City, cinema and culture
Last week I discussed the complex relationship that exists between
city, cinema and culture. Today, as a way of illustrating some of those
ideas and reflections, I wish to examine the Calcutta trilogy by
The Adversary, Company Limited and The Middleman form this trilogy,
and these three films are described as constituting the Calcutta trilogy
because all three of them are set in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) and
seek to chart the impact of the city on the lives and consciouness of
Satyajit Ray lived in Calcutta (that is where I met him a number of
times with the then director of the Indian film festival and my-coauthor
Malti Sahai).However, for many years he did not feel impelled to portray
the city in his films. He was far happier and far more at ease in
depicting the peasant life in Bengal and the social changes that were
taking place in an earlier era in an agricultural society.
And he was criticised by some film critics and a number of younger
directors for this aversion. With the making of the Calcutta trilogy, to
be sure, all this changed; he made a resolute attempt to capture the
interplay between city life and city dwellers in a sensitive way.
This is not to suggest that the Calcutta trilogy is flawless or that
there are blind spots in the films that form the trilogy; what this
trilogy underlines is Ray's recognition of the necessity of exploring
this very important facet of Indian reality.
Before we examine the Calcutta trilogy, it may be useful to consider
an earlier film made by Satyajit Ray that deals with city life; it
allows us to see how his interests in this theme began to take shape.
The film is The Big City (Mahanagar). Calcutta is the capital of west
Bengal and is among the ten largest cities in the world.
From 1772-1912 it was the capital of British India. It has a large
population living in an area of 550 square miles. Calcutta has been the
world's largest processor of jute. This is also a city that has played a
determinative role in the social, political, cultural and intellectual
life of India. Calcutta like most other big cities has become a site for
the political, cultural, ideological transmission of new ideas and
contestations of them. In the films by Ray that I plan to discuss, we
will explore how the urbanisation of consciousness that is rapidly under
way affects the city-dwellers.
The Big City can be read as an attempt to examine the impact of city
life on the people who live in it and how their values and life styles
are inflected by it. The presence of the city is at the nerve-centre of
meaning in the film.
The film deals with the problems and privations encountered by
Subrata and his wife Arati living n Calcutta. Subrata is employed as an
accountant in a bank; but his income is hardly sufficient to meet his
family obligations. As a result he comes round to the view that Arati
too should find employment as a way of supplementing their income. At
first Arati turns down the request, but later consents to work as a
sales girl. Despite Subrata's attempts to convince his father than times
have changes and that everyone should adapt to changing times prudently,
the father is appalled by this idea.
After Arati finds employment, an entirely new world opens before her.
She begins to find the job appealing and the people with whom she
interacts likeable. Her boss, Mukherjee takes a liking to her, but her
father-in-law resolutely refuses to accept her money.
As the story unfolds, we begin to discern a change in Arati's
behaviour and outlook on life. Clearly, the city life is having a
palpable impact on the way she thinks and acts and makes sense of the
world. This arouses a measure of anxiety in the husband; through the
help of an influential friend, he is able to find a second job.
He works on this job after bank hours. He tells Arati that as he now
has a second job, that Arati need not work any more. The following day,
Arati goes to the office carrying her letter of resignation. Meanwhile,
Subrata has lost his job and is desperately seeking to prevent his wife
from tendering her resignation. However, the sequence of events that
follows makes it imperative that she hand in her letter of resignation.
Clearly, the big city is essentially a city film. The experience
dramatised in this film can take place only in the physical and
psychological space of the city. The growth of Arati's character is
initially associated with the urban milieu and its dictates. However,
the film makes no real effort to capture the feel of the cityscape with
open air shots of the streets of Calcutta. Except for a few carefully
selected images of buildings and tramcars, the bulk of the film is shot
indoors. It can be said that, in many ways, the physical density of the
city is largely absent and what we see is the impact of urban life on
Arati as she lives and works in her three-room apartment and office.
What we perceive, then, is not the physical presence of the city of
Calcutta but its psychological presence. In spite of the fact that Ray
has been able to depict the evolution of Arati's character in relation
to city influences, we do not get the feeling that he has succeeded in
confronting the harsher realities of urban living visually.
The vital relationship between material space and social identity has
not been forcefully established. It is in the Calcutta trilogy that was
to follow this film that Ray was able to rectify this deficiency.
The Adversary is the first film in the Calcutta trilogy. It focuses
on an important urban problem, educated unemployment. Siddhartha is the
protagonist of the film. His father dies while he is a student at the
medical school. Hence, the newer circumstances force him to find a job.
