Satyajit Ray made three films, Pratidwandi/The Adversary (1970), Seemabaddha/Company Limited (1971), and Jana Aranya/The Middleman (1975), later dubbed his 'Calcutta Trilogy,' which explored life in contemporary Kolkata. Each film follows the voyage of a young middle-class protagonist, as he navigates the metropolitan milieu at a time of radical political and cultural upheaval.
Now, I have not lived through the turbulence of India in the 70s – the tremendous government repression in the face of growing revolutionary terrorism, the Bangladesh War and the refugee exodus, followed by the declaration of a nationwide Emergency. Neither have I witnessed the horrors that transpired in the streets of Kolkata during the rise of the Naxalite Movement. The growing anxiety amid rampant government corruption and rising unemployment was finally giving way to fuming demonstrations, gunshots and Molotov Cocktails. More and more were learning the songs of violent insurgency across the city.
This was the climate of unrest that Ray sought to confront in his 1970 psychological drama The Adversary, that is now fifty years old. And even half a century later, as I watch Siddhartha, the protagonist, grapple with the changing urban landscape of Kolkata, I can not only sympathise with his angst, but can also relate to his predicament. Why?
Let's take a closer look at Siddhartha's crisis to understand. We first see him in a chilling opening scene, filmed in X-Ray negative – a lone figure standing before the flames of his father's funeral pyre. This death completely changes the world of 25-year-old Siddhartha, who can no longer afford to go to medical school. Now, life becomes a journey down the sweltering city streets in frightfully crowded buses, an impossible quest for the unattainable – a job, amid the sociopolitical disquiet. This rat race to find employment leaves Siddhartha completely spent; and yet he must continue his fight to be what he describes as "a copier in the bureaucratic machine", since he is obligated to support his family.
An acquaintance even offers him a job, but one in a small town outside the city. Even though he is desperate for employment, Siddhartha is not quite ready yet to confront the idea of leaving Kolkata, the city full of "life, rotten life, but still life". But Kolkata feels cold and hostile, looks unfamiliar in the prevailing tumult, and seems unwilling to integrate Siddhartha. Helpless before the transforming, elusive metropolis that he can never quite keep up with, or bear to leave, Siddhartha feels powerless, trapped by his adversarial circumstances.
In a memorable job interview sequence, Siddhartha candidly admits to stern-looking bureaucrats that he thinks the "plain human courage" shown by ordinary Vietnamese people in the war was more significant than the American moon landing. This admission is particularly remarkable, because it is not an intentional attempt to further any political agenda (Siddhartha has none), or to wrest some kind of moral victory. It is a sincere confession of Siddhartha's personal opinion. It is also the product of an open, thinking mind – where the rest of the world sees ideological fanaticism, Siddhartha recognises real human bravery. The interviewers immediately demand, "Are you a communist?" and Siddhartha retorts, "I don't think one has to be one in order to admire Vietnam, sir." Later, he isn't proud of making an inappropriately subversive statement, just distressed after losing a job opportunity.
His home offers all but a respite from his unrest. Siddhartha's sister is the sole breadwinner of the family of five. She seems to have no issues taking advantage of the moral decadence in the materialistic world around her. Here, her physical charm appears to help her ahead, significantly more than any of her merits. Siddhartha's brother, in complete contrast, has joined the militant revolution and demands why Siddhartha is knowingly seeking employment in a corrupt system, instead of protesting. Worried sick that his sister's boss is taking advantage of her, and deeply concerned about his brother's safety, Siddhartha struggles to maintain his relationships with the people he loves, but cannot identify with.
It becomes increasingly clear that Siddhartha is not capable of the moral indifference necessary to collude with the existing system passively; he is too intelligent for servitude. He certainly doesn't possess an ounce of the strategic shrewdness required to climb the rungs of a corrupt, materialistic, morally inconsiderate society. "He (Siddhartha) is Ray's archetypal man of conscience," says Ray's biographer, W. Andrew Robinson.
Siddhartha is deeply troubled by the existing order, but while he does sympathise with the revolutionary cause, in Robinson's words, he is "too much the individual to submerge himself in politics, let alone revolution." His brother says, "You don't have a path at all. You don't know which way you want to go. You're standing in one place and wasting your life." Even a friend remarks that Siddhartha is not a "doer" but a "thinker". And indeed, Siddhartha is full of doubts, dithering, unsure of where he fits in. But long can he continue this irresponsible (and unsustainable) Hamletism?
Not forever, apparently. Towards the end of the movie, Siddhartha does break out of his inaction. It all begins with him standing in a dreary, stifling hallway, thronging with young men clad in white shirts, all waiting for yet another job interview. The oppressive heat is almost unbearable, and there isn't enough seating, ventilation, or drinking water. As Siddhartha watches rows of anxious candidates wait for hours and hours, they suddenly seem like lifeless, chalky skeletons. Soon, he loses his patience – and now, he does not shrink away from revolt. Months of pent-up anger culminate in a feverish outburst of righteous rage, as Siddhartha storms into the interview room and demands, "Are we animals?" upturning a table and hurling a chair at the window.
In the end, Siddhartha has to leave Kolkata. Before the great, all-pervading adversary and its unfathomable powers, he accepts defeat, and takes up a job in the town of Balurghat, far away from the electric city that he loves and loathes. But in a mysterious, unforgettable closing scene, we see that perhaps, in the small, sleepy town, Siddhartha finally finds what he is looking for.
India has indeed changed a great deal since 1970. Today we confront a different set of political, social and cultural forces, and tackle the machinations of a different order. Yet, it is undeniable that we too live in tempestuous times. In today's fast-paced world, it is a constant challenge to find our place in a changing system. Amid a global pandemic and sociopolitical chaos, an omnipresent restlessness and uncertainty about the future permeates our lives. The country faces a migrant exodus and a grave unemployment crisis, and the threat of violence always seems to lurk around the corner. Total political upheaval doesn't seem too far away. And in the incessant mayhem, basic values like respect for human dignity often seem to fall by the wayside.
So, nonplussed by a changing world, and unsure of how he fits into it, Siddhartha's quandary looks a lot like ours. His torment is that of the conscientious, intelligent individualist, reluctant to conform to the polarised roles hurled at him by society. It is the struggle to cling onto sanity in a ruthless, morally decadent world, ready to dismiss nuanced worldviews and moral considerations.
Above all, I think our world today can still prove quite inhospitable to the sensitive, honest, thinking individual. That is why Siddhartha's predicament lives on.