“Company Limited” - Satyajit Ray (1971)

Satyajit Ray’s Company Limited (Seemabaddha, 1971) was the second installment of his so-called Calcutta Trilogy, which also included The Adversary (Pratidwandi, (1970) and The Middleman (Jana Aranya, 1976).  Although the three films were not made consecutively and the stories are not connected, they do each concern a young man from a modest middle-class background trying to make something of himself in the turbulent world of the big city. An additional commonality in the trilogy is that two of the films, Company Limited and The Middleman, were based on recently published novellas by Mani Shankar Mukherjee (generally known as “Shankar”) in the collection Swarga Martya Patal

To a certain extent the issues covered in the Calcutta Trilogy are universal.  Young university graduates everywhere are faced with the task of finding a job out there in the dog-eat-dog world that is vastly different from the principled world of academia.  And that means adapting oneself to new, unforseen circumstances and convincing employment superiors of one’s capabilities.  But in Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1960s the difficulties were much greater.  The economy there was struggling with the intense and disruptive globalization that had come with independence.  The city’s infrastructure was in decay.  And Bengal was hit with a large influx of refugees from East Pakistan  (now Bangladesh).  On top of that, Calcutta was beset with the violent rampages of the Naxalite Maoist movement that was threatening the civil order.  But although the city seemed to be teetering on the edge of serious decline, young people from the provinces were still drawn to Calcutta because it offered opportunities.  And because of these circumstances, there was a vast number of literate, educated people who were unemployed and struggling, as depicted in The Adversary and The Middleman.

However, the narrative environment of “Company Limited” is a bit different from the other two features in the trilogy. In The Adversary and The Middleman, the recently graduated protagonist was just trying to land a job, any job, while in The Company the protagonist already has a good job, but is trying to move up the corporate ladder.  In each case, though, the young man is faced with choices inside a largely corrupt modern urban environment that conflict with the principles and values that he has been taught and doesn’t want to abandon. 

The story of Company Limited moves through four phases, the first of which provides the background concerning the film’s protagonist, Shyamalendu (“Shyamal”) Chatterjee (played by Barun Chanda).

1.  Shyamal’s World
In the beginning, there is a documentary presentation formally narrated by Shyamal that describes how he rose to his present position.  He grew up in Patna and after graduation was initially a schoolteacher like his father.  But he had more acquisitive ambitions and soon found a job ten years ago with the Hindustan Peters Company, a British-founded limited-liability company that manufactures lamps and fans. He rose up quickly in the company and was relocated seven years ago to the main branch in Calcutta, where he is now the sales manager of the company’s fan division.  He is now living along with his wife Dolan (Paromita Chowdhury) in an opulent apartment provided by the company.  Their seven-year-old son is off studying at an exclusive boarding school in Darjeeling.  Clearly he is making it.

There is now a new opportunity for Shyamal, though.  The company’s marketing director, who sits on the company’s board of directors, has been stricken with cancer, and the two candidates for his replacement are Shyamal and the lamp division’s sales manager, Ranadeb Sanyal. 

As we watch Shyamal attending to his routine business activities, we see that he is efficient, super-confidant, and smilingly arrogant towards his underlings.  This part of the film, which takes up almost half an hour is mildly tedious, but it does present Shyamal’s setting.

2.  Tutul Arrives
Eventually Shyamal’s wife Dolan announces that her younger sister, Sudarshana (known as “Tutul” and played by Sharmila Tagore), whom Shyamal hasn’t seen for seven years, is coming to visit them for a fortnight.  Upon arrival, Dolan and Tutul chat in the bedroom, and it is clear that while Dolan just aspires to be a wealthy housewife, Tutul, who is a recent college graduate, seems more thoughtful about life’s goals. Dolan breathlessly tells Tutul that if Shyamal does get appointed to the company directorship, his salary will be 150 times what his starting salary was.  This is what matters to her.

Immediately Shyamal and Dolan show Tutul around their upscale world, and she is duly impressed with her brother-in-law and his lifestyle.  They take her to their exclusive club and then to the racetrack, where Shyamal introduces Tutul to the excitement of horse races.  This is one of the film’s metaphors, because while a horse race is ultimately meaningless, people can make investments and get excited about which horse wins (as Tutul momentarily does).  So, too, Shyamal’s career is just another horse race.

That night Shyamal and Dolan host a cocktail party, where their business associates come and argue cynically about Calcutta’s rebellious youth.  It is interrupted by a visit from Shyamal’s humble parents, whose provincial simplicity contrasts with the supposed sophistication of the nouveau riche party attendees.  The parents are quickly shepherded into the bedroom so as not to make the other guests uncomfortable.

