"The Middleman” - Satyajit Ray (1976)

Satyajit Ray’s The Middleman (Jana Aranya – English meaning: “The Human Jungle”; 1976) was the third installment of his Calcutta Trilogy, which also included The Adversary (Pratidwandi, (1970) and Company Limited (Seemabaddha, 1971).  Although the narratives of the three Calcutta Trilogy films are not linked, they have the commonality of portraying the struggles of a young man trying to make his way in the ruthless and turbulent world of the big city. In addition, The Middleman’s narrative is based on a story by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, who also wrote the story on which the earlier Company Limited was based.  But of course the most common stamp across the three films comes from Satyajit Ray, who furnished the film’s scripts, music, and direction, with the usual able assistance of cinematographer Soumendu Roy and film editor Dulal Dutta. 

Actually, The Middleman does start off with a situation quite similar to that of The Adversary” – a college graduate from a lower middle-class family and without having the benefit of useful business “connections,” is faced with the task of trying to find a job, any job.  Both films show just how futile these efforts can be, given the swarm of educated individuals also seeking employment.  However, The Middleman and The Adversary ultimately pursue different directions. The Adversary maintains its focus on the personal, existential perspective of its protagonist trying to find a meaningful existence.  The Middleman, on the other hand, has a somewhat wider social scope and portrays the socioeconomic maelstrom into which the protagonist descends [1]

In fact it is useful to consider The Middleman in terms of a larger sociohistorical landscape. When people work together in groups, there are always some organizing principles in force, and the basic structures of these principles have evolved over time.  We could say that the most primitive organizational stage is the family or clan. This has been extended to larger organizations, such as warlord parties and mafias, but it is still strongly hierarchical and autocratic.  A second organizational stage is institutional, and we could call it the “Company” arrangement.  Here groupings and relationships are based on rules and contracts. People belong to companies and organizations that have standard rules of behavior and resource distribution [2,3].  One might think that the Company stage is where we are today, but there is a third organizational arrangement, which has always been around in some form but which is gradually becoming more prominent, and we might call it the “Atomistic Supply Chain”.  In this third system, everyone is an individual producer or service provider, and interactions are primarily local and one-to-one. (Some people simply might call this third arrangement "modern capitalism", but 'capitalism' is an overused term with multiple referents; so to avoid confusion, I will avoid using that term here.)  It is this third organizational system and its troublesome features that is in focus in The Middleman.

To summarize the three organizational arrangements:
  1. Family/Clan.  Relationships are more personal, but they can be unbalanced, and there is a tendency towards autocracy.
  2. Company. Relationship are normalized according to rules and management policies. The system can be corrupted here, too, (cf. Company Limited), but it is less common.
  3. Atomistic Supply Chain.  With little commons-preserving oversight, this arrangement is more lawless and subject to unbalanced power relationships.
The narrative of The Middleman moves through three phases, which have varying focuses on the above three organizational arrangements.

1.  Looking for a Job
The film opens with a final-year history examination at the University of Calcutta. Here we’re in the midst of a “company” (the university), which is weighed down with bureaucracy and boredom. The students are openly cheating, and the bored exam proctors can’t be bothered to stop it. Somnath Banerji (played by Pradip Mukherjee), one of the examinees, is not a cheater even though his friends are involved. When the examination scripts are graded, an overworked eyesight-impaired grader cannot read Somnath’s cramped handwriting of his assigned essay, and so he just awards him an average grade, which means that Somnath will graduate from the university with a “pass”, rather than with “honors”. Although only forty percent of the students managed to get a pass, Somnath’s pass is a disappointment, because he will find it almost impossible to get a decent job.

On the family front things aren’t so good, either.  Somnath’s girlfriend (played by Aparna Sen)  tells him her family is forcing her into an arranged marriage and bids him farewell.  In addition Somnath’s  father is poor, but is a proud Brahmin and is disappointed in his son’s performance. He unfavorably compares Somnath to his older son, who is married and has a good job.  And the older son, himself, is patronizing and mildly scornful of his younger brother, Somnath.

So Somnath, together with his friend Sukumar, sets about on the almost hopeless task of applying for jobs.  In some cases the number of applicants for an advertised position exceeds 100,000.  This part of the film mirrors the similar sequence in Ray’s The Adversary.  Even when Somnath does manage to get an interview (and as we might remember from that earlier film, the interviewee-to-job ratio is usually greater than 10 to 1), Somnath is merely asked questions about meaningless facts. On another occasion, he and Sukumar have a friendly meeting with a self-satisfied Member of Parliament, who vainly delivers meaningless platitudes about the government’s responsibilities.  So neither the Family/Clan nor Company worlds are working for Somnath.  It is now time for Somnath to explore the Atomistic Supply Chain world.

