Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha: A Lesson On The Price of Ambition

The Barun Chanda - Sharmila Tagore film is a meditation on our definitions of success, the cost of ambition and the slow degeneration of humanity as a result of these factors
A still from Satyajit Ray's Seemabaddha
A still from Satyajit Ray's Seemabaddha

Joining Linkedin at the start of this year was truly life altering for me in more ways than one. My closed world that had hitherto only revolved around academics, books, films, music and my limited socialization with my close friends suddenly opened up. I connected with the world. I suddenly realised what the world's other inhabitants were up to; their numerous achievements, their multiple internships and the completion of more than a dozen courses and programmes filled up my screen. I was happy for them, glad that they were on the path to achieving their dreams. At the same time, this also brought with it a barrage of emotions such as nervousness, uncertainty, self-doubt, a sense of questioning my own productivity (or lack of, given how much others on Linkedin were doing) – all of which can be broadly bracketed under the umbrella term of 'existential crisis' and which most people my age are wont to experience at an alarming frequency these days, thanks to the world we live in. A world that has begun to increasingly prize insane working hours as proof of one's productivity and consequently, one's dedication. A world that emphasises ambition and appreciates success – most of which is of the material kind.

Over this weekend, I found that these questions were also explored by Satyajit Ray in his underrated work, Seemabaddha (1971). Chronicling the life, trials and tribulations of its flawed and complex protagonist Shyamalendu Chatterjee (a suave and sophisticated Barun Chanda), the film is a meditation on our definitions of success, the cost of ambition and the slow degeneration of humanity as a result of these factors.

The first hour of this film had me piqued. Shyamalendu seemed to have everything going for him. A college topper who now worked as a high-ranking manager in a prestigious firm with a loving wife, a prospect of a promotion, his world drew me in – his lifestyle consisting of lunches at a club and visiting race-courses, smoking expensive cigarettes and drinking glasses of sherry. His wife too seemed comfortable – having the luxury of choosing not to work (unlike Aarti in Ray's Mahanagar who must work to supplement the declining family income), getting her hair done at an expensive parlour and going out to movies. The visit of Shyamalendu's sister-in-law, Sudarshana "Tutul" (a charming Sharmila Tagore) adds to the liveliness – Shyamalendu and she frequently bantering and teasing each other.

Thus, as we watch the first hour, we often wonder where this film is headed. There are discussions galore – the characters dissecting and eventually dismissing the role of trade unions, talking about consignments, trying to make light jokes around women and the like. And yet, none of it seems to be impacting the lives of the characters. They talk but once the conversation ends, they are back to their lives, pursuing their ambitions, competing with each other, going as far as indulging in superstition in the hope that it will bring them a step closer to their goals.

It is past the one hour mark of the film where Ray introduces the main conflict – Shyamalendu realises that one of the consignments of fans headed for delivery to Iraq cannot be sent. He is beset with conundrum – the deadline approaching closer with every day and yet he knows that the delivery of these fans would only risk the reputation of his company. But at a micro level, he is also concerned about his own position – his job will effectively be in danger if he doesn't take urgent steps to control the situation. We watch, as he goes down a questionable path, stirring flames of conflict among the factory workers and the company, going as far as to even get someone to have a bomb detonated at the factory.

The conversations in the first hour suddenly begin to make sense as the actions of its characters unravel their true mindsets and intentions, hidden under a veneer of sophistication, Anglophonic tendencies and pretentious facades.

Ray skilfully critiques the affluent class. He exposes their desire to climb the ladders of success that afford them privilege and consequently, allows them access. This is shown in the scene where Shyamalendu, his wife and Tutul have lunch at the club where we are told that the club previously was the exclusive domain of the British but ever since independence, has opened its doors to Indians as well. Yet this is restricted to a certain class alone – the same class that dismissively talks of trade unions but is quick to exploit these very same unions for their own selfish gains. At the same time, Ray shows how Shyamalendu does not directly incite the unions for his benefit. He gets a subordinate by the name of Talukdar who in turn uses someone else to incite the workers to false mutiny.

This apathy towards the working classes is further shown in a sequence where Shyamalendu and Talukdar discuss the victim of the bomb blast at the factory. Shyamalendu wonders what if the man had died, to which Talukdar replies that if that had been the case, he would just have ordered a wreath for the man in Shyamalendu's name and given it. The entire conversation takes place with the two characters laughing. This normalization of violence reflects the degeneracy of human values as a result of the single minded pursuit of ambition.

And yet, while exploring this theme of ambition, Ray provides the audience with a protagonist who is deeply flawed and complex. Often, we are presented ambitious characters as distinctly one-note and unidimensional – characters who seem to be loudly confident, declaring their abilities, intelligence and goals with an annoying frequency. On the contrary, Shyamalendu is hardly loud. His is a quiet confidence, a self-assurance that adds to his aura and his general air of speaking and behaving. He is ambitious and talented too, but does not trouble the audience with repetitive loud proclamations of the same. One almost roots for him and even when he takes questionable decisions, one sees him for what he is – a human being caught in the web of success and materialism and the desire for more, often at the cost of his relationships and the esteem of those close to him.

Tutul, in particular, holds Shyamalendu in high esteem but as she slowly discovers him to be a self-seeking, mercenary and manipulative egotist, we see her behaviour towards him change. Initially extremely affable, she makes her silent displeasure clear in the final scene of the film – when she takes off a watch that he had given her and places it silently on the table, a metaphor for her almost cutting ties with him.

The film is peppered with several such other metaphors. As the film heads towards its conclusion, we watch Shyamalendu come home after achieving a much desired promotion. He stops in front of an elevator that has a notice hung outside it with the words "Out of Order" written on it. Here, Ray almost seems to nudge his audience towards accepting the fact that our systems are deeply faulty to the point of being out of order – systems that encourage blind ambition and thoughtless actions in pursuit of goals. We watch our protagonist climb several flights of stairs to reach his apartment – this climb almost serving as a metaphor for the climb along the ladder of success, one that often leaves one tired at the end and perhaps even a tad regretful.

Seemabaddha is not for a moment didactic and yet it leaves its audience with many life lessons. It forces us to ask of ourselves – what do we actually want in life? And what means are we willing to use, in order to achieve our ends? An important character in the film compares ambition to fire, remarking that if one is too distant from it, one cannot feel its warmth but if one is too close to it, one may get singed by it. In an age where being unambitious is looked down upon, Seemabaddha exhorts its audience to re-evaluate their ideas of success and the pursuit of the same.

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