The next morning Tutul and Shyamal awaken early and chat.  Since Tutul doesn’t have a watch, Shyamal gives his own watch to her and tells her to return it to him when she returns to Patna.

Tutul is curious about the racy, alcohol-fueled socializing of Shyamal’s business circles, and she is cautiously impressed that Shyamal does not drink alcohol heavily. Shyamal explains to her that he does do some drinking, and it is necessary for him to go through some social rigamarole in order to “play the game” and get ahead.  Overall, though, Tutul expresses satisfaction that Shyamal is not very different from the serious, idealistic young man he was back in Patna. 

In fact although Shyamal is married and Tutul has a boyfriend back in Patna, there is clearly a growing but unspoken affection between the two.  They seem implicitly to see the potential for mutual sympathetic feelings for each other that goes beyond the feelings between Shyamal and Dolan.  The expressive subtlety of the tacit feelings between Shyamal and Tutul is one of the strong points of the film.

3.  A Crisis at the Company
At his office the next day, Shyamal is horrified to learn that the 10,000 Peters’s fans they are about to ship the next week to Iraq are defective.  To repair the fans would take three weeks, and holding up the shipment would invoke penalty clauses and a huge loss of face for the company and, in particular, for Shyamal.

Desiring to retain Tutul’s respect for him, Shyamal explains to her (but not to his wife) his problem.  The only thing that could legally save him would be an “act of God”, like an earthquake, he tells her.  Tutul, still impressed with his general mastery of things, says light-heartedly that he can do anything – why doesn’t he manufacture some disturbance at the fan factory? But Shyamal only looks askance at her, as if to say, “what do you take me for?”  Nevertheless, this exchange gets Shyamal thinking.

4.  Crisis Averted
Unbeknownst to others, including Tutul and Dolan, Shyamal quickly and confidentially contacts his colleague, company personnel officer Harihar Talukdar (Haradhan Bannerjee), to create some disturbance in the factory.  After Shyamal gets approval from the Managing Director (i.e. CEO) Mr. Pheris (who has been told about the defective fans), Talukdar goes ahead with their secret plan. A labor disturbance is created; a strike is announced; a bomb is detonated in the factory that seriously injures a night watchman; and finally a factory lockout is declared.  They now have a phoney, but legal, excuse for delaying shipment of the defective fans.  The crisis has been averted.

Now more relaxed, Shyamal, Dolan, and Tutul go to a nightclub, where Shyamal tells his companions, in tones that express admiration, that the belly dancers at the club make four times his starting salary at Peters.  Then  they run into Shyamal’s colleague also visiting the club, who mentions the factory lockout.  Tutul is now disturbed to realize that Shyamal has concocted the dirty lockout scheme to save his own neck.  The intercut shots of Tutul’s silent, frowning consternation and the club’s belly dancer, who is essentially selling her own body for money, provide a telling visual metaphor. This is apparently the way Shyamal operates.

A couple of days later managing director Pheris rewards Shyamal by having him appointed to the coveted directorship.  Shyamal goes home to celebrate, but the building’s elevator is not working and he has to walk all the way up to his seventh-floor apartment, leaving him exhausted  – again, another visual metaphor for his unceasing efforts to climb the corporate ladder.  When he sees Tutul, she silently hands him back the watch he had given her, indicating that she is leaving for her home.  Shyamal agonizingly realizes that she has lost all respect for him and is cutting herself off.

Company Limited’s production involved Satyajir Ray’s usual team.  Ray provided the direction, the script, and the music.  The film editing was again performed by Dulal Dutta.  And Soumendu Roy was the cinematographer.  Nevertheless, the cinematography and overall pacing seemed a little different from other Ray films.  Again there was heavy use of separated medium-closeups for conversations, but the shots were shorter and often involved quick cutaways.  The framing and camera movements were generally more agitated, giving the film a nervous feel.  I don’t know how much of this agitation came from Soumendu Roy, but I have generally preferred the camera work in Ray’s early films that were photographed by Subrata Mitra, whose last film with Ray was Nayak (1966). 

Films about the corporate “rat race” have often been popular – perhaps the most notable being Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).  They usually involve the conflict between acting on behalf of one’s utilitarian (economic) interests and doing what is morally right.  The only goals in the economic world are to make money and to be a boss.  Company Limited is situated in that space, too.  However, in order for a film like this to be most effective, the viewer needs to fully empathize with the protagonist’s struggles, and this is where Company Limited is limited. Shyamal seems to be a bit too cocky and unreflective – much more so than the respective protagonists in The Adversary and The Middleman. And the potential romantic relationship between Shyamal and the beautiful Tutul, while delicately played, may be too slight to carry the needed emotional weight.  Their “brief encounter” never really materializes, even as a fantasy.

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