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 
To summarize the three organizational arrangements:
- Family/Clan. Relationships are more personal, but they can be unbalanced, and there is a tendency towards autocracy.
- 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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
- Rob Edelman, “Jana Aranya - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).
- Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, (1990).
- Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Crown Business, (2012).
- 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).