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Sunday, 10 June 2012





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City, cinema and culture

[Part 2]

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 Satyajit Ray.

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 people.

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.

City film

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 job.

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 cogently.

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 measured.


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 spaces.

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 and continuity.

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 continuity.

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… 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 of networking.

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 social theorists.


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.

Urban space

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 discourse.



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