The film begins with him being interviewed for a job, and through the
interview we come to learn that he us twenty-five years old, has a
degree in science, has spent two years in the medical school, is
idealistic by temperament and has a socialist cast of mind. In the
interview he is candid and forthright; as a result he fails to land the
Siddhartha has a brother and sister, and they are very different from
him. His sister is Sutapha and is pretty; she is unafraid to make use of
her physical appeal to further her career interests. It is rumored that
she is involved in an amorous relationship with her boss. It is evident
that Sutapha is a product of urban culture of consumption and is quite
content to operate in it.
We observe how she frequently listens to radio music, enjoys fashion
magazines and fantasizes being a fashion model. Cleary, she is a
liberated woman. Siddhartha does not approve of her ways. However, he
has to face up to the harsh fact that it is she, and not him, who
supports the family.
Siddhartha’s brother, Tunu, offers a contrasting picture. He is a
Naxalite and a committed socialist and believes in the necessity of
revolution for social advancement. When we first meet him in the film,
we see him with leg wounds, probably caused by some kind if explosion.
He makes bombs. At one time, Siddartha was also a revolutionary, but now
has embraced a more moderate position.
Adinath, a friend from college days, is another foil to Siddhartha.
He is sly, immoral, and a man of the world; when it comes to obtaining
the good things in life he has no moral scruples. It is obvious that
these characters, in their differing ways, offer contrasts to
Siddhartha. They are, to be sure, all products of the urban way of life.
The sequence of events leading to Siddhartha’s second interview
prepares us for the climax of the film. There are seventy-one candidates
anxiously awaiting their turn. Understandably, a sense of nervous
expectation pervades the atmosphere and Ray’s camera captures this mood
In the meantime, one of the candidates passes out in the stifling
heat. Siddhartha immediately forms a group to ask for more chairs. As
they go inside the room where the interviews are being conducted, he is
at once identified as a mischief-maker. In a fit of anger, he overturns
the tables and yells out against the less than human conditions under
which the interviews are being held.
In this film Ray has been able to capture the psycho-geography that
marks the city of Calcutta. He directs our attention towards diverse
visual icons and how they add to the urbanisation of consciousness that
s occurring ceaselessly. If The Adversary was about educated
unemployment, the second film in the trilogy, Company Limited concerns
itself with the anglicized business community in Calcutta. The members
of it are vitally connected to the urban ethos.
Their lifestyle is closely associated with clubs, cocktail parties,
and racing. The film examines the character of Syamalendu who is a
business executive. He is ambitious and yearns to be a company director.
The other important character in the film is Tultul, his sister-in-law.
She is educated, intelligent and has arrived in Calcutta to visit her
sister after a long period of time. She is obviously happy to be in
Calcutta and visits beauty parlors, goes to the races, and other places
of interest frequented by sophisticated urbanites. In a sense Tultul
emerges as a moral barometer against which Syamalendu’s success is
Things are going well for Syamaendu when he suddenly learns that a
consignment of fans scheduled to be sent abroad is defective. He, with
the assistance of a company labour officer, comes up with a plan. They
precipitate a lock-out and thus manage to save the contract. Before
long, Syamalendu ends up as the director of the company; naturally, his
wife is exceedingly pleased with the new turn of events.
However, the only person whose admiration he ardently desires does
not appear to be impressed. What we see in this film is the
representation of the mind-set, ambitions, and the contours of urbanised
consciousness of the members of the westernised business community who
are generally referred to as ‘boxwallahs’. It seems to me that Ray has
dramatised with great perspicacity the urbanised consciousness in
relation to space and interpersonal relations.
The Middle Man is the last film in the Calcutta trilogy. Here we are
presented with the rampant corruption that plagues urban society. It is
indeed a society that is fast declining as it has evidently lost touch
with moral roots and has turned its back on humane values. It has no
ethical compass to guide it. This decline is closely linked to the urban
ethos. The film focuses on the life and dilemmas of Somnath. He is an
extremely intelligent student; however, he does not fare too well at the
examination through no fault of his. When the examiner reads his answer
script he is tired and distracted by personal worries. As a consequence
Somnath suffers. He manages to secure an ordinary pass. What this means
is that his chances in the job market are very slim. As with the
protagonist of The Adversary, he finds interviews for jobs simply
meaningless and a waste of time.
One day Somnath chances to meet Bisuda, an old friend of his, who
nudges him towards accepting a position as a middle man. In his ne job,
initially, he succeeds in making a few sales and he is happy with the
money he makes. However, it does not take long for him to realise that
his position is one of corruption and immoral behaviour. Part of his job
is to provide the purchasing officer with alcohol and women.
