Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre of works has focused primarily upon characters: strong, vulnerable protagonists, with traits that are relatable and universal. Yet, there is one aspect that has often been overlooked, with respect to the auteur’s skill in the art of filmmaking. In Ray’s narratives, the mise-en-scene occupies an equal and important position along with the protagonist themselves. The rural atmosphere in Pather Panchali, the serene nature of Darjeeling in Kanchenjungha or the holy ghats of Banaras in Joy Baba Felunath, these places mark the stage and chalk out the psyche of the characters, as they move between one frame to the other.
The acclaimed Calcutta trilogy found Ray exploring the rapidly changing façade of Kolkata: formerly the glorious capital of the British Raj and in that contemporary scenario, burning with issues of unemployment, student revolutions, and the erstwhile Naxalite movement. Pratidwandi, the first of the three narratives finds the audience in the footsteps of Siddhartha, played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, who has to drop out of college and look for a job owing to the recent demise of his father. There is no visible enemy here, as the title of the film literally translates to “The Enemy”. Who is the antagonist here then?
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As mentioned earlier, the mise-en-scene is as important as the character who spend their lives here. The Calcutta that Ray depicts, torn by ideologies, unemployment and the huge influx of refugees arriving from East Bengal has been dealt subjectively in many of Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak’s works. The urban, as many social commentators have put forth is a product of those who live in it, and the perspective of those who offer an outsider’s perspective. The web of corporations and the murky web of Third World Capitalism is an antagonist here, as Siddhartha has to go through endless interviews without achieving a definitive success in any of them.
It is the landscape of a city, that is continually evolving and changing: a change that Siddhartha cannot come to terms with. This change is denoted not only within the portrayal of Siddhartha’s sister who has become an independent, outgoing woman but is also a self- sustaining person herself. The other is Ray’s perpetual focus on skyscrapers and the view from its rooftops that looks out at a teeming city. Siddhartha’s look of disbelief is his inability to come in terms with it.
In Pratidwandi, Siddhartha is perpetually haunted by the call of an unknown bird. A bird that was familiar to him owing to an incident from his past, has now become a fond rekindling of what he has left behind. In the end, he finally succumbs to the job of a medical representative and has been defeated by the changing, consuming city. The final act of Siddhartha’s rebellion arrives when he is waiting in a queue, for an interview and his anger at the authority’s inability to provide water to the attendees, manifests itself in violent physical action. He succumbs to it. He succumbs to his loss and accepts his death. In the concluding frame, one looks at Siddhartha reading a letter from the woman he loves, and he hears that bird call again.
This is Siddhartha’s moment of epiphany. All is not lost, he probably assures himself. Looking out a peaceful countryside, he completes his letter with the words, “Regards, Siddhartha”. There is a hope that persists even though a faceless, nameless, malleable protagonist has won. The hope of redemption, revival, and promise.