There isn’t much of a story in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (the Adversary, 1970): because of social and economic disruption in Bengal, young Siddharta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and his family (mother, uncle, sister and younger brother) find it hard to cope amid the rising tide of unrest and unemployment. The film starts with his father’s cremation, which causes him to interrupt his medical studies. His nice-looking sister’s got a secretary’s job with a boss who probably values her more for other, less professional reasons, and his brother belongs to the Communist Naxalite movement.
This is what Ray wrote about the film: "You can see my attitude in The Adversary where you have two brothers. The younger brother is a Naxalite. There is no doubt that the elder brother admires the younger brother for his bravery and convictions. The film is not ambiguous about that. As a filmmaker, however, I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. As a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The younger brother has already identified himself with a cause. That makes him part of a total attitude and makes him unimportant. The Naxalite movement takes over. He, as a person, becomes insignificant."
Indeed what’s striking in the way the film unfolds is Siddharta’s lack of a definite aim, his annoying half-purposelessness which goes unaccounted for. He’s significant because he doesn’t have a social or a political significance. He doesn’t fall into the pre-ordained slots; he should want to find that job, he should need to fit, he should play the roles which would free him for the enjoyment of the rich inner world which we feel inhabits him, but he slips away from conventional tracks, and even then, not that much. He does follow certain rules, but not until the expected end. Is it impatience, or maladjustment? Where, or what is the flaw? Is he under some sort of shock (his father’s death?) Is he an edgy result of obscure forces which are shaking his youth? Is the power of big city (the “Mahanagar”) too strong for his individual pursuits? Or is it simply the male hormones playing havoc in his veins?
Ray’s first sequence is suggestive: the carrying away of the father’s body, his bereaved wife and then the eldest son’s station in front of the pyre are filmed in X-ray negative, as if Ray was saying: “the pictures you are about to see (in positive) are “revealed” by an invisible light which you won’t see, but which I have briefly made visible for you, so that it remains somewhere at the back of your mind.” What’s particular about Siddharta is that he’s idle:
This excellent application scene underlines his quintessential nature as a candidate. Siddharta is never employed, never chosen: he’s forever a candidate to roles or jobs he is denied. Idleness defines him: not as a lazy, inefficient loafer, but as a potential candidate with too much applicability than what is offered him. Asked what his aim in life is, he pauses and answers:
This matter-of-fact answer debunks the conventional frame which application questions forces on people: it is an existential answer, which puts forward the reality of the person in the everyday situation where it finds itself, and not in the model projection of the ideal, nonexistent applicant. Paradoxically, Siddharta can be defined as a permanent candidate, but he isn’t abstract: he’s a person who would fit in with other persons, and not with a set role in a bureaucratic system where jobs are as many cogwheels.
One might say that Siddharta is an original, a highly intelligent and creative individual. His answers to his examiners would rather reflect this. Like the Vietnamese people whose resistance to American military clout, says he, was much more unpredictable than the landing on the Moon, and so, much more significant, this young man’s answers are also unpredictable and do not fit with the board’s set of acceptably correct answers. “Your personality has the stamp of intelligence”, Siddharta’s friend tells him one night while walking in the street. But he retorts: “Who wants intelligence?” “I’ll be a copier in the bureaucratic machine”, he adds, a little later, speaking to his brother.
A society in crisis isn’t really equipped for what is really new, even if the crisis is what has prompted the fresh response. The challenge of novelty relies on being able to see that the new element isn’t threatening the old order, but on the contrary creative of an improvement of the existing order: that the new can even reorder the norms and prepare the frame for the importation of more, and better norms. But it takes a rare openness of mind to see such novelty as positive; it can easily pass as freakish. Siddharta’s remark that the Vietnamese resistance to the US was “just plain human courage” and not, say, Communist indoctrination or fanaticism means that he’s freed himself from the standard categorizing thought-process, something which is already a form of intelligence because it enables one to order reality into some kind of readable pattern. But naturally too much of it and it can rigidify or simplify a fluent and complex state of affairs.
One could say Siddharta personifies Ray’s understanding of Hamlet, maybe, because he’s in between action and inaction, he’s a “thinker who doesn’t act” (according to one of his pals). Like Hamlet he has political musings: in his brother’s room in front of the mirror (Ray shows us a Che Guevara transformation of his face) he half-wonders what an activist’s destiny would change him into; later he believes he could take part in a revolution.
