Pratidwandi: Satyajit Ray's reflection on the battle between man and metropolis
Satyajit Ray adapted Pratidwandi from the novel of the same name by veteran Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay
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 said that one of the responsibilities of an artist is to reflect the times he lives in, to paint an accurate picture of what he sees around him. In the beginning of the turbulent '70s, after witnessing the moral decadence of the world he found himself in, along with the complete breakdown of the very fabric of society, and the painful dilemma of seeing the slow death of the city he loved so dearly versus his staunch unwillingness to abandon that same city, Satyajit Ray did what he did best — he made a film about it. The film was to go on to become the first of a trilogy of his observations on the myth of the urban life. The other two films in his now famous ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ were Seemabaddha (Company Limited) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) — both of which have been discussed in this column. But the film that we are going to talk about today, the film that set it all off, way back in 1970, is Pratidwandi (The Adversary).
Ray adapted Pratidwandi from the novel of the same name by veteran Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. Siddhartha Chaudhuri is a 25-year-old man living in Kolkata who has had to give up his medical studies after the unexpected death of his father. He now lives with his widowed mother and two younger siblings. Siddhartha’s daily routine comprises walking the city’s streets looking for a job, appearing in interviews, and hanging out with two of his friends who are continuing their studies. After roaming around the city with the cruel sun over his head all day, he returns home at night, only to face the usual middle-class household problems.
His sister is the only earning member of the family, and although Siddhartha is fiercely protective of her, he knows that she has secured her job not because of her merit, but thanks to her stunning looks. There are rumours of an affair between her and her boss — a married and rather affluent man working for a private firm — and although Siddhartha does not believe in the rumours, he suspects that the man in question might be taking advantage of his little sister. Also in the family is Siddhartha’s younger brother, who is actively involved in student politics. Despite being a brilliant student, the young boy is a revolutionary in spirit, and Siddhartha is worried for his safety. But neither of his siblings pay much attention to what Siddhartha has to say to them, and this adds to his steadily growing frustration. Despite his initial resistance to the idea, by the end of the film, Siddhartha is forced to leave the city and take up a job outside Kolkata.
There are several things that make Pratidwandi a great film. Perhaps chief among them is the way Ray handles the character of his protagonist. Frustrated beyond measure, and still keeping his sanity, his ethics and his decorum intact, Siddhartha is a man caught between a family that he cares for but cannot relate to anymore, a girl who is romantically interested in him but cannot commit to him because of her own problems, and a city that seems hell bent upon shoving him down to the ground every time he tries to stand up on his feet.
Take his two siblings, for example. They represent two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. While his sister has realised that it is all right to use one’s physical charm to survive in this brutal and materialistic world where every single interaction is a transaction in one form or the other, his brother still believes in a dream state of equality for all, and is willing to achieve it through armed rebellion, if necessary. What’s really interesting to see is that in their own ways, they both think that their elder brother has changed beyond recognition since the death of their father. While his sister feels that Siddhartha doesn’t have the necessary shrewdness to make a living for himself in the jungle out there, his brother detests his quest for a life of servitude and generally thinks of him as too weak to protest any injustice towards him. Both are right, as a matter of fact, and the more Siddhartha comes to realise this, the more his angst towards the city grows. One can literally see the exasperation simmering inside him as he sees his friends having a good time, as his brother and sister go about their lives in their own ways, and as the city strikes him over and over again with its corruption, its lack of ethics and its complete apathy towards his condition.
In a beautiful scene towards the beginning of the film, as he finds a bit of shade under a folly in a park and sits down for a moment of relaxation — exhausted and defeated from one more unsuccessful job interview — a bunch of hippies reach the spot, dancing and swaying under the influence of drugs and alcohol, having a good time, admiring the holy cows of India and the green trees and generally saying things which make absolutely no sense at all. Siddhartha watches them for some time, wondering what a happily oblivious state they were living in, and how their apparently silly behaviour could be justified only by the peace in their minds. Perplexing, as it is, he seems to find this peace in the minds of everyone around him — as if everyone is happily going about their own lives, and here he was, running from pillar to post, unable to find acceptance anywhere.
Without a shred of doubt, the two greatest characters in Pratidwandi are the two adversaries — Siddhartha and the city of Kolkata. Dhritiman Chatterji plays the calm, reserved, reticent young man who is barely holding it together, and he does it with such finesse that you can feel the tension building with each passing scene. The way Chatterji holds a frame is stuff younger actors of our generation can only dream of. His body language, his slight stoop, his impeccable diction, his expressions — everything brings Siddhartha alive on screen. In one of his essays titled ‘An Indian New Wave?’, Ray proposed his own definition of a film star — “A star is a person on the screen who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything” — and he went on to name Dhritiman Chatterji as an example of a true film star. And you can see what he meant when you see Siddhartha Chaudhuri in Pratidwandi. All throughout the film, even as he battles on tirelessly, even with all the rejections he faces, and despite the bitter sense of insecurity looming large, Siddhartha can’t help but recall the call of an unknown bird he had heard when he was a child. What an absolutely beautiful thought!
But at the end of the war between a vast city and a puny foot soldier, the inevitable happens. It is Siddhartha who finally accepts defeat. He crumbles under pressure and his patience gives away. He is forced to leave the city and take up a job in a small town. In one of the most beautiful ending scenes ever captured on film, Siddhartha finally finds peace in the most unexpected way, and accepts his fate.
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
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