Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jana Aranya

[Probably spoiler-y but no more so than any other article about this film.]

There's a ten-second sequence about half an hour into Jana Aranya that exemplifies what a fantastic movie it is. Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee), a recent college graduate, is plodding through the Calcutta streets looking for work and slips on a banana peel thoughtlessly tossed aside by Bishu (Utpal Dutt), an older gentleman. Onlookers laugh, and Bishu turns around and realizes with some distress what has happened. He and Somnath then recognize each other, and as they exchange pleasantries, the camera angle switches from Somnath surrounded by street wares and passers-by to face Bishu directly, framing him under a giant hoarding for toilets.
What you do not know as you watch this scene initially is that Bishu will soon become Somnath's mentor in business, offering him a door into a line of work as a supplier of basically anything anyone needs, sharing space in his office, and introducing him to various useful people. What Somnath does not know is that following in Bishu's footsteps will land him right back in the ethical grime and nastiness of the modern city, just as it literally did with the banana peel. Bishu, as the hoarding behind him suggests, eventually leads to the sewer.

Ray almost immediately continues this warning with its obvious and as yet unrecognized meanings. A few moments later, the camera focuses on Somnath and Bishu's feet as the two walk along a road full of potholes, puddles, and garbage, and Bishu says "Watch your steps. There are pitfalls all around. There are three kinds of roads here: bad; very bad; very, very bad." (It is a particular but vast pleasure to hear Utpal Dutt say "Bad; very bad; very, very bad" in English. I cannot recommend it enough.) That is exactly the life that Somnath discovers. His reflections on it, and his judgment of his own role within it, create a portrait of modern life full of compromise, misdirection, and self-centeredness.

The film is full of these little but important moments depicted gently: a car glove compartment door keeps falling open to reveal evidence of the driver's vice; a man who marks exams needs new glasses and cannot be bothered to read tiny but neat handwriting by the uncomfortable light in his dark room; an unconfident Somnath struggles to erase a mistyped question mark from a job application cover letter; and during a power cut, a character anchors a candle in a pool of melted wax before providing hopeful reassurance in the face of distress.

An aside: when I first started watching Bengali films in an organized fashion about a year ago, I initially hoped that with time I would find the Manmohan Desai (and screenwriter Prayag Raj, for that matter) of Calcutta. A few Bengali friends assured me there is no such thing, but sometimes I would swear it is Satyajit Ray. The overall tone and the causality of problems and suffering are decidedly different in their films (I read somewhere that Ray very rarely has actual villains, which is fun to think about), but there are just as certainly some similarities: careful structuring of details among a deceptive simplicity, interest in human emotions, repeated symbolism across films (Ray gives people shutters to peep through; Desai makes them temporarily blind), and the very effective use of humor and music.

What non-material comforts are left in this modern world? Very few, the film seems to say. Somnath's father (Satya Banerjee) says he finds no solace in a guru or faith like many other people his age, and he is further unsettled by reports of a friend's son who has moved to America, where he buys expensive cars and thinks it's okay for the generations not to spend much time together.
You can barely see Somnath's arm in the background pulling the curtain across the doorway between himself and his father.
In a weary dinner conversation, the family discusses the ubiquity of bribery, and Somnath's brother unhelpfully pipes up to remind them that since Sanskrit has words for various vices, they all existed in ancient times too. The father, I think, would rather assume the past is rosy.
Romance is unreliable; Somnath's girlfriend leaves him in the beginning of the film for purely pragmatic but still very sad reasons. Friendship is difficult to maintain when jobs and real-world problems pull in different directions.

The only happy people in the movie are the ones who have come to terms with their lives. Some of them probably came by that easily, notably Somnath's brother (Dipankar Dey) and sister-in-law (Lily Chakravarty), who have a calm about them that suggests some kind of contentedness. Late in the film we meet two women who exude comfort and good cheer despite being involved in prostitution, upsetting any association of it with desperation and misery.
Aside: we see no women in any other trade or profession in the film, and I love that their Ray has given what looks a lot like happiness to most of the women he does choose to show. (And as a further detour, I'll quickly add that overall this film is very frank and nonjudgmental about sex, most notably in an older widow who merrily employs her own daughters in a brothel in the family home, but also in fairly casual mentions of it as being an activity that some people do and thus being a playing field on which you can meet them. And because society has some shame about sex, even though these characters seem not to, it's an area in which the opportunistic can take advantage of people who fear their activities being discovered.) The few women in the film are also very straightforward in general, with no trace of coyness or flattery. They look the men in the eye and make no apologies about their choices and feelings.

Pradip Mukherjee has an absolutely perfect resting facial expression in this film. It's not quite a smile, though he does smile often...it's more a cautious optimism or slight wonder, let's call it, and it makes his eventual compromises with his own sense of right and wrong even sadder. He has spent so much of the film looking hopeful that watching his face fall amplifies his tragic resignation.
He looks and acts somewhere between boy and man, which, at least to me watching from 21st-century America, makes sense, given that when we meet him he's finishing school and trying enter into the very adult (in the sense of a harder life of more responsibilities) world of work, all while pleasing his father. The ambivalence of his maturity is reinforced at home by a father who largely treats him as an independent adult—trusting him with money and letting him make his own decision about marriage—and his brother and sister-in-law who respectively tease and mother him. At least two of the older male characters who are ensconced in the world of business comment on his likable face; according to the subtitles they don't quite say he looks automatically trustworthy, but their tone is something along those lines and implies that he can probably have more success in sales than his unaggressive words and gentle demeanor might suggest.

Calcutta in Jana Aranya (the third in Ray's "Calcutta Trilogy") is neither the refined cultural and intellectual capital nor the sophisticated and elegant scene of parties and social clubs as it appears in other films. This Calcutta is at best hustle and bustle, a site of opportunities, and at worst selfishness, moral decline, and opportunism. The city hosts plenty of enterprise but little, if any, progress.

I don't know if Ray is saying that the world of the city is to blame for Somnath's unhappy decisions; such a message would be more clear if Somnath was shown to arrive in the city from somewhere more rural (and thus pure), but as far as I can tell, he is a born and bred city boy. However, he eventually has to leap from being a student of history to a small-scale businessman ("No one in our family has ever done business," says his father as he mulls over Somnath's idea for a job), which I suspect is some kind of critique of the city's failure to value its past. The city's old buildings are grubby and worn in this film instead of stately (if crumbling) landmarks, and in fact there's a minor character who makes his money by tearing down old colonial mansions and putting high-rise apartments in their place. There's even a strange little visual detour as this man explains what he does for a living; as he talks to Somnath about the grandeur of the old homes, the camera wanders shakily through an abandoned mansion, juxtaposing current dilapidation (and eerie music) with memories of luxury. It's a tiny and almost incongruous sequence but says so much about the rotting bones (and maybe heart) of the city that are about to be destroyed completely.
Somnath later accepts a commission from this man in exchange for showing him an old house for sale, and to me this is as poignant a sign of Somnath's ethical education as the film's actual finale: the historian has activiely participated in the destruction of the past.*

The commodities that Somnath seeks and provides too are signs of his ongoing initiation into business. He starts out selling duplicating paper and envelopes—ubiquitous, everyday, everyone-needs-them things—then boxed items that I don't think are ever named but whose wrappers are printed with watchful eyes, and finally optical whitener for textile production—very specific, very artificial, and I assume very cosmetic, used to alter the appearance of the product.

Like any city, the film is full of interesting people and provides a big canvas for a parade of little parts, mostly in Somnath's colleagues and clients. Bimal Chatterjee, for instance, comes off almost like a mob henchman as Bishu's book-cooker with a deep voice and a white suit with huge lapels. Santosh Dutta  as the real estate developer mentioned above is cheerfully predatory, a fun spin on the jovial idiot type he plays in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Teen Kanya, and the Feluda films. Gautam Chakravarti exudes a likable laziness as Somnath's friend and counterpoint Sukumar; they take different routes after school but both stumble closer and closer to the disappointing realities of the wider world.
That's Sukumar sitting in the grimy alley outside his house with his head down and wishing to escape. This moment is heartbreaking. 
The rockstar of the film is Robi Ghosh as the styled, oily "public relations" pro Mr. Mitter, who becomes Somnath's second mentor and the one who directly forces Somnath to deal with the true nitty-gritty of his line of work, namely what kinds of exchanges is he ready to broker.
Mr. Mitter reminds me of the supernatural aid in the heroic monomyth (complete with a talisman, his clear plastic watch) except in reverse:
he dangles success in front of Somnath but keeps upping the price, ultimately slipping away to leave Somnath in the belly of the whale to face the hardest decision on his own (and it is because of Mitter that Somnath must give up the other talismanic item in the film). And of course Robi Ghosh nails every aspect of this character, making Mitter instantly known yet impatient and twitchy, evoking greaseballs and cowards we've all had the misfortunate to meet. In a film full of funny, interesting, and compelling performances, his is the most impressive (although it's also the most showy, so comparison of him to the understated Pradip is probably unfair).

I could go on even longer about how wonderful Jana Aranya is, especially if I broke it down into components that are each interesting and well-crafted on their own. The dynamics of Somnath's family: a quiet and worried father, a deceased mother who left money for her sons, an elder brother who is himself settled but seems to offer no model to for his younger brother to follow, a sister-in-law who seems to have to take care of all of these men yet dotes on Somnath, maybe even standing in a bit for his mother, especially in emotional matters. The visuals of the city of Calcutta, which to my eye comes off as more frantic and confused than it does in any of Ray's other films that I have seen, focusing on crowded buildings or the wares, signs, and people all unevenly stacked on top of one another. The different pieces of advice Somnath is given by his elders and how each of those people does or does not exemplify their own wisdom. The male-ness of these characters' lives. How funny it all is. Once I see all of Ray's feature films—and I only have four left—I hope to do some sort of list of my personal favorites of them, and this will certainly be in my top five. It is so rich, operating on and speaking to many levels, navigating them all brilliantly, just like a successful middle man would need to. Ray, from the novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, has made what is not so much a cynical film but rather a film that wonders about cynicism. It questions whether a life like Somnath's (and lives like those of the people he encounters) are worthwhile beyond financial necessity, whether we should doubt the motives of those who offer us things, and maybe even whether there isn't a better way to reach those things. If such a kind, smart kid as Somnath can so easily find himself a pimp, what does that say about the rest of us who let him? At the same time, the film depicts, mostly in quick flashes, real stability and happiness, often locating them in people whom it's easy to judge and dismiss. It is a complicated world.

Here are some bonus pictures to end. Mitter peruses the menu at Flury's.
and reads an issue of Stardust as a prostitute tells him how much she loves the spicy tidbits about film stars.
The widow/madam has a giant, bounding dog in her otherwise orderly living room (excellent security in her line of work, I would think)
while also confronting her clients with a poster of dewy-eyed puppies.
I have no idea what the set designer was up to with this—possibly to reinforce her as a sort of simplistic cheerful sort—but it cracked me up.

* It's only fair to note that I think it's possible to read this small thread of tearing down colonial mansions to build apartment buildings as a bit of comment on the importance, or at least understandable desire, for contemporary India to get rid of symbols of the British, especially very elite and individual-focused ones, and replace them with much more pragmatic ones based on contemporary needs. Early in the film, Bishu comments that Somnath's birthday is Indian Independence Day (told you Ray and Desai have things in common!), and if it's an important enough detail to include in film, associating (even paralleling) the character with India's growing awareness of its changing needs and desires seems legitimate.

7 comments:

Suresh S said...

Great review, Beth. I love this film as well. I see it as how a person that wants to get ahead in this modern urban world inevitably must get his/her hands dirty. It's one of Ray's most cynical films.

Aparna said...

Strange that you should mention this quote: ""No one in our family has ever done business," says his father"

Not sure if I can generalize, but just a couple of months back when my parents had come to US for a visit, they were taken aback when I told them that one of my friends is an entrepreneur. My mother was like 'why would an educated guy like him want to do business and not get a job?'. The way she said 'Business' in Bengali (byabsa)was so disrespectful that I almost gasped :), because it is so different from what we think about entrepreneurs.

Beth Watkins said...

Suresh - Absolutely. And thank you!

Aparna - A Calcutta-bred Bengali friend on twitter just said more or less the same thing! I learn something every day. :)

Jabberwock said...

Lovely post, Beth! Lots of terrific observations, and it makes me want to rush to see the film again, even though I saw it so recently. Brilliant Ray-Desai parallel too: I wonder what someone like Utpal Dutt - who was even more dismissive of popular cinema than Ray was - would think of Charulata's restricted perspective being likened to Nirupa Roy's blindness in AAA!

Sayak said...

Oh my god I love this film. Although, of the Calcutta Trilogy my favourite would probably be Pratidwandi (because it's absurd and unrelenting and whimsical and for some reason seems to me to be the film Ray had the most fun making in the trilogy), this is possibly the most complete film of the trilogy. What really interests me is a comparison of Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya because they are both basically in the same setting with characters in very similar situations with wildly different outcomes. But, yes, Pratidwandi is angrier, bolder, more in-your-face, while Jana Aranya is more nuanced, complex, layered and mature. And while Pratidwandi has a reasonably "happy" ending, Jana Aranya, far from it.

But seriously, Rabi Ghosh is bloody stellar in this film! This is easily one of his top 3 performances of all time. I love the scene in Flury's in which he pithily deconstructs and destroys Somnath's whole world while chomping on a chicken omelette. I don't know if it's just me, but doesn't he remind you of Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction?

sudipto said...

Wao, comparing Ray with Desai - that's a fresh perspective :-) but now that you have pointed out, not an inappropriate one. It might get you lynched in more conservative Bengali 'intellectual' cirles though :-)

On the 'business' point, as several others have pointed out, Bengali's (1880s onwards) are infamous for their aversion towards business. Brief explanation - we were one of the first ethnic groups to receive English education and get clerical jobs which were more secure/slightly better paying/more glamorous than the other employment options and it became the only career choice after a while. This is the reason why Bengalis often have such disdainful opinion about Marwaris, who are far more enterpreneurial and run 90% of businesses in Kolkata (and employ most Bengalis). Ray refers to this in one of his films (don't remember which) where one of the characters say something like "that fellow is a Marwari, but a gentleman" :-)Similar stuff was there in the movie "Bong Connection" by Anjan Dutta (Worth watching, if you haven't seen it already)too. Several Bengali intellectuals have severely criticized this aspect of Bengalis, but nothing much has changed.

Ron said...

this film has one of the most problematic endings in Ray's ouvre. The futility of middle class morals is shown all through the film. So is the viewer supposed to feel happy in the end, because Somnath has learned to survive, or sad that he has in a way betrayed his friend? The reaction of the father, who doesn't know better, is tragicomic.
Oh, and Ray and Desai in the same breath...seriously??!!!