Somnath who is a sensitive and upright person and who grew up in a
family environment that treasured moral values finds this revolting.
However, he does what is expected of him and secures an impressive
contract. When he returns to his apartment he realises that he is no
longer the innocent young man he thought he was; in his eyes, he is now
a damaged and tainted man who has succumbed to the blandishments of the
culture of consumption.
What Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy dramatises so vividly is the
urbanisation of consciousness that is taking place in India and its
social and cultural impact..The three protagonists of the three films –
Siddhartha, Syamalendu and Somnath – in their different ways, and from
their different vantage points, exemplify this phenomenon and its
palpable and unfortunate consequences. Siddhartha represents educated
unemployment; Syamalendu the ambitious and western oriented business
executive; Somnath the sorry plight of men tainted by the defilements of
urban consumerism and commercial imperatives. The other characters, who
in their different ways, serve as foils to these three protagonists;
they reinforce the impact of urbanisation on the consciousness,
behaviour patterns and scale of values of people inhabiting urban
The economic and social changes associated with urbanism unleash
forces that shape and guide human attitudes, perceptions, thought-worlds
in new and complex ways; it is evident that Satyajit Ray is keen to
represent in cinema the play of these forces from his own angle of
vision. However, we need to bear in mind the fact that Ray’s is a
mind-set not of dislocation and discontinuity, but one of assimilation
He recognises that change is inexorable and inevitable, and that it
brings in its train both positive and negative consequences. However,
despite his misgivings, self-doubts, ambivalences of feeling, and the
critical stance he adopts with regard to urbanism, his vision is one of
affirmation that is in keeping with his deeply entrenched critical
humanism. It is indeed his conviction that Indian culture and the
humanism it has always adhered to, contains the resources to overcome
the challenges he has represented in his films.
To understand fully Ray’s attitude to urbanism, one has to examine
the texture of his filmic texts in all their complex and subtle
inter-weavings. For example, in the first film in the trilogy, The
Adversary, two dominant tropes, one visual and the other aural, exercise
a profound controlling influence on the texture of the film. They are
the tropes of a journey and birdcall.
The film opens with Siddhartha, taking the bus to go for his first
interview; the film closes with him leaving for the countryside.
Journeys, temporal, emotional, cognitive, through the urban landscape
permeate the film investing it with the power of a controlling trope.
What Ray seems to be saying is that the ensemble of spatial
transformations and behavioural changes induced by urbanisation are
products of time, of human evolution, and that space and time are
complexly interwoven in human growth. The film begins and ends with
funeral possessions and in the Indian, notably Hindu, consciousness the
funeral procession acts as a signifier of an end as well as a beginning.
These sequences reinforce the trope of journey. As Ray sees it,
urbanism has given rise to newer concepts of space, time and identity.
It is up to us to make this journey as productive as possible overcoming
the numerous impediments and obstacles that are placed as we journey
forward. This is a clear example of the need to pay very close attention
to the carefully constructed weave of Ray’s films to get at their fuller
meaning. In a gifted filmmaker, and Satyajit Ray was clearly one, the
fabric of the film enacts the meaning.
A second dominant trope, this time aural, is the birdcall on the
soundtrack. It symbolises nature, childhood, and tranquility as well as
future possibilities. It is first heard through a flashback to
childhood; later it is hard in the present with the cumulative powers of
resonance. Both these tropes - journey and birdcall – work as signifiers
that strengthen the meaning of the film.
They underscore the importance of continuities in life, and travel
through time. Ray seems to be saying that if we are to understand the
nature of urbanisation and its positive and negative influences, we need
to frame our explorations in terms of ideas of travel, time and
I pointed out earlier the importance of the notion of the city as
mind and the increasing importance of spatial imagination. These feed
directly into the concept of the urbanisation of consciousness. Scholars
such as Henri Lefebvre have sought to examine the movement of society in
terms of the integrating mechanism of urban spatial relations that
encompass everyday life.
Meanwhile geographers such as David Harvey who have written so
perceptively about urban space and meaning systems have focused
attention on the texture of individual relationships and social space as
they affect each other. These lines of inquiry shed valuable light on
the significance of the Calcutta trilogy as an urban text.
It is David Harvey’s belief that capitalism has produced a new kind
of human nature through the urbanisation of consciousness and the
production of newer social space. He is most emphatic about the fact
that the modern city is basically a capitalistic city.
