“The Adversary” - Satyajit Ray (1970)


The Adversary (Pratidwandi, 1970) is a dramatic Indian film by Satyajit Ray and based on a story by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Although this film’s prominence in Rays’ oeuvre is eclipsed by some of his more famous works, I regard The Adversary to be an outstanding achievement and one of Ray’s best films.  One thing standing in the way of further appreciation of the film today is the poor image condition of the only commercially available version of the film with English subtitles. Derived from a worn-out print from the US, the contrast range of this version's images is so limited that many shots are lost in darkness and key elements are difficult to discern.

Because Ray’s films at that time were increasingly situated in contemporary Indian social settings, there was sometimes a presumption that he was turning his attention to more social and political issues then confronting Indian society. In the case of The Adversary, the setting was contemporary Calcutta (Kolkata) [1], which in those days was convulsed with political turbulence associated with the violent Naxalite Maoist movement then raging across West Bengal.  So critical responses to the film have variously considered it to be ultimately a political commentary [2,3] or, oddly, even a social comedy [4].  In my view, however, the film’s main topic is neither of those – rather, I consider The Adversary’s focus to be a more profound examination of life, itself.  Like Ray’s other great films, this one also explores and reveals the precious nature of personal, existential experience – but here in a modern, contemporary setting.

The story of The Adversary concerns an educated young man struggling to find a job in the big city, where unemployment is rife and many qualified people are scrambling for the few available openings.  The narrative follows him closely as he becomes increasingly frustrated with his circumstances and the indifference of the people around him.  For this film, as was the usual case with Ray, who was the ultimate auteur, he was responsible for the film’s direction, script, and music. 

Given the film’s intimate psychological focus on the main character, Ray’s creative mise-en-scene is particularly effective here at conveying the protagonist’s evolving intentions and apprehensions. The focalization of the film is exclusively on the main character, and the camera follows him around in such minute detail that we get a feeling for the varying rhythms in his life. His life’s tempo includes intermittent stretches of waiting, inactivity and boredom.  Presenting such sequences in a film is risky, since the viewer’s attention can drift away.  But Ray’s cinematic pacing – which involves the use of closeups, camera movements, reaction shots, and on-action editing cuts – is so ingenious and effective that the viewer is always right there and in tune with the protagonist’s mental state.  In fact I think this film’s techniques in this area could serve as a model for other filmmakers.

The presentation of the main character’s mental state includes momentary flashback memories of youthful experiences, as well as imaginings or hallucinations that reflect nightmarish possibilities.  To convey the searing and unbearable emotional effect of some of these internal reflections, Ray sometimes presents them as black-and-white negative images, which transport the viewer into the protagonist’s agitated inner realm.

This may suggest to you that the main character is weird and disturbed.  And yet, to me, this frustrated protagonist is perfectly normal – more normal even than other fictional characters of alienation with whom we can empathize and to which the protagonist in The Adversary might be compared, such as Mersault from Camus’s L’Etranger (1942) or Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). That feeling of ordinariness and commonality with the main character is one of the things that make this film particularly appealing. 

The protagonist, Siddhartha Chaudhuri (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee), is at a fateful crossroads in his life.  A college graduate, Siddhartha had been studying in medical school, when his father passed away, and the loss of family funding had forced him to drop out and look for a job.  He has been looking for work for more than a year, and now at the age of 25, he is willing to take almost any job.  But he doesn’t want to leave the vibrancy of Calcutta. The provinces for him, as for most all educated young people, meant backwardness and stagnation, something to be avoided at all costs.  Siddhartha’s circumstances resonate almost perfectly with my own past experiences, and I can empathize fully with what he was going through.  Perhaps you, too, have had experiences like these.  If so, you will also identify with Siddhartha in this story. 

Ray tells his story by winding through Siddhartha’s life in four rough stages of progression.  I will refer to some underlying story themes over the course of this progression, which may give the false impression that the story is schematized along these lines.  Let me assure you that these themes that I mention are very much in the background and that the story flows with organic naturalism.

