished in stature, I feel.”
These are the words of Satyajit Ray, and they perfectly portray his angst and, more importantly, his hopelessness at the rapidly decaying moral fabric of the society he found himself in, from the late-sixties onwards. It was perhaps this angst that led him to make a social and somewhat political commentary through the string of films he made during this period, whereas the rest of his filmography otherwise remained by and large apolitical.
One of the most important films he made during these turbulent times, and by far the most cynical one he made, was ‘Jana Aranya’ (The Middleman). Adapted from a novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, more popularly known in Bengali literature simply as Shankar, the film tells the story of a young man named Somnath who graduates from Calcutta University, but fails to find a job. After struggling for months, he meets a well-wisher who introduces him to the world of entrepreneurship. Somnath starts a business, acting as a middleman for order supplies, and the money starts flowing in. But he soon realises that no life is easy, and that even in running a successful business, one has to turn a blind eye to one’s moral code. The film’s climax is an out and out shocker, in which Somnath is faced with a startling dilemma of epic proportions, and true to the words of Ray, he fails to choose the right path, for he is neither noble, nor a hero.
The one theme running throughout the film is its frustrated cynicism — the feeling that all is lost. Right at the beginning, even as the title credits roll, we are shown a typical examination hall from 1970’s Calcutta University — walls covered with leftist political slogans, and weak-willed examiners watching helplessly as almost every student openly cheats right in front of their eyes and with complete disregard to their presence. The plight of these teachers spills over to the next scene, where a poor, frustrated, lowly-paid teacher fails to read Somnath’s answer sheets, because the handwriting is quite small, and the teacher cannot afford to buy his prescription glasses. A simple, everyday event such as this changes the life of a young man forever, because for the rest of his life, he will be judged by the marks the teacher must have randomly scribbled on his answer sheets without even bothering to read them.
The cynicism does not end there, because as Somnath soon finds out, there are more than one lakh applications for as few as ten job vacancies, and even a back of the envelope calculation tells him that he does not stand a chance. In the interview that he does make it to, he is asked utterly irrelevant questions such as — ‘What is the weight of the moon?’ — giving us another glimpse of the decay in the employment machinery of the society.
Jana Aranya is perhaps Ray’s most ruthless film, in which he doesn’t hold back from dealing one blow after another. In a heart-wrenching scene, Somnath’s father asks his sons more about the Naxalite movement, wondering how is it even possible for young men and women to embrace death without any hesitation, unless there was a powerful ideal before them. The fact that the old man, himself a freedom-fighter, fails to understand the minds of the youth tells us a lot about the state of the nation during those turbulent times. It is not because of a generation gap, it is because unlike the days of the British Raj, this time, the enemy was within the system.
In another scene, Ray explores the mind of the average Bengali Brahmin young man beautifully when Somnath shows his reluctance towards doing business, to which an experienced well-wisher (played beautifully by Utpal Dutt) remarks that as a Brahmin, he would be comfortable standing and begging for alms in the corner of the street, but wouldn’t be comfortable trading. Satyajit Ray at his cynical best. When Somnath comes home and seeks his father’s permission to start a business of his own, his father, a principled old man, hesitates at first, commenting that none of his forefathers had ever done business, but is soon to follow up with a brilliant realisation, that till about two generations ago, none of them had taken up a job either. Through these scenes, Ray, who himself came from a family of entrepreneurs, strikes at the heart of the deep-rooted irreverence that the Bengali middle class youth nourishes towards the very notion of commerce.
But the film’s most brutal scenes come when throughout an eventful night, Somnath is forced to accompany a ‘Public Relations Officer’ from one part of the city to another, looking for a female escort to satiate the lust of a high-ranking official who could make or break a deal for him. Ray literally, and perhaps for the first time in his filmmaking career, bares his fangs and pokes us in the eye to show us what a strange and hopeless world we live in. Shot beautifully in black and white, with the use of light to symbolically cover only one half of most faces in the night scenes, juxtaposing the ruthless streets and markets against a loving and caring sister-in-law at home who supports him no matter what, and once again focusing on the human content more than the external glamour, Ray puts Somnath in a world of shocks and surprises, only to make him realise, that beginning right from education, to employment, to entrepreneurship, there is no country for an honest man.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include ‘14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray’, and his original works include the mystery novels ‘Patang’, ‘Penumbra’ and ‘Here Falls The Shadow’.