First scene: a man is sitting in front of a blackboard suggesting that he is supposedly inside a classroom but his mood and gestures contradict our supposition. It seems by his carefree attitude that he is sitting on a bench in a park. The camera then moves to show the full classroom, an exam is going on and another invigilator is roaming between the lines of the benches. A few seconds more into the scene and it becomes clear that why the first man, a professor, is sitting idly like in a park. The students are cheating openly and shamelessly and it is nothing that the teachers could do. That was 70’s Calcutta University. After this, the professor who has to check the copies and give marks is seen complaining about his poor vision and old glasses and how it is impossible for him to check the copies.
This is a 1975 Bengali film, Jana Aranya or The Middleman in english, directed by Satyajit Ray and based on a novel of the same name by Manishankar Mukherjee.
The result comes and our protagonist Somnath Bannerjee (Pradip Mukherjee), a brilliant student with perfect preparation gets average marks and just passes the exam without any honours. His father is adamant that something has gone wrong and he will go to the authorities but his elder son discourages him. The nice, lovely day for Somnath has not ended yet. His girlfriend calls and informs him that she has agreed to marry someone else who is her parents’ choice, a well-settled doctor and gives him a lecture or two on being practical. But strangely, Somnath tackles all these gifts from the almighty god gracefully and doesn’t break. He may be naïve but certainly not weak.
Then starts the process of applying to the jobs where more than one lakh applications are received for ten posts in total. In an excellent scene Somnath tries to type the application himself as the typing charges are high but after failing he goes through the travelled path. Ray brilliantly shows what happens to the piles of these applications which were written with much hard work, money, and care, in the post offices and the concerned offices. The interview scenes are funny and sad both at the same time. It was 1975, but nothing has changed even in 2016. All these job interview questions are the same even today.
After trying for 8 months for a job Somnath decides to start his business. The idea was incepted by his friend and a fellow football fanatic and business person Bisu da (Utpal Dutt). He teaches him the business model of a middle man (and trust me this model is exactly same as the business model of Amazon). Thus, Somnath becomes a middleman who supplies everything from a pin to an elephant with a commission. At this juncture, Somnath seems lucky as his business performs well. But god has not stopped showering his kindness on him and this time, he is entrapped in a much bigger problem- the problem of Morality and Ethics.
Satyajit Ray in his interview to Cineaste has said that The Middleman is his one and only bleak film. I am of the same opinion. This is the only film of ray that is on a single track and treatment is almost like a documentary. No songs, almost no background music it is cold and inhospitable, and yes it is in Black-n-white. But mind it this is not some superficial statement on corruption or some film having corruption as one of its sidetracks. Corruption here is at the centre of all the happenings. Satyajit Ray starts with corruption in the material world and takes it to higher levels, to the corruption of soul itself. He starts with the corruption in college exams and takes it right to the real cause of corruption i.e. decaying moral character of humans and thus makes it a vicious circle.
The film also gives questions to ponder upon. Corruption is a reality and we just can’t close our eyes. We have to face it. But how? By being a part of it? Or by spending our miserable lives fighting it? How? Somnath is basically not a morally corrupt man. Cheating in the exam was easier than the path he takes in the climax but he did not choose to cheat at that time. Doesn’t that mean all of us are just victims of our circumstances? But life always gives us choices and we have to make our choices so we can’t complain about that. And what about corruption, does it have degrees of severity or every act of corruption whether big or small is equal corruption? About one thing I am sure that corruption whether big or small takes the same toll on one’s moral character.
The performances are of top quality. Pradip Mukherjee underplays his character perfectly and never overreacts to situations. He is in full control of himself and the director. Utpal Dutt is a delight to watch in a small cameo. Every actor has given a natural performance even the pimp at the down market brothel. Even Aparna Sen shines in her very small role as Somnath’s practical girlfriend. Lily Chakraborty as Somnath’s sister in law has the second most powerful role in the film and she has done justice to the responsibility given to her.
Considered the third and last in Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy, the other two being Pratidwandi (1970) and Seemabaddha (1971), Jana Aranya or The Middleman is a Ray classic masterpiece but it is highly under marketed. Ray has not used melodrama anywhere in this film. At few places, it seemed to me that melodrama was required as the scene where Somnath looks at His friend Sukumar’s sister in the taxi. He did not flinch as he was ready for this. It also shows that in this strange world Somnath is ready for any surprise. But maybe that is because we are used to watching melodrama only and expect it everywhere even in our lives.