Seemabaddha: Satyajit Ray's indictment of the corporate rat race, and what it makes of us
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.
It is now well-known that before he became a filmmaker, Satyajit Ray had had a brief professional career with the British advertising agency named DJ Keymer in the 1940s, working as a junior visualiser for the firm. Ray’s stint with the company was hardly a happy one, and it was perhaps drawing from his experiences with the futility of the rat race in such corporate firms that he decided to adapt a novel on the same subject by renowned Bengali writer Mani Shankar Mukherjee. In 1971, therefore, Ray made Seemabaddha (Company Limited), which went on to win the National Film Award for Best Feature Film that year.
Shyamalendu Chatterjee is a sales and marketing manager in Hindustan Peters — a British-run electric fans and lights manufacturing company — heading their fans division. He is a promising young man, extremely ambitious, and is quite popular within the company. He is due for a promotion to the level of director, but vying for the same position is his colleague and rival — the sales and marketing manager of the lights division. The company pays him an exceedingly handsome salary and has given him a sprawling apartment in a posh neighbourhood in Kolkata, where he lives with his wife. His seven-year-old son studies in a boarding school in Darjeeling, and owing to a company policy, his parents live in a separate apartment in the other part of town. Shyamalendu has had modest beginnings, and in the beginning of his career, he was an idealistic teacher. But the glitter and glamour of the corporate world have corrupted him and he is now a smart and shrewd man with his eye on a place among the board of directors of the company.
When Shyamalendu’s wife’s sister comes visiting them from Patna, he takes an instant liking to her. For the first time since he met her many years ago, he notices young Tutul as a woman, rather than as a little girl. Tutul too is extremely fond of her brother-in-law and is secretly envious of her sister’s luck. She looks up to Shyamalendu, who used to be her father’s favourite student and a principled young man with a taste for the more refined aspects of life. But now, things have changed. Tutul goes around with her sister and her husband as they show her around the city, dining at fancy restaurants and clubs, betting on horses at the racecourse and shopping at upmarket stores. This stark change in her sister’s lifestyle startles her, but she takes it all in good spirit, enjoying all of it without once letting go of her small-town sensibilities. And through the days that pass, she can’t help but admire her brother-in-law all over again, this time in a new light, as a hard-working, intelligent and successful man. Little does she know that to earn his promotion, her brother-in-law can stoop to unthinkable lows. When she does find out, she is shattered, and Shyamalendu, despite having secured the much sought-after promotion, is left ashamed, dissatisfied and disillusioned, having lost the respect of the young woman who once thought the world of him.
In Seemabaddha, Ray highlights the unbridled greed that often tends to creep into the lives of successful corporate executives. He also speaks against being too ambitious. In a rather poignant scene from the movie, an old and wise Tamil gentleman, who is soon to retire from Hindustan Peter’s salary division after several decades of service, quotes Joseph Conrad to warn Shyamalendu — ‘All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind’. Ray is careful to show Shyamalendu as an extremely deserving candidate for the promotion he seeks so dearly, at the same time showing him as weak and afraid at the crossroads of life, when a moral and ethical dilemma challenges his character. As Shyamalendu himself admits, most of the things he has to do in his life ‘are like Geography’ — a subject he hated in school, but one which he was forced to study, since it was in the syllabus. Not once does Ray show his protagonist as a villainous character. It is almost as if he is forced to do the things he does to reach the top. It is another matter, of course, that his love for the summit makes him so blind, that he fails to see what he has become in the end.
Like a masterful captain completely in command of his craft, Ray extracts skilled performances from each and every one of his actors. Sharmila Tagore is fabulous as the small-town girl who virtually worships her sister’s husband. She delivers a largely muted performance, with just the right hint of feeling out of place in a world that is so alien to her — a world of cocktail parties, fancy salons, letching old corporate bigwigs and cabaret shows, a world where a sudden and unannounced visit by Shyamalendu’s old parents in the middle of a party becomes a situation of embarrassment for everyone. In a powerful scene, Tagore’s character finds herself in the middle of a party, jumping in shock as a war between the police and a group of Naxalites rages on in the streets outside, with not a single man or woman at the party paying any trace of attention to the sounds of explosion and gunfire, the lively piano music drowning out the sound of death and destruction outside. The contrast portrayed between the haves and the have-nots is disturbing, to say the least. In another beautiful scene, as her brother-in-law takes his time to admire her and flirt with her, she calmly walks around the room, gently pulling a book out from the shelve, turning it around and plugging it back in, in its proper position. The scene is a perfect example of ‘show don’t tell’, describing the decay in the otherwise spic and span and glamorous life of Shyamalendu Chatterjee — who is a post-graduate in English literature, a gold medallist, but who now does not even care to notice the disarray among his favourite books 10 feet away from his eyes.
Barun Chanda’s performance as the rising but flawed young executive is nothing short of Ray’s other, more celebrated antihero — Arindam Mukherjee of Nayak. Chanda injects into the role of Shyamalendu a much-needed human touch, making us like him and loathe him in the same breath. We like him because there are certain undeniably admirable qualities he possesses. Even within the heartless jungle of greed and selfishness, he has managed to keep certain principles alive – for instance his sympathetic attitude towards the cause of the rebellious young men and women of the city. And at the same time, we abhor his conscious sacrifice of all moral principles and ethics, when it comes to the point that he might lose a long-fought battle to his rival. In the end, Barun Chanda’s biggest achievement in the film is that in Shyamalendu Chatterjee, he succeeds in making us find a bit of ourselves. Satyajit Ray’s biggest achievement, on the other hand, is to remind us that even after we have achieved everything we have ever desired, we may still find ourselves to be lonely, dejected and discontent.
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.