The Middleman (1976) Jana Aranya

Country: India
Director: Satyajit Ray
Language: Bengali
Runtime: 131 minutes
Starring: Pradip Mukherjee, Satya Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, Lily Chakravarti

Category: Culture

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.8/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Film Festivals: NIL
Awards: 1976 National Film Awards (India): Golden Lotus Award for Best Director
Nominated: NIL

Director Satyajit Ray is considered one of the greatest Indian cinema auteurs of the 20th century, and his reputation is nailed with his Best Director win for The Middleman (1976) at the National Film Awards. Ray believed that Indian cinema needed “more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium”, and true to his word, The Middleman does away with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood technologies. Rather, his camera lenses provide us an insight of how he sees the world.

Further, this Black & White film that is adapted from the novella Jana Aranya by Sankar. And like most of Ray’s other films that he has become renowned for such as Pather Panchali, it addresses major sociological concerns of that time. With The Middleman, he touches on the despair of the educated middle-class in 1970s India. The high unemployment rate makes it difficult for graduates like lead protagonist Somnath – who only obtained a ‘Pass’ certificate – to secure a job. Somnath becomes a businessman of the “middleman” sort (hence the title), attracted by the allure and glitz of entrepreneurship and business. He buys goods from a supplier, and resells them to a customer for a profit. The story takes an eventual turn as personal morals come into the fray when he runs into trouble with one of his deals, and the only way to make a profit and to pacify his customer is to engage in the sex trade, where a prostitute is the ‘item’ to be peddled. The latter turns out to be his friend’s sister, forced into prostitution due to the poor times, and the moral dilemma that ensues is harshly captured by Ray’s camera. The ultimate question appears to be an age-old one: “Does money guarantee happiness?”

As per movies of that era, it opens with the credits rolling, and silence. There is a weird scratchy sound in the background, and the camera cuts away to a scene in the examination hall. The scene gradually comes into focus, panning down onto the (sleepy) chief invigilator and zooming out to include the hall (1:46, Part 1). The comedic tone (I personally find it rather unfunny though I’d choose to attribute that to an unfamiliarity of the language with the jokes lost in subtitle translation, and that the era is different) of the movie is set right from the start, as we see that the students are not entirely serious about sitting for their final exam, fidgeting and talking to each other. The disconcerting scratching noises continue throughout the scene, though it seems impossible to determine whether it is diagetic or not. A sense of dissonance is conveyed as it does not seem consistent with any of the images on scene, yet a logical conclusion to be drawn is perhaps it is that of pen on paper.

Perhaps to draw relevance to globalization and the need to stay relevant, we hear the characters using a lot of English words in their language and dialogue, for instance “strongest subject”, “revise” and “negligent fools” throughout the entire movie, just to name a few.

Close-ups are used liberally to indicate fierce concentration on a task, for instance, at 8:49 (Part 2) where the camera captures a close-up of the lead character typing on a typewriter with close-ups of the keys as he types. “This needs great concentration,” he says, and his unfamiliarity with the technology is expounded through his attempt to use an eraser to erase the ink. The fierce competition for jobs is emphasized through a cutaway to the behind-the-scenes view of the post office. Hordes of envelopes is shown coming in, which staff go through manually one by one. Reality is blatantly discussed, that the post office will take 2.5 years to clear all the letters (and that does not take into consideration the bulk of new letters coming in day after day).

At 2:30 (Part 3) via a lower shot that captures his friend from the chin-up, thereby conveying a sense of power that he has his future mapped out – drawing reference from “MP friends”. Somnath on the other hand, through his slouched posture that is directly contrasted with the statue he is leaning against, conveys a defeatist attitude.

 

Cutaway techniques at 3:50 (Part 4) is used featuring similar images at different locales, of the man’s application letter and pin-up of his passport photo in numerous offices, an indication of the number of applications he had made.

A few scenes later at 4:14 (Part 4), we see a wide shot of a wall as Somnath walks past, the word “Victory” scrawled on it that is both a mockery and as the character cuts a small frame against the massive wall. It is also a foreboding sign as the camera captures his first job interview, with the interviewers asking questions like “What is the weight of the moon?” that are redundant to the job. This takes on two suggestions : (i) the need to stand out from the crowd transcends into the need to know even the most mundane information, and (ii) a mockery of the application system of that time.

Further semiotics is observed in 5:29 (Part 13) with the grilles of the gate indicating an imprisonment of Somnath’s own puritan values by the demands of the business.

By today’s standards, the film would perhaps even be considered sloppily edited. We see scenes like 6:11 (Part 4) where the talking Somnath was framed directly behind the pillar of the roadside stall –it might of course perhaps be a conscious, deliberate decision but the scene just serves to distract from my point of view. Further, zooming in and out techniques that are heavily frowned upon in cinematography today are heavily utilized, rather than the camera itself shifting towards the character it wishes to draw attention to. This results in many shaky shots throughout the film as the camera zooms in (and out) onto a certain focus. A further point of contention is the use of jerks and shakes of the camera so as to reposition a scene, rather than separate cutaways (1:37-1:39; Part 8). There is also abrupt discontinuity of sound (0:41 & 6:50; Part 10) where the sound source is abruptly cut off that even ambient noise is excluded from the scene. There is also a relative inconsistency in the shots, with the scene as Somnath walks down the street with his mentor at 8:46 (Part 4) being the only one that is extremely shaky, claustrophobic and nauseating as if out of a scene from Cloverfield. Yet it helps to support the scathing social commentary of the economic climate of India when the film was made.

However, the late Ray’s aesthetic is one that he can truly call his own, and by which nobody can fault.

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