Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Jana Aranya (The Middleman / Agent) by Satyajit Ray

How time makes a difference - the same movie which I disliked as a teenager was something I absolutely relished when I saw it decades later.  

When I first saw Jana Aranya (JA) - I was in college and my mind was fully occupied about future employment prospects, what I need to be doing, what options lay ahead of me, etc. etc. And when I saw the movie I was doubly depressed and I don't think I saw it fully.

JA is a movie from one of the legendary film makers Satyajit Ray who’s possibly the beacon of India as far as film making goes. A prolific film maker, some of his films (Pather Panchali) are mandatory viewing for film students worldwide, as well as make it to the all-time top 10 films. 

Despite this the late Satyajit Ray was not the most popular film maker in India during his hey days and was more popular internationally besides in Bengal. He steadfastly made films mostly in his native language Bengali and about one or two in Hindi (the outstanding Chess Players ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’). They were starkly different (night and day) from the mainstream bollywood hindi films which focussed on entertainment and offered an escape from reality for their viewers. While Satyajit Ray’s films were more realistic and based on bengali authors, and the topics could be both depressing as well as discussed challenging aspects from poverty to societal problems.

As a kid they had carried out a retrospective on India’s national television channel (DoorDarshan) and almost all of his films were being screened on TV every night, and I think it is safe to say very few people watched even a few of his films.  

I felt the same way when I saw JA as a teenager and it made the mood blacker.

I hadn't seen too many Satyajit Ray films post that. 

Nearly 2 decades later when I was in Dubai, one of my colleagues asked me to check out his library of film DVDs when we were discussing films after one of our meetings that went late in the evening.  This guy RS is perhaps the most loved and admired Bongs in the neighbourhood (who I love - as attested from my tribute to them). I respected him because he’s among the few people I know who’s got balls - and balls of steel at that. Nobody - be it a senior or a client ever frightened him. He held his own and was never afraid to express his opinion, and was a master performer helping bring a refreshing change and enabling things to move faster in a market that needed refreshment very badly.

RS and his wife were also one of the pillars of the society there and people loved their hospitality and he hosted some of the best soirees in town which were marked with long ‘adda’s with some stimulating discussion on everything from politics, films to society etc. and of course gossip. But this was in Bengali (of course) and while many others from my office joined in, I just couldn't join in - I still was (and am) the fairly self-conscious, somewhat insecure shy kid who was scared of being in a group, so I avoided being at his home like I did practically everyone else’s.

One day RS had this DVD of the MiddleMan on his desk returned by one of the colleagues who’d borrowed it, and I asked him if I could take it - he once again offered me to visit his home and go through the entire collection and he could recommend some excellent movies. But I took this and had a leisurely viewing that weekend

… and according to me its one of Satyajit Ray’s most enjoyable viewable movies (after Pather Panchali of course!)

When I saw this again I was free from the shackles and anxieties that plagued me, but I was able to relate to it and it struck a chord.  But what really got to me was how funny this movie was the humor biting and sometimes dark, unexpected but highlighted and punctuated scenes in a fashion you wouldn't associate with Satyajit Ray.

The story essentially talked about the dark times India faced in the 70s and 80s. Most college graduates had limited choices in terms of employment - either Government/ bank positions through entrance exams or in private sector through contacts.  The film depicts a young man going through different interviews and struggling to find a job.  Clearly its very difficult to find a job thats pitted against you. His girlfriend (a short but impactful guest appearacne by Aparna Sen) also decides to get married to her parents choice as she doesn't know when he will become established. He is despondent and losing faith.

Finally he meets someone who becomes his mentor and guides him to become an ‘agent’ instead where he organizes business transactions (i.e. a sale) and facilitates the entire transaction till delivery and payment, and makes a commission on the payment.  The story is about how the hero - a young man succeeds in this and this ‘agency’ becomes his livelihood. At one point in time however a big deal is not moving ahead and he cant figure out why. He reaches out to his mentor who within one meeting figures out the decision maker wants a bribe. The film exposes the young agents struggle and difficulty in facing this new reality.

The entire movie stood out because of the performances but there were a lot of magic moments - where you had elements of humor or dark reality staring at you.  So for e.g. in one of the interviews the candidate is asked absurd questions about general knowledge (and thats how I came to know that Lord Rama had a sister called Shanta).  

The most outstanding characterization is of the mentor who is an oily character who seems so ground in reality nothing fazes him.  In one of the scenes with the young man, who’s asked to meet him to discuss the problem he’s facing with this deal not closing - they meet at a posh restaurant, and both order breakfast. The hero does not want to eat his breakfast as he’s lost his appetite, the mentor immediately takes out the food from the hero’s plaate and puts it in his own.

The mentor decides to meet the decision maker for the deal, and is able to figure out that all he wants is sex i.e. a prostitute to be arranged and he explains this to the hero. Apparently his wife has health problems and there are subtle hints thrown in during the conversation and in his car ride where there are some pictures of naked women.  Post this the mentor immediately plugs in an offer.

The hero of course seems unfamiliar with this kind of a ‘transaction’ and needs guidance - and this is one of the funniest parts because an appointment has been fixed with the decision maker and they are running short of time.  There are some hilarious scenes where the mentor takes him to different places trying to organize a high class prostitute at short notice.

Finally when he organizes one - he asks the hero to take this girl to the decision maker who is waiting at a hotel room.  The hero recognizes the girl as one of his friends’ sisters who stays in the neighbourhood.  She refuses to acknowledge and tells him he’s mistaken but eventually grudgingly tells him to become real and face reality

The movie ends as he drops her at the hotel room and walks through the corridor and you can feel each step of his being very very difficult as if he’s holding a huge burden on his shoulders.

During the second viewing I was surprised how funny I saw some of the scenes and it truly was a remarkable departure for the gravitas that is usually associated with Satyajit Ray (who also has produced some remarkable movies for children like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) 

It also served as a reminder of a part of my life that held a different kind of struggle in different times in a different India.