He says that, ‘increasing urbanisation makes the urban the primary
level at which individuals now experience, live out and react to the
totality of transformation and structures in the world around them…..it
is out of the complexities and perplexities of this experience that we
build an elementary consciousness of space and time; of social power and
its legitimisation; of forms of domination and social interaction; of
relations to nature through the production and consumption; and of human
nature; civil society and political life.’
The point that Harvey is making is that capitalism is responsible for
the creation of cities which in turn generate a consciousness of a
complex and many-sided reality. Manuel Castells, another thinker who has
gained great critical acclaim for his investigations into this subject,
talks about the production of urban meaning. He says, ‘cities like
social reality are historical products not only in their physical
materiality but in their cultural meaning in the role they play in the
social organisation, and in peoples’ lives….we therefore define as urban
form the symbolic expression of social meaning and of historical
super-impositions of urban meanings (and their forms) always determined
by a conflictive process between historical actors.’
There have been a number of important new approaches to the
understanding of city space ranging from Saskia Sassen to Michel de
Certeau. Sassen in her work The Global City examines how New York,
London and Tokyo became command centres for the global economy. She
emphasises the cross-border dynamics that has resulted in complex forms
He also draws attention to issues of class and urban topography.
Similarly, Certeau talks about the experience of city life – physical,
psychological, emotional – that has to be thought afresh. For example,
Michel de Certeau in his book The Practice of Everyday Life describing
the coming down from the top of the World Trade Center in new York as an
act of leaving the solitary and abstracting theoretical position of
master-planning with the intent of walking into a bustling, tactile
space of practice that is marked by eventfulness. His stress on tactile
nature of the city experience is extremely important. There have been,
in recent years, such newer theorisations of urban space that should
prove to be of great inspiration to filmmakers and film theorists. Some
of the newer understandings of urban space as outline d in the work of
such scholars as Lefebvre, Harvey, Castells, Soja etc. facilitate the
framing of the discussion on urbanisation of consciousness and its
implications as they relate to the Calcutta trilogy more insightfully.
Cinema admirably concretises, gives flesh and blood, to abstractions
advanced by social theorists.
The discursive space of the city opened up by social theorists, it is
pointed out, is marked by power relations and bear traces of ideological
motives. Cinema is a textual practice with its overlay of visual, aural,
verbal; it is implicated in the production of meanings, significances
and values. It presents us with complex icons. All these aspects of
cinema serve to bring to life some of the abstract formulations of
As we explore the meaning of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy from
diverse angles, we become aware of the breadth and intensity of the
urbanisation of consciousness that modern social theorists have
described in their academic writings. Ray, in his own inimitable style,
humanises the intersection of space, time and being and highlights it in
a way that many social theorists do not. That is where Ray’s work
becomes important; he foregrounds the experiential, phenomenological and
affective dimensions of urbanism. His depiction of the redemptive power
of time is particularly significant in this regard. As I have stressed
throughout this column, the relationships that exist among cinema, city
and culture are complex and multi-faceted.
The important point that needs to be highlighted here is that films
not only represent the urbanisation of consciousness that occurs
irretrievably but also shapes it in ways that serve to bring out the
role of ideology and power.
So far I have discussed social theory and Ray’s cinema. In conclusion
I would like to broaden the discussion so that we will be able to
discuss some of the innovative work that is currently been done in
cinema in terms of these novel formulations and approaches. In this
regard, I wish to focus on two aspects. The first is the way in which in
certain films the unfolding of the plot, its structure and sequential
arrangements conform to the spatial organization that characterises the
formal structure of the narrative. Take for example, the great American
cinematic invention, the Western. In most Westerns, the horizontal and
linear progress of narrative reflects the linear nature of the narrative
structure. These two attain a convergence in the journey of the
protagonist – he pursues a path of action and danger until he comes to
rest in a new home. Here we find a close correspondence between
narrative structure and spatial imagination.
The second is how in modern cinema we observe urban space serving to
guide sensory and perceptual information and this facilitates the
production of particular conceptions of space.
As one critic astutely observed, ‘the city orients and organises
family, sexual, and social relations insofar as the city divides
cultural life into public and private domains, geographically dividing
and defining the particular social positions and locations occupied by
individuals and groups.
Cities establish lateral, contingent, short or long-term connections
between individuals and social groups, and more or less stable
divisions, such as those constituting domestic and generational
distinctions. These spaces, divisions, and inter connections are the
roles and means by which bodies are individuated to become subjects.’
The relationship between city, cinema and culture, then, is one that
repays close analysis. Such analyses will enable us to deepen our
understanding of cinema as well the evolving nature of the urban