Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When ambition goes awry

" Company Limited” is on three films that Satyajit Ray made on the effects of big city life on an individual. The effects are mostly negative and this film studies how naked and ruthless ambition can erode a man’s moral and ethical character. Needless to say, this sort of temptation to get ahead of your fellow rival is something that is innate to man, but perhaps the tendency and the temptation to “keep up with the Jones” is stronger in the cities where Jones is more often your colleague sitting across the table.

So, Shyamal, a middle ranking officer in a Kolkata based company making ceiling fans aspires to become a Director on the Board. But there are other aspirants too and one of them has a relative on the Board already and so Shyamal has to play his cards really well. Observing all this is his sister in law, who idealizes her brother in law and is in awe of him. Shyamal too dotes on her and is thrilled when he learns that she is coming to visit and stay with them for a while.

When all is going well, comes the bad news. A consignment of fans meant for export has been found to be defective and has to be recalled. This is a crippling setback because as per the terms with the contractor, any delays would render the deal null and void. After studying the fine print, Shyamal discovers the loop hole. If production were to be halted due to a “force majeure”, something beyond his immediate control, then the company is not liable for damages.

Shyamal moves further to exploit this loophole. In collaboration with a labor union leader, he engineers unrest in the factory – not a difficult thing to do in Bengal at the best of times. An explosion occurs and a faithful watchman dies and in the midst of the chaos, the company declares a lock out shutting down the factory for a time. Everyone is happy or so it seems. The labor union get some of their demands met as a quid pro quo, the company is not required to pay any damages due to the delayed shipment and of course Shyamal gets his promotion as a reward.

Shyamal’s adoring sister in law sees her idol fall from the pedestal; but more importantly Shyamal sees himself fall from in his eyes. It is said that when you fall in the esteem of others, you can with effort rise back again, but when you have fallen in your own esteem, it is an inestimably difficult task to brush aside the debris and rise again from where you fell.

The film shows what ambition can do to you ; transform you from a gentle soul into a insensitive , callous and charming intriguer , who has no regret or remorse even if people are killed as part of the plot to go further in life and career. And the indifference and annonynimity of the city only fuels this dehumanization.

Change happens slowly; and often like Shyamal’s sister in law; it is often the people we betray who detect the earliest signs of our change and decay.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A middle class girl

“And Quiet Rolls the Day” was a Bengali movie made in 1979; but the story line and the ambivalent attitude of society towards women who go out to work will not go out of date any time soon. May be in the cities, it assumes a different form and expression; but nevertheless the reality doesn’t go away. In the film, a lower middle class family is dependent on their elder daughter’s income. The father is retired with a meager pension, their elder son is one of the ranks of the “educated unemployed” and the other siblings are still in school. On one particular night, the girls do not return home at her usual time from work and the family routine is upset.

Each one reacts in their own way and once again as in many occasions in life, there aren’t any black and white answers. The father walks down to the bus stop and scans every bus that stops and discharges its passengers till the last one has gone by. He is as much worried as a father, a s by the unspoken elephant in the room: has something happened to their daughter – an accident may be? If so, how would they manage their family budget now, without her income? But of course he doesn’t say it; to do so would be tactless. The father is one who cuts a decidedly sorry figure; as the one with the most moral authority in a patriarchal society, he nevertheless has very little actual power; given that he earns but a pittance through his pension and it is his daughter who provides for the household- a reality that he still has not been able to fully internalize.

The mother is able to give vent to her fears a little more transparently; she has no appearances to keep up. She is also relatively immobile; not physically but socially. Norms dictated that women of her generation rarely if ever ventured out of the house, so she cannot go and wait at the bus stop and vent her anxiety that way. All she can do is to express her veiled fears to the other children in the house. The fears are the same as those of her husband though – there is motherly love, but more importantly the larger survival question – what if an accident has happened and she is dead or maimed … how will they live without her salary. As a woman, she has other fears too; has her daughter a boy friend, a lover / has she run away with him? None of these fears are expressly articulated though; but they are subliminally conveyed.

It is interesting to see the way the younger siblings react. One of the sisters goes to a nearby shop which has a telephone and tries to call her sister’s office; the phone rings and rings but of course no one answers. The younger brother goes to the police station and eventually the morgue; just in case she is the unidentified accident victim whom the police have recorded earlier in the day.

In the midst of all this chaos, the girl turns up home just before dawn and immediately the focus of the story changes. The unspoken question: where was the girl the previous night? Given the family’s economic dependence on the daughter, the question is never voiced openly; but suspicious glances and inquiring looks abound. The girl herself offers no explanation. Eventually, the landlord goaded on by his other tenants , comes and loudly tells the girl’s father that they should vacate the palce soon as his house was meant for rent to “decent” people and not for families where daughters were “loose”. So I guess , Indian women ( may be other women too ?), are stuck between a rock and a hard place, often families need their earnings to live on or else they would be doomed to destitution ; and yet , they are expected to abide by norms of behavior codified generations earlier and which do not really work any more…. It is a complicated time … a society in transition indeed…..

Friday, November 13, 2009

A sad Bengali movie

For the last few months, I have not written anything; my blog page has been vacant all this while. But I have been watching and reading a lot. Watching a lot of movies – the dull, grainy black and white Bengali movies of the seventies and eighties of the kind that Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others used to make.

Along the way, I must say that I have learnt a lot about the times in which my parents grew up in and the happenings that shaped their lives and why they behaved they way did on so many occasions. I also discovered that many of those so called “art movies”- parallel cinema as they call them these days struck a chord with me. The movies were usually dark, gloomy and had sad endings; but more of that later; but one could identify with the characters – they thought and behaved and acted like people I would know. They were not all black or all white. But rather like the color of the film in which they were filmed, they were various shades of grey.

This has been an important experience for me for my father spoke little of what his life as a young man was like and watching these classics from decades long gone by have helped me to try and understand the world as perhaps he might have understood it.

The film “Distant Thunder” is one that I particularly like to remember for it tells so poignantly that words like globalization might be of very recent coinage; but the events that make it all up have always been there. “Distant Thunder” is the story of the effects of the Second World War on an obscure Bengal village with the scarcity of food grain, the consequent rise in prices and all of that leading up to what is now widely known as the Great Bengal Famine which according to official figures alone killed 1.5 million people between 1942 and 43.

In the film (and the book of the same name), the principal characters know very little about the war and where the fighting is happening. The “distant thunder” alluded to is the drone of fighter planes overflying the village as move on to the war theatre in Singapore where the Allied forces and the Japanese were locked in battle. In fact, no one in the village really knows where a Singapore I located; their world revolves around their village and a few neighboring ones; the rare villager has even visited Kolkata, the state capital. In a casual conversation when one of the villagers asks where this Singapore is, the one man who knows is at a loss to explain. He finally says that Singapore is a little East of Midnapore – the district head quarters which the village has heard of but again very few have visited.

Although the Bengal famine is now part of Bengal’s racial memory and of all those who lived through it, it has not received the attention or empathy that it perhaps deserved. The partition and the misery and violence it caused received a lot more attention and visibility from the political leadership and the media of the day and the BBC has as late as in 2008 described the famine as an event that we forgot to remember. To that extent perhaps, people like my father who were of that generation and perhaps knew of friends and relatives who were affected by the famine, perhaps lived with wounds that never healed……and may be never will….