Satyajit Ray series #5: Jana Aranya (aka The Middleman) (1976)

Jana Aranya is about a recently passed out graduate called Somnath Banerjee (Pradip Mukherjee) who, like any new graduate, is moving on to the next stage of his life: job hunting. Even though he is among the 40% who has passed, he misses his honors by a few points much to the disappointment of his rigid Gandhian father. Somnath is the younger son and has an elder brother Bhombol (Dipankar Dey) who lives with his wife Kamala (Lily Chakravarty) in the same house.

Ray takes few minutes out of the film’s opening scenes to show us the possible reason for Somnath scoring a lower grade: his professor had quite a difficult time reading his paper. To add insult to injury, Somnath’s girlfriend (Aparna Sen) decides to break up with him citing the pressure from her parents to marry someone who is already well-established. Somnath is, to put it bluntly, jobless. Now this is a part that, I think, most Indian youth might relate to. How many of you had to break up (mutually, of course) because either one of you thought you could be a burden for the both of you? By chance, he comes across a businessman named Bhisu (Utpal Dutt). They two know each other.

Bhishu reveals to him that he is a “middleman” – a supplier of goods, anything for which there is a demand. Bhishu offers to be a mentor but also reminds him, rather painfully, that he’ll have to do the rest on his own. “I won’t help you. I’m just a launching pad”, he tells him. Somnath initiates his career as a “middleman” and is soon going in and out of companies asking if they need anything. Things seem to be going really well and he even makes a remarkable profit from all this until one day, when he runs into a small roadblock. It seems that one of his client is already a client of another company. Realizing that he would suffer a significant dip in profits, he becomes disheartened.

It is then that his eyes fall upon a business card, of a man called Mittir (played brilliantly by Rabi Ghosh). Mittir calls him a Public Relations Expert but is actually a “fixer”. He is like Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction and has no qualms about being in this line of work. “There is neither hypocrisy nor snobbery in me, Mr. Banerjee”, says he at one point. Somnath is desperate and Mittir knows it. He asks him something (which I won’t reveal) that shakes him to his very core. Somnath didn’t see this coming. Mittir asks him if he has the guts to do what it takes in order to become successful.

Considering the fact that Somnath was brought up by a father who is a staunch and conservative Brahmin who never ever wavered from his principles and expects the same of his own children, this difficult question puts him in an extremely tight spot.  What we have here is a situation that makes you ask: “Would you do the same thing if you were in Somnath’s shoes? Would you be willing to give up your well-preserved moral values and dignity if you were faced with a similar predicament?” The shockingly devastating effect of Mittir’s question is palpable and the intense discomfort that Somnath experiences at that moment is almost unbearable.

We are as conflicted as Somnath is and feel pity for the plight of this man who is full of innocence and is suddenly thrust into the harsh and unforgiving realities of the modern world. He is given “valuable” advice from all corners. “You must be more blunt, Mr.Banerjee”, tells another businessman.  He is constantly reminded that it’s his reluctance to come out from behind this veil of innocence that is stopping him from achieving what he really wants. Every advice that is meant for Somnath is meant for the viewer as well, especially if the viewer is a youngster who happens to be a college graduate.

This is gutsy filmmaking at its finest and I believe it caused a considerable amount of controversy during its release. I wonder how Ray would’ve made the same film today if he were to make it for the first time. How far would he go and would anyone let him? This is Ray at his most unrestrained and it is evident from his bold narrative choices and techniques. The filmmaking is a combination of cinema verité and conventional cinematic techniques. I see this film as one of Ray’s greatest accomplishments. I hope it gets a Criterion release soon. It very much deserves it.

(Jana Aranya is the third film in Ray’s Calcutta trilogy. My review for the first film Pratidwandi, can be read here.)

 

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