This may be the Satyajit Ray film that speaks most directly to me – possibly because I first saw it when I was roughly the age of the protagonist and I can still relate directly to how he might be feeling.
The Adversary is usually quoted as the first film in Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ but I would place it as the second of the four contemporary Calcutta films (I notice that Ray’s biographer Marie Seton does this as well) or even the third of the more modernist films dealing with contemporary Bengali urban life beginning with Nayak, (The Hero) in 1966.
The Adversary begins with a negative sequence showing a funeral. Then we meet Siddhartha, a young man of 25 who is seeking work in an endless round of interviews. His father’s death led to the abandonment of his medical training after two years. Siddhartha’s younger brother Tunu is still a student but has now become a supporter of the Naxalites (the Marxist revolutionaries in West Bengal who are beginning to disrupt everyday life in Calcutta). The only breadwinner in the family is Sutapa, Siddhartha’s sister. She is a successful secretary angling to become the PA of the boss. Siddhartha ‘fails’ an interview because, in an often-quoted scene, he gives the ‘wrong’ answer to a question about the most significant event of the last few years when he suggests the courage of the ordinary people in the Vietnam War rather than the moon-landing. He then finds himself moping about the streets of Calcutta and sponging off his friends who are happier sampling the fleshpots of the city. The only opening appears to be via an old contact from his time in student politics.
At home, Siddhartha also faces the responsibilities of being the eldest male in the household and he feels that he must put pressure on his sister to give up her job when gossip about her and her boss reaches their mother. At the same time he is torn between admiring his younger brother’s political convictions and feeling that he should advise him to take a more conventional path. All around him Calcutta is on edge but one night he meets a young neighbour, Keya, and begins a relationship. Of course, she has her problems as well. I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen the film, but I found it satisfying in one sense at least. Much as though I would have liked to be Tunu, I know that I couldn’t be. On the other hand Siddhartha is more or less exactly how I was at that age (including giving ‘wrong’ answers at interviews).
Why is it that I want to give a good kick up the backside to most of Ray’s middle class young men, but not Siddhartha? (I’m quite sympathetic to the young man in The Middleman, but he is rather naive and easily led.) Partly, I think it is the playing/direction, but also the location in a clearly adumbrated family situation and the portrayal of a recognisable urban milieu. It struck me that Ray captures something about Calcutta in 1970 that echoes Paris, London and North American cities – this film seems both the most rooted of Ray’s films in the modern India and the most universal (i.e. applicable to all great urban centres). If this sounds odd, remember that over a period of four or five years from 1968 to 1973, UK cities experienced mass demonstrations, strikes and power cuts, bombs planted by the IRA etc. Siddhartha is struggling to work out what to do with his life with everything around him disintegrating. He doesn’t just turn away from it, but tries to do something – to find a moral code to live by. Satyajit Ray himself gives the clue to his own motivation in making the film:
“There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions. The film is not ambiguous about that. As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. as a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause. That makes him part of a total attitude and makes him unimportant. The Naxalite movement takes over. He, as a person, becomes insignificant.” (from an interview in Cineaste Vol 13 and reprinted in Art, Politics Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, Dan Georgakas & Lenny Rubenstein (1985) London: Pluto Press)
Here, I think is Ray’s stance in one neat statement.He goes on to say that you could make an ‘Eisensteinian’ film about the Naxalites, but to do so you’d have to focus on the leaders – the people who make the decisions. This is where I disagree with Ray – or at least I would hope that he is wrong as I respect his view of what is possible for a filmmaker. Why isn’t he interested in what motivates Tunu as well as Siddhartha? I haven’t seen his post 1975 films, so perhaps he does attempt to find out what happened to the revolutionaries later on? He’s right that Siddhartha is an interesting character and he does use his story to raise what is happening in the social/political world, but his refusal to deal with the reality of people with even harder decisions to make is disappointing.
The feel of the film is also down to the adoption of several devices used to explore the inside of Siddhartha’s head as well as the tensions in the environment. So, as well as the opening sequence, the film also moves into negative on a couple of other occasions and there are several dream sequences with expressionist imagery (Siddhartha sees his sister ‘exposing herself’ to the cameras of fashion photographers and his brother facing a firing squad), sudden flashbacks to a childhood with rural sequences and also to lectures that the young medical student would have attended. These latter come when Siddhartha is looking at a variety of women and add a comic tone to the otherwise grim round of despondency. (These inserts are similar to those in Dusan Makaveyev’s glorious satire Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1969)). Noticeable too are the backdrops to scenes. In one, huge and noisy crowds spill across the Maidan as Siddhartha and Keya meet on the roof of a new office block on Chowringhee.
I’ve seen these devices referred to as inspired by the French New Wave, but the dreams follow much older conventions and negative sequences were there in German Expressionist films of the 1920s. It’s more I think that the mix of stylistic devices is translated through the editing style – the transitions to flashbacks are quite abrupt – to create a disturbed and disorientated sense of time and place, compounded by the explosions and crowds on the street. Many of the scenes also take place at night and with the power cuts and failing lights the image is decidedly noirish. Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD distributed by Mr. Bongo and it isn’t very good. It looks like a poor copy of an American print with barely readable subs, a juddery image in the action scenes and very little tonal range overall.
In any consideration of Ray’s treatment of the characters and setting we should also remember that this is another adaptation, following Days and Nights in the Forest, from a Sunil Ganguly novel. Much of the novel is available in English via Google Books. Scanning through a few pages, it looks as if Ray has changed the structure and streamlined the cast of characters, but the tone seems closer to the novel than in the case of Days and Nights.
On a final personal note, I’m amazed to recall that during my first teaching job in 1976 I hired this film on 16mm (VHS cassettes were still to be introduced) and played it to several classes of 17 year-olds during a week. These were not film students but vocational students (e.g. science technicians, telecomms workers etc.) coming to me for General Studies. I don’t remember an uproar and they weren’t all asleep. Similar students watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and some of Joris Ivens’ documentaries made in China. Nowadays I know some university teachers who would hesitate to show a film like The Adversary to undergraduates. Is it teachers who have changed – or students or film culture?