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January 6, 2008

The Adversary, 1972

adversary.gifWhile not as overtly political as contemporary filmmaker Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray's early 1970s films similarly capture the volatile climate of geopolitical unrest, profound social transformation, and domestic crisis stemming from the introduction of Naxalism into an increasingly radicalized Calcutta student movement. In a way, The Adversary represents this fomenting cultural revolution in its bracing idealism and cruel desperation. The film prefigures this atmosphere of destabilization and turbulence in its disorienting opening sequence: a high contrast, monochromatic negative image that follows a group of pall bearers making their way through the hallway and down the stairs of an apartment building, as a newly widowed woman, her face made unrecognizable by the transposition of black and white, laments her uncertain fate in the aftermath of her husband's death. Rapidly tracking towards a lone, seemingly luminescent figure made even more ethereal by the wafting of smoke, the image then reverses to reveal a somber Siddhartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee), the widow's son, standing near the edge of a smoldering funeral pyre. Siddartha's figurative embodiment of the commutation between darkness and light, life and death, individual and doppelgänger becomes a reflection of Calcutta's - and more broadly, the country's - bifurcated, postcolonial society as well.

This intersecting crisis of personal and national identity is initially suggested in Siddartha's encounter with an apprehensive job applicant at a crowded botanical survey recruiting office who frets over the likelihood of the interview being conducted entirely in English. Not surprisingly, the surreal opening sequence would prove to be a harbinger for Siddartha's unusual interview as well - a disjointed, three panel inquisition that would run the gamut from knowledge of civic history (in a question that exposes the country's at times reactionary sentiment towards British rule), to curricular proficiency, to existential purpose. But despite having answered their questions handily, Siddartha finds his hopes for a position within the company extinguished by the panel's reaction to his response over his expressed opinion on the most significant world event within the decade. Responding with the Vietnam War over the far less controversial advent of the moon landing, Siddartha proposes that the continued resistance of everyday Vietnamese people intrinsically reveals humanity's ennobled resilience and capacity for great struggle against insurmountable odds. However, rather than a comment celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit, the panel interprets his response as an indication of Marxist tendencies and a sympathetic approbation of the left movement, and curtly dismisses him from the interview. Spending his days in fruitless pursuit of dwindling job prospects, Siddartha witnesses first-hand the toll of poverty, radicalism, and cultural imperialism on a city in a state of perpetual flux: a matinee newsreel hailing the country's seemingly unreaching economic development under Indira Gandhi as the theater is thrown into chaos by the sound of a detonated terrorist bomb; his unemployed university friends' unapologetic theft of a charity collection can; the rampancy of Western tourism that reveals the country's ingrained, subordinate international status as a result of its colonized history; his sister's increasingly liberated (and consequently, publicly scandalous) behavior since becoming the family's sole breadwinner.

Based on the novel by Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay (who also wrote Days and Nights in the Forest), The Adversary is the second film in Ray's loosely defined Calcutta trilogy that portrayed the experiences of university-educated young men as they seek to establish their professional lives in the midst of social upheaval. From the introductory, dual image of Siddartha, Ray illustrates an upended society that has lost its identity and soul in the face of extremism and economic polarization. Visually, this dehumanization is revealed in the film's opening sequence, where the stark and otherworldly images reflect the often grotesque nature of the country's postcolonial transformation, as the country's emulation of Western paradigms as a means towards modernization and progress has led to an alienating and deeply divided culture of outmoded traditions and exploitive enterprise. Moreover, this image of a rended society is also reflected in the recurrence of fractured families throughout the film, from the death of Siddartha's father, to the rumored affair between Siddartha's sister and her married employer, to his friend's disclosed relationship with a common law wife, and finally, to his former classmate, Keya's (Jayshree Roy) strained relationship with her father following his decision to remarry his mistress after her mother's death. Concluding with a freeze frame of Siddartha on the balcony of a rural hotel in Balurghat, his journey from his beloved city is also a sentimental estrangement, a self-imposed exile from the entropy and dissonance of the city towards the reassuring, familiar cadence of a patient, eternal land.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 06, 2008 | | Filed under 2008


Acquarello -
A great writeup on a film that, for me, is on the short list of Ray's best (along with Charulata and the Apu trilogy).

One thing you didn't mention was the flash to an x-ray vision wide shot of the candidates waiting to be interviewed, just after the interview (or is it before?), a moment that is extremely political and aligns us with Siddartha's radical critique of modernization. It also echoes the first scene in presenting truths not implied by the traditional photographic image. In these moments Ray uses an abstracted, alternate photographic technique to analyze an entire system rather than a single victim, as a system rather than through an individual case.

Posted by: Dave on Jan 07, 2008 4:11 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Dave, good call! I do remember the scene! ...I can't remember the placement though. It was definitely after the first interview, because he had already mentioned that he went to medical school (which follows in line with Ray's critique, as you've mentioned). I thought it might have been the second interview too, or at least some version of it, when the applicants were sweltering from the heat and getting really tired from the lack of seats. That also followed in line with people being dehumanized in the name of economic progress.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 08, 2008 4:57 AM | Permalink

The one I remember is after the second interview, as he's on his way out; a closeup shot of one person fanning himself becomes a skeleton fanning himself (though I don't recall if this shot occurs after the wide shot transitions or before). Is this effect used in the first interview also? I don't recall it showing up more than once, but it's been ages since I've seen the film.

Posted by: Dave on Jan 08, 2008 10:36 AM | Permalink

Hmm...maybe I'm the one mixing the sequences up. The one I thought was after the first interview also included a shot of a classroom skeleton (which becomes real when he walks out?), then later, when he sees an attractive woman crossing the street, there's another anatomy lecture involving x-rays about mammary glands. :) The second interview had an image negative shot, like the opening sequence (I think), just before one of the applicants passes out. Somehow, I remember Siddartha leaning against the wall with the same inverted black and white contrast.

Darn, as I'm typing this, I just realized that maybe that classroom skeleton scene is when he has that dream after he finds out about his friend's mistress. Now that I'm all confused, I'll just have to watch the film again!

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 08, 2008 11:53 AM | Permalink

This is one of my favorite Ray's movies. The one point the critics always miss is the Siddartha's longing for his study and the love and dedication shown to his would be profession. Remember the Kolkata road sconce where he watches a girl and then he remembers the classroom where he was taught about the breast. It is really fantastic

Posted by: Arup on Jan 09, 2008 4:33 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Arup, yup that was the scene I was thinking off too, with the x-rays. And I remember on the first interview that he was asked why he was applying for a job in the botanical office when his background was in medicine. It also included that amusing exchange when he was asked if he liked flowers and he says, "not unconditionally". It just really emphasized the absurdity of the entire interview process that had more to do with being judged as a person rather than one's competency.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 09, 2008 11:27 AM | Permalink

Well, I'm going to trust your memories over mine, since I last saw this in 2001. I had forgotten about the breast scene and was thinking of the interview skeletons - wherever they actually occur. All of this brings up another great point about this film: it's surprisingly subjective for Ray, isn't it?

I think perhaps I've been confusing in my terminology: the "x-ray" shot I'm thinking of is really a restaging of a shot, a dissolve from the candidates waiting to be interviewed, to a version of the same shot where their bodies are replaced by skeletons (at least I think it's a dissolve). It's not a 'camera trick' in the same way as reverse exposure, but registers somewhat like an x-ray shot because the bodies are replaced by bones. Now I need to see the film again!

And: "Not unconditionally" is hilarious.

Posted by: Dave on Jan 09, 2008 9:46 PM | Permalink

I do not understand why critics always denounced Ray's work on Kolkata trilogy. I feel "Jana Aranya" (Middleman) and Adversary are among his finest works. Though Simmabadha (Company Limited) is not one of his best (though in patch it is also vey good). I borrow the DVD to my friend's who are in Management and tell them to take lesson from the film.
These movies put you in front of mirror and ask you "How are you? Is your morality is with you?"
Also, making wise Parthidandhi is one Ray's finest on style. It was amazing how he has made these films. These movies show his compassion and commitment to the Bengali society and environment as an artist. If there is concept of soul I wish with my heart his soul rest in peace.

Posted by: Arup on Jan 09, 2008 10:22 PM | Permalink

Dave, you're right, it is quite subjective for Ray, the dream sequence actually reminded me a little of Bergman in its starkness.

Arun, is the trilogy really denounced, or is it just "less hailed"? I would tend to think that it's more of a question of exposure than anything. For the most part, I think Ray's films have remained relevant throughout his entire career (and certainly, even now) precisely because he did tackle the problems of contemporary society, even through all the messiness of the 1970s. But certainly, as Dave also indicates, his development as an artist is more evident in these later films.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 10, 2008 9:50 AM | Permalink

Unfortunately, in India he is remembered for his earlier films. So called intellectual critics thinks he had gone down in his intellectual ability beyond 60s. I totally disagree with that view. He has made so many different kinds of movie in 70s and early 80s up to "Home and the World". If you get a chance please watch his film on Feluda (the detetctive). "Sonar Kella" remains so much nostalgia for me. So far I have seen the movie 114 times. It still put me in the train and make me travel with Feluda. That movis is totally overlooked. It is a gem and so much adventure. The climax of that movie had 79 scenes and it was shot in four and half hours.
I hope people all over the world will see "Adversary". Also, I am watching Bergman movies from his first movie to last again. I definitly feel both of them used similar technique. Also remember Ray was huge fan of early Godard.

Posted by: Arup on Jan 10, 2008 10:10 PM | Permalink

I think the skeleton scene was positively in the last interview sequence, as a build up towards Siddhartha's outburst.

This is a movie I absolutely love. I agree with Arup that this and Jana Aranya are among his best work. Jana Aranya is just so darkly humorous, while the signal achievement of Pratidwandi for me is Ray's ability to retain a "World of Apu"-like lyricism without losing sight of stark realities of contemporary Calcutta.

Posted by: Pradipta on Feb 02, 2008 4:49 PM | Permalink

Ah, okay. So that's also in the same episode as one of the job applicants fainting from the heat and lack of seating then, and that fainting sequence is preceded by an image negative.

And I do agree about Jana Aranya being one of Ray's best films too. The way the film subtly shifts in tone from lighthearted humor to dark satire is really well done.

Posted by: acquarello on Feb 02, 2008 10:36 PM | Permalink

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