Then he’s emotionally unsettled by the (all strikingly seductive) women in his environment, his sister first, whom he believes it’s his duty to defend (but Ray suggests perhaps more), then a prostitute he meets thanks to one friend of his, and whom he resists, and finally a neighbour who asks him one night to come and change a fuse in her house, and who befriends him. At one stage, he attends to an accident on the street, people get out of the car, leaving a solitary schoolgirl in the back seat: the camera goes away from her to Siddharta, then back to her, and again to him: we half fear he’s going to do something wrong – she’s alone, the crowd is busy, the music is insistent: but he turns away, leaving us half-relieved and wondering. Hamletian unpredictability!
Siddharta says that “when his head gets hot” he might do anything: is he a toy of his impulses, of his hormones? What does this heat mean? During a major scene, he’s waiting in an overheated room with lots of other candidates for a particular job, and the choosing takes very long; everybody is restless and one applicant falls to the floor, from tension or exhaustion. Siddharta then brushes past the standing clerk, pushes the door open and enters the interview room, to ask for seats, arguing that the applicants outside are treated like animals. He’s rebuffed, and we fear for his application! But then it happens again, later in the day, he again storms into the official interviewers’ office, fights with them, throws a chair in the window, and even upturns the table, like Jesus with the money-changers’ table in the Temple of Jerusalem! The whole scene acquires a symbolical value: it’s almost nightmarish in its intensity, and could be seen as the anti-hero’s parable of fighting against a society which will never integrate him and which he cannot possibly adapt to. One wonders if he’s ever going to find a job, but the scene also shows his particular type of hot-headedness: when his world-view cannot accept the reality he’s faced with, for good or bad reasons, he cannot adjust, he prefers to break the rules and conventions and brings about a tragic chaos in which clearly he will lose, because he’s then completely alone. Like a child.
Ray insists on his childhood; there are several short flashbacks of Siddharta with Topu (his sister), near a river where she attracts his attention to a certain bird-song, and in another scene, with his brother, we realize their difference faced with the cruel act of skinning chickens. His brother doesn’t mind the idea of the French guillotine, an object which cuts life neatly in two. Siddharta is the exact opposite: his life flows from one state to the next, from one period to the next; it allows change to reshape it (“you’ve changed” he says to Topu; “you’ve changed too”, she counters): these childhood glimpses I understand as attempts to sort out the psychological genesis of his character, but also a sign that someone’s life is never so clear-cut: you cannot be “a salesman” or “a medical representative” only. A human being is several things at the same time, several persons at the same time. Sometimes the person herself doesn’t know exactly who she or he is. The way one has grown can help to solve the quandary, the way one has accepted, one has refused, the way one has loved. The subtle and rather pleasant sections between Siddharta and Keya, his girlfriend, testify to life’s infinite dimension, and Ray’s delicate and yet masterful art: details, looks, allusions, fragments: all these show how much he refused to simplify and on the contrary, how much he could see in life.
The X-ray scenes we have already alluded to bear witness to Satyajit Ray’s crafty handling of the multiple meanings and layers within his visions of human life as a whole. There are also evocations, dreams and memories, as we have seen. But one X-ray scene is particularly suggestive. When Siddharta is taken to the brothel, and introduced to this very nice-looking woman, she asks him for a cigarette, and then for a light.
He proceeds to strike a match; she bends towards him, and the sparking of the light results in the sudden X-raying of the picture:
We can see her glowing river of hair, now an incandescent white, but even to my Western eyes, this white shines so strongly of death that we almost see the threat materialize in the shot. We are also immediately reminded of the other X-ray scene at the beginning of the film, and the merging of the two scenes suggests an unnamed third: couldn’t his father have died because of such a temptress; or isn’t his death the consequence of some sin which is visited on his son who, as a result, veers and reels ever since? The prostitute blows her smoke on him and we see/feel her venomous snakelike hiss as it's made visible by the camera:
One last focus in this complex and challenging work (which is reminiscent of the French Nouvelle Vague cinema): who’s “The Adversary”? The movie’s title offers another angle from which to watch it. I have been wondering whether this title might not be in relationship with the main protagonist’s name, Siddharta, which as one knows is also the Buddha’s name? One could argue that Siddharta is a cinematographic embodiment of the Buddha: his “Middle Way between sensual indulgence (Topu?) and the severe asceticism" (link) of his Naxalite brother; his insistence on doing (or trying to do) what is right, rather than what other people do; but I daresay I don’t know enough of Buddhism to go much further… Does the last scene of the film, where Siddharta hears once again the bird of his childhood chirp away so joyfully, equate with the famed Awakening? Perhaps there is an “adversary” in Buddhism which practitioners would recognize? Excess? Perhaps the most meaningful adversary though, in Ray’s film, could be Siddharta himself? He would then be fighting against his old self and trying to become purified from the shackles of roles and rules before he can defeat him and find peace? As this is the first film in the series of the “Calcutta trilogy” (which comprises also Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya), perhaps the answer is to be found in these other movies.