1.  Siddhartha’s Situation
Getting a job for an advertised position in the city meant contacting the employer and presenting one’s credentials in some fashion and then hoping to be invited for an interview.  But it seems that employers were inviting more than ten times as many candidates to be interviewed than there were openings in their organizations to be filled.  So one’s chances even at the interview stage were slim.  In the film’s opening sequences, Siddhartha is shown waiting, without much optimistic expectation, to be interviewed for a position at the city’s Botanical Garden Survey Department. When he goes before the three-man interview panel, he reveals himself to the viewer to be an intelligent and thoughtful individual – perhaps too intelligent for the panel.
  • When they ask him if he likes flowers, he responds with, “not unconditionally”.
  • When he is asked who was the British Prime Minister at the time of independence, he first asks, “whose independence?” (after the clarification of which, he responds correctly with “Attlee”).
  • When they ask him what was the most outstanding and newsworthy event of the past decade (this is 1970, remember), he says the war in Viet Nam.  When they ask him why he didn’t choose the Moon landing, he says that the Moon landing was a great achievement, but not unexpected.  The courage and persistence of the Vietnamese people, however, was, to him, more amazing.  The panel then asks him suspiciously if he is a communist.
Needles to say, he doesn’t get the job.  Afterwards he strolls about the city.  He goes to see a movie, which is disrupted by a terrorist bomb attack.  Then he has a chat with an older family friend, Naresh, who may be a Communist Party organizer (but probably not a Naxalite).  It is obvious that Siddhartha is sick of receiving unwanted “fatherly” advice from various older people that he runs into.

Later he sees a buxom woman crossing the street, and he has a mental flashback of a lecture in medical school about the anatomy of the female breast.  These medical school flash memories appear sometimes in the story and represent one of the mental themes that have a hold on his thinking – that of objective science.  Siddhartha has studied medical science and from that perspective, everyone is structured according to objective and verifiable scientific laws.  The overlap between objective science and his interest in women’s breasts, however, is where personal experience shows its priority.

He stops at a monument by a river that runs through the city and looks over at poor people who must bathe and wash in the river.  Turning his head he sees some American hippy tourists all agog at the mystical wonder and beauty of Eastern culture – “‘this is where it all began”, they say.  Somehow we recognize and share Siddhartha’s detached understanding of both perspectives and how far apart those social and cultural perspectives are.

2.  Siddhartha with his Acquaintances
In the first phase we saw that Siddhartha is alienated from the socio-economic and cultural external world around him.  In the second phase we see how this alienation comes to include his more personal surroundings.

He goes to visit his former medical school roommates, Adinath (“Adi”) and Shiben at their student flat.  Adi, the dominant character, is friendly but totally self-interested. He is seen diligently extracting coins from a Red Cross collection can so that he can pocket the money. 

Later Siddhartha comes home, and we see that he has two younger, but adult, siblings.  One is his self-confident and willful sister, Topu, who does have a job, but whose boss’s wife  suspects is having an affair with her huband in order to advance her career.  His younger brother Tunu is sill in college, but is apparently engaged in radical revolutionary, perhaps Naxalite, activities.

Siddhartha experiences alienation with these two people, too.  He is sympathetic with revolutionary ideals and was a politically active leftist in college, but he is unwilling to dedicate his life to violent insurrection the way Tunu is doing. 

Perhaps more importantly, he feels emotional conflicts with respect to his sister Topu.  She has a job, and he doesn’t, so that makes him uneasy.  In addition, he feels that his position as older brother entitles him to uphold family “honor” and intercede in connection with whatever is going on between Topu and her boss.  In response to that Topu simply dismisses his concerns and confidently informs him that she doesn’t need his interference in her affairs.

Siddhartha has a flashback memory, however, of earlier days as children when he and Topu were very close.  When they were out in the countryside, she called his attention to a beautiful, haunting birdcall, and they both listened enraptured by the sound.  This is a symbolic moment and a key metaphor in the film, because it represents Siddhartha’s responsiveness to the ineffable sweet mystery of life: there is something beautiful and wonderful out there that must be chased and found.  But only some people have the ear for it.  When he later reminds Tunu of the bird song, he knows in advance that his single-minded and near fanatical brother will have no recollection of or sensitivity to something that he probably never even listened to in the first place.

Seeking to follow up on his familial “honor” duties, Siddhartha pays a visit to Topu’s boss, Sanyal, at his home, in order to inform the man that his sister should withdraw from her job.  But Siddhartha’s heart isn’t in it, and his lackluster remonstrances come to nothing.

3.  New Avenues and Old Frustrations
In the third phase, Siddhartha starts to consider other possibilities.  Naresh has given him a letter of introduction and arranged an interview for him with one of his old friends who operates a pharmaceutical distribution company (it has nothing to do with Naresh’s political operations).  At the interview Siddhartha learns that if he were to take the job, he would have to leave Calcutta and work in the provincial city of Ballurghat, some 400 kilometers away. This is something Siddhartha is reluctant to do, and he is given a week to think about the offer.

Siddhartha also has more interactions with Adi.  They go to a bird market so that Siddhartha can track down that bird who made that call, but he doesn’t know the name of the bird and in the market cacophony, he cannot hear the bird calls.  Then Adi takes him to the flat of one of his girlfriends and offers a paid “session” with her to Siddhartha (“she’s all your’s”, he tells his friend). Siddhartha is horrified at the brazenness of it all and runs away in disgust.

On his way home, a young woman calls out to him from a darkened house and asks him if he knows how to replace a blown fuse.  The pretty young woman, Keya (Jayshree Roy) turns out to be someone whom he has met and shared a past class with.  After he fixes the fuse, they cordially, but guardedly, share a tea together.

There are additional unsatisfactory interactions with Topu and Tunu, but these only further serve to underline his separation from them.  At night he has a bizarre nightmare of all his fears: Topu is working as a bathing suit model, Tunu gets executed by a firing squad; and when a nurse comes to attend to Tunu’s fallen body, she turns out to be a conflation of Topu and Keya.

So far, the film has shown Siddhartha being drawn in different directions by conflicting impulses.
  • He feels social obligations about “protecting” his sister.
  • From his medical school experiences, he is attracted to the predictability and power of objective science.
  • He feels that he should act to achieve political justice, but he hesitates about carrying out violent injurious acts on individuals, even if they do belong to the wrong class.
  • He is drawn to authentic and empathic human engagement with Keya
  • And he is drawn to the mysterious aesthetic call of that bird song that tells him that there is something more to life than what he has seen so far.
Perhaps it is that last item that has made him hesitant so far about some of the other directions and goals in his life.

4.  Becoming Decisive
Siddhartha starts visiting Keya more often now, sometimes taking her out to show her places in Calcutta (she is comparatively new to the city).  She shares with him her unhappy experiences inside her own family. The gradual evolution of their relationship is skillfully and sensitively developed by Ray, and features subtle acting on the part of Dhritiman Chatterjee and Jayshree Roy.  At a café he tells her, somewhat optimistically, that he’s a doctor and that he can answer health questions for her.  Referring back to his faith in objective science, he asserts that all bodies are basically alike, unless there is an abnormality.  She hesitates about this and says,
“and yet though we are all the same, . . . . how different we really are.”  
This channels Siddhartha back into his aesthetic mode, and he agrees with her.

Siddhartha tells Keya that he has one more interview opportunity for a job in Calcutta; otherwise he will have to take up the job offer in far away Balurghat.  She tells him that if he leaves Calcutta,  she will also leave and go to study in Delhi.

At the interview waiting room, he sees that there are 75 applicants for just four available positions.  The applicants will have to wait more than three hours, most of them standing up because of the shortage of chairs, in stultifying mid-summer heat for their three-minute opportunities before the interview panel.  In the steaming waiting room, one of the applicants faints to the floor and has to be carried away.  When Siddhartha humbly asks the interviewer to provide more chairs and mentions that someone in the waiting room has already fainted, they tell him that anyone who faints is unfit to work for them.  Siddhartha continues to wait quietly, but he starts hallucinating again.  At one point he recalls another lecture about the human skeleton and imagines that all the people in the waiting room are skeletons – again the scientific perspective offers no solace for the human who suffers.  Eventually his strained patience runs out, and he explodes.  He storms into the interview room, accusing the panel of being inhuman, and dumps their desk over before leaving in a huff.  So much for that opportunity.


The final scenes show Siddhartha on the way to and entering Balurghat, far from Calcutta.  He has accepted the out-of-town job offer.  In his small room, he begins to pen a letter to Keya.
“Today I left behind many people I have known for a long time.  Isn’t it strange that I think of you more than any of them?   After all, we haven’t known each other very long. . . .
    . . .
I don’t expect to live in comfort here. But compared with your trouble, this is nothing. What little there is will vanish when I receive your letter. . . I’m very tired, so I won’t write any more today. . . Just one thing more before I finish. . . . . . ”
But then he is interrupted by a sound from outside his window.  It is that mysterious bird song that he had long chased.  With that the film ends.


I have already mentioned the superb camera work, pacing, and editing of The Adversary.  I should also add to its list of virtues the excellent acting performances in the film.  All of the performances are subtle, nuanced, and authentic – even the minor characters. Together these elements combine to make an exceptional cinematic work.

Viewers will undoubtedly think of Gautama Buddha when they think of Siddhartha’s name in this film.  But perhaps a more direct reference is Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), whose title character had to experience the full range of possible human engagements before he was ready to achieve enlightenment. 

At the end of The Adversary, there seems to be no overt resolution to Siddhartha’s problems.  He has had to leave Calcutta and gone to work in a provincial city.  He is separated from further development of his budding relationship with Keya.  He is alienated from all his friends and family.  And the sociopolitical situation in India that he abhors shows no sign or pathway towards improvement.  Nevertheless there is a positive note at the end.  He has heard that bird song calling him, and he is going to continue to respond to its ethereal call.  I am with him on that one.
★★★★
                   
Notes:
  1. The Adversary is sometimes referred to as the initial offering of Ray’s loosely characterized Calcutta Trilogy, which included Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976), although there is little connection among the three films.
  2. Acquarello, “The Adversary, 1972", Strictly Film School, (6 January 2008). 
  3. Dennis Schwartz , "Beautifully Observed Political Film of Disenfranchisement”, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews, (18 February 2011).
  4. Vincent Canby, “The Adversary (1971)”, The New York Times, (9 October 1972).

5 comments:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Yet another thorough analysis of a great film!

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Btw, I located a version of the movie on YouTube. I found the quality to be quite decent. Here's the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmY-9W2WkjI

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks very much for that pointer, Murtaza! That version on YouTube looks much better than the one I saw.

மழை பயணம் said...

Good analysis

மழை பயணம் said...

Few points.. actually the film has lot of subtle nuances which one has to appreciate..
1) when he Had Those Nightmares And Kiya Came In The Dream, ray Used The Bird Call Which Drives Him To Meet Kiya The Very Next Day
2) one Has To Appreciate The Usage Of Sound In This Film. After Another Nightmare When His Head gets Smashed, there Is A Strange Cat Voice Outside The Street Indicating His Mental state..
3) a Very Subtle Way Of His Interest To Any Woman Is Shown When He Smiles Before The Mirror While Washing Hands After The Fuse Repair In Kiyas House
4) Ray Has beatifully Portrayed The fear Of Young People In The Last Interview Scene.. When sidhartha goes And Asks For Chairs, the Interviewer Gets Irritated And Asks For His Name.. At That Point, everyone Came With Him Left The Room Suddenly Out Of Fear.. Another Exanple Is When The First Person Came Out And People Asks Him About The Questions, he Wont Reply back Properly And Suddenly Leaves Fearing That Someone Might Get The Job if The Question gets Repeated..
5) Atlast He heard The much Awaited Bird Call Outside Calcutta.. The happiness He wants might Be Lying Outside Calcutta..
6) Also The Characters Inside The Family Is A Notable Thing.. Sister Who Does Whatever To Impress Her Boss, brother Who Is Into Revolution and Sidhartha Who Is A Kind Of Mixture Of These Two.. His Brother And Sister May Be Called As extremist And Sidhartha Is A Very Ordinary guy As Mentioned In This Review