2.  Going into Business
Somnath finally happens to run into an old acquaintance, Bishu Bose, who is in business for himself. Bishu introduces Somnath to the “order supply” business and invites Somnath to join him. In this realm, each person pretends to be an operative of a commercially established going concern but is actually only operating as an individual.  The job is to buy supplies from producer factories and sell them to businesses.  In other words, one operates as a middleman. In fact since the Bengali word for this kind of work, “dallal” (broker), is sometimes used in the unsavory context of being a pimp, Bishu and his colleagues prefer to use the English term “middleman”.

The problem with this middleman business is that there is no adjudicative oversight.  Although everyone in this business that Somnath meets is cordial and affable, appearances can be deceiving. The people with whom you deal can lie, cheat, and double-cross you at any point. As one of Bishu’s business colleagues cheerfully warns him, he must always immediately count his money when he is paid – “people are always looking for a chance to cheat you, including me.” Another senior colleague, Adak, cautions him, “Never show your cards.”  And as Bishu, himself jocularly tells Somnath, if you get into trouble, you will have to clean up your mess, yourself – noone will help you out.

3.  The Big Deal
In the course of Somnath’s apprenticeship, he gradually learns that bribery is a normal part of his business.  And yet Somnath seems to still be the genuine young man with sincere scruples.  As Adak tells him, Somnath’s authenticity is what makes him appealing to people (and appear to be trustworthy in the cutthroat world in which they all are operating).  

Finally Somnath manages to set up a big deal to sell “optical whitener” chemicals to a textile firm managed by Mr. Goenka.  But Somnath has trouble closing the deal, and Mr. Goenka hesitates to sign off on it.  So Somnath turns to a “public relations consultant”, Mr. Mitter (memorably played by Rabi Ghosh), whose specialty is to spy on potential business partners and find out their weaknesses. Mitter duly discovers that Goenka will close the deal if Somnath can supply him with a prostitute.  After a lengthy series of delays and wrong turns, Mitter and Somnath do secure a woman for Goenka the next night. But unbeknownst to Somnath until the last minute, the prostitute turns out to be his friend Sukumar’s sister, Kauna. 
Somnath tries to thwart the deal and pay off Kauna with his own money, but she refuses.  This is the way she now lives, she tells him.  And so Somnath ends up being a pimp after all. When Somnath comes home, his worried father rejoices to hear that Somnath has closed the big deal.  But Somnath hangs his head in shame as the film closes.

The Middleman’s story is told in a leisurely way with a string of conversations that establish the seductively easygoing atmosphere that masks the sinister nature of the “human jungle”.  Ray does this mostly with back-and-forth medium closeups during the conversations, so that a sense of visual separation is maintained and linked by adroit editing.  Ray’s music is kept to a minimum in this film, leaving the office background noises and silences to maintain a solemn feeling of emptiness.  

Overall, I prefer The Adversary’s poetic sense of personal melancholy to The Middleman’s descent into corrupted compromise.  The Adversary still leaves one with a sense of hope, while The Middleman closes on despair.  Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned from The Middleman.

The Middleman shows us the agony that Indian society was going through as it adapted to the tumultuous changes arising from independence and the adaptation to world culture.  Of course these disruptive changes led to new opportunities, but they brought upon a “human jungle” that had its costs.  This is what the Atomistic Supply Chain world brings about, and it is now increasingly spread across the globe, even if many people don’t realize it.

You may find that your own local business community is going through the same disintegrative processes and increasingly breaking up into smaller independent units – a manifestation of the emergence of the Atomistic Supply Chain.  This is partly due to the appearance of new information and communication technologies (ICT) that support immediate, long-distance trading interactions that create flexibility and lessen the need for long-term warehousing.  While this introduces some flexibility, it also creates an unruly anarchy of unmoderated opportunists – the human jungle.  

The problem is that many of these supply-chain deals involve power imbalances.  One side with enough power and connections can lie or renege on the deal and get away unscathed.  This is the kind of lawless and unprincipled (because it flouts human rights) world that the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, seeks to make the basis of his Presidency.  He is only familiar with deal-making, not with the maintenance of norms and principles (associated with the Company organizational arrangement) that can maintain the viability of an inclusive society.

The only pathway forward is not to banish the Atomistic Supply Chain (which would not be feasible, anyway), but to tame it – by introducing measures that can bring it under a more benign arrangement.  Here ICT may come to the rescue and mollify what it has brought forth. This could possibly be accomplished by means of new developments in blockchain technology [4]. Blockchain technology is a new secure and fully distributed way of trading information that is complicated but is worth keeping your eye out for. 

So The Middleman is not just about India at a certain time, but also about the world we live in now. Ray’s film artfully shows how seemingly innocent corrupting influences can bring about an imbalanced and unjust world, and thus it is still very much worth seeing.

  1. Rob Edelman, “Jana Aranya - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).   
  2. Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, (1990).
  3. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Crown Business, (2012).
  4. M. Nowostawski and C. K. Frantz, “Blockchain: The Emergence of Distributed Autonomous Institutions”, SOTICS 2016, The Sixth International Conference on Social Media Technologies, Communication, and Informatics, ISBN: 978-1-61208-504-3, Aria, pp. 29-35, (2016).  

No comments: