The Middleman, 1976

The Middleman opens with a shot of a disinterested proctor monitoring the History final examination at Calcutta University. A student hides a note inside a cigarette box and passes it to Somnath (Pradip Mekherjee), who chooses not to participate in the rampant cheating, and passes on the note to his childhood friend, Sukumar (Gautam Chakravarti). It is a foreshadowing of a career that Somnath will eventually undertake, but never seemed destined for. After receiving a mediocre grade on the history test (primarily because the professor could not read his small handwriting), Somnath’s future is uncertain. He applies for every advertised job, only to be discouraged with the prospect of competing with 100,000 other applicants, or perplexed by absurd, unrelated interview questions. One day, he meets an old acquaintance named Bishu (Utpal Dutta), who encourages him to go into business for himself. Somnath wishes to discuss the prospect with his father (Satya Bandyopadhyay), but is greeted home instead with an arranged marriage proposal to the youngest daughter of a cement factory owner. Left with few alternatives, he calls on Bishu the following day to learn about the business of “order supplies”, acting as an independent agent between the buyers and suppliers to sell any commodity from “pins to elephants”. The Bengali word for the enterprise is “dalaal”, and Somnath is apprehensive about its disreputable connotation of “pimp”. Bishu reassures him by using the more palatable euphemism, “middleman”. Soon, he begins to furnish businesses with office stationary and table lamps, and finds an opportunity to sell optical whiteners for a sizable commission. He calls on Mr. Goenka (Soven Lahiri), the chief officer of Kejriwal textile mills, who refuses to make a commitment on the sale. Desperate, Somnath calls on Mr. Mitter (Robi Ghosh), a “public relations specialist” who shadows prospective clients in order to determine their weaknesses. He reports to Somnath that Mr. Goenka is willing to offer him a contract in exchange for the services of a call girl. Somnath is unsettled by the proposition, and defers a decision until the appointed confirmation call from Mr. Goenka on the following afternoon. Returning home, he is greeted by his sweet, understanding sister-in-law, Kamala (Lily Chakravarty), who reassures him of her support, and is left alone to choose between financial gain and moral consequence.

Satyajit Ray creates a clever, highly engaging satire on capitalism and moral integrity in The Middleman. Using incongruous imagery and lyrical narrative, Ray depicts the hypocrisy of economic prosperity and professional success. Somnath’s daily trips to the employment offices invariably take him through city streets riddled with homeless people and beggars, under a graffiti sign that reads: “1971 is the year of victory”. Mr. Shaha’s (Santosh Dutta) description of a luxurious British colonial mansion is juxtaposed against a hypnotic, frenetic tour of a dilapidated building. Ironically, the potential sale of optical whiteners proves to be Somnath’s darkest hour. Note the minimal, candle lit scene where a disillusioned Somnath alludes to his unpalatable task. The Middleman is a fascinating, contemporary parable on the corruption of the human soul, a poignant tale of an idealistic young man who stumbles into a corrupt world outside of his creation, and is swallowed into the chaos.

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