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A Neocolonial Outlook on Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy

A Neocolonial Outlook on Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy

Alik Roy

Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English and Foreign Languages

Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya

Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India


The terms 'Colonialism' and 'Imperialism' are often used, interchangeably, but there is a fine demarcation- ‘Colonialism’ is the idea of expanding and taking control over other people and their lands, but, when this process eventually turns out to be a political, military and economic control, it becomes imperialism. The liberation struggle and consecutive World Wars has wrecked the sailing boat of colonialism, and thus, the old practice of direct domination has metamorphosed itself into a new form of domination generally masked under progressive terms like- development, globalisation, neoliberalism. And all these terms assemble to develop an entirely new idea of domination- Neocolonialism. The paper focuses on Satyajit Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’- Pratidwandi (The Adversary), 1970, Seemabaddha (Company Ltd.), 1971 and Jana Aranya (The Middleman), 1976. These films, tough made separately by Satyajit Ray but can be encapsulated under the umbrella term of "Calcutta Trilogy" for its staunch depiction of society and its eloquent realism. The films give us a greater understanding of how Satyajit Ray pictured the neo-colonial experience of Bengal. The study also theoretically elaborates and contextualizes Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask (1952), in the context of neocolonialism and the films of Satyajit Ray. The harsh urban experience of Siddhartha in The Adversary, who desperately searches for a job but without success, Somnath’s opening of his own business in The Middle Man, and Syamalendu's desire for promotion despite having a safe job in Company Ltd., foretells our dependence and desire for a better life even if it costs loss of indigenous values and culture. The films also underline the politics of newly growing markets and investments which has eventually crippled the native markets and their culture.


Keywords: Neocolonialism, White Mask, Calcutta Trilogy, Frantz Fanon, Satyajit Ray

Understanding Neocolonialism

The 17th Century introduced modernization and industrialization which has stimulated the concept of 'development'. The prospering European markets and factories required more labour, raw materials to consummate their products to the comparatively less developed regions (Asia, Africa and South America) of the world. This apparent trade between the colonies and the European countries created a mirage of development and thus it shifted the power dynamics in the hands of the Europeans. The 'development' has not only catered the political and military control, rather, it has also escalated into cultural domination. The 'development' acts as a parasite to the colonies, not only the political and economic power structure transposed to the hands of the colonizer, rather, it also creates a new discourse that represents the native history, culture and traditions through their tailored lens. This 'new discourse' created by the colonizers subjected the natives as the 'other', 'exotic' and 'wild'. The massive industrialization of Europe apart from its virtues has also bought two major problems for them - firstly, the surplus products produced by the industries require an outlet for the companies to export their goods and earn profit. And secondly, the industries need labour for their flourishment, thus, to solve this problem, the European countries started looking for uneducated natives, this led to the exportation of raw materials and import of cheaply available labour for the factories. 


This ongoing trade between the native countries and the European industries transformed the economy into a capitalist enterprise. This trade was never both way flow of wealth; rather it was the continuous drain of natural, human and economic wealth from the native countries. But, exporting the products into the native countries would never solve the problem for the European capitalist, as the natives are not educated enough (according to the European) to reciprocate with the market, and thus, the natives are needed to be civilized and elevated from their status quo. This led to the abolition of the traditional institutions, and new capitalist Eurocentric discourse was imparted to metamorphose the native markets and eventually native culture and ethos as well. The capitalist economy and the institution of democracy cannot be accommodated together. Capitalism erodes the institution of democracy and it makes human society and nature the servant of the economy.


The traditional colonial rule which was bringing economic and political prosperity to the imperialist nations was suddenly over after the Second World War due to the rise of liberation struggle across the continents. The massive drain of the wealth of the imperialist nations due to the prolonged war and also heavy resistance from the colonies led to the downfall of the colonial enterprise. But, though the imperial powers have repatriated after the liberation struggle, colonialism never ended. The old practice of direct domination has metamorphosed itself into a never-ending form of domination - Neocolonialism, which is often synonymous under some progressive terms like development, globalisation, neoliberalism, free market. 


Though the war has graved the old system of colonial domination, the end of colonialism hasn’t ameliorated the situation of the colonies. Colonialism ended with the drain of the wealth of the colonies as well, so to restructure the economy and politics the native countries needed some aid from the newly evolved superpower like the USA. Though this ‘aid’ from the wealthy nations has bought economic prosperity into the native countries, it has also paved the way for a new volatile as well as parasitic domination. 


By definition, Neocolonialism is the economic and political and cultural control (indirect) of a previously colonized nation. Unlike the barbaric and inhuman colonial domination, neocolonialism has no distinguishing ruler to rule a country from upfront; rather it has disguised itself with the terms like globalisation and modernisation. Neocolonialism, unlike colonial domination, is not focused on the military and political control of land, rather it focuses on dominating the cultural and economical sphere of a country. It is more subtle and parasitic:


“Neocolonialism is…the worst form of imperialism. For those who practice it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress” (Nkrumah xi).


Neocolonialism has not only obliged the native countries to submit economically but there is a lasting psychological and cultural influence as well. The introduction of multinational companies and private enterprises has undoubtedly ameliorated the living standard of the native people, but it took away their indigenous culture, values and ethos and left them with the experience of duality in existence. And, to deal with the heteroglossia of identity, Fantz Fanon says, in his book Black Skin, White Mask (1967) the natives were trying to be as white as possible, and in doing so, they are losing their own culture and identity.   


Socio-political condition of Calcutta 


Neocolonialism is not an institutionalized form of domination and thus, it has no specific oppressor like France for Algeria or British for India. The second world war has led to the creation of the Third World Countries, and the rapid globalisation led to the unequal distribution of economy between the Third World and the First world countries. Empire (2000), written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, sees neocolonialism as “decentered” and “deterritorialized”, which means, there is no particular controlling body and neither it is restricted within a specific territory, rather it is infused into the newly emerged globalised culture. Neocolonialism is intangible because it often takes advantage of a country’s social, economical and cultural confusion. 


The independence of India followed by the partition of Bengal had pushed the country midst of chaos and confusion. With the partition of Bengal, there was a sudden influx of immigrants and refugees (as most people were fleeing from Bangladesh to India because of Riots). The majority of the people got settled in the city of Calcutta. This mass exodus of people from Bangladesh started around the 1950s with Noakhali and Barisal riots and continued till the 1970s. Over ten million people entered and settled around Calcutta and its outskirts during this period. In addition, there was the sudden rise in the Naxalite movement from the village named Naxalbari, situated in the northern part of Bengal worsened the economic and political situation of Bengal. 


After independence, the city of Calcutta became the podium for rallies, protests, strikes. Due to the massive influx in population, Bengal went under severe food crisis resulting in mass starvation, suicides, massive migration of people from villages to the city of Calcutta in search of jobs and better living standards. The food movement, the Naxalite activities, the riots and migration has not only shaped the cultural, political and economical identity of Bengal, rather, it has also cemented the neocolonial domination into its roots.


Neocolonial Bengal and Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy


The 1970s was the time of turmoil and convulsion in Bengal which was burnished by the massive food crisis, refugee influx and migration, increasing Naxalite activities, followed by the Bangladesh liberation war, massive inception of private companies and corporate sectors. Midst of these social and individual upheavals, Satyajit Ray, after finishing his magnificent Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in 1968, Satyajit Ray started the 1970s with The Adversary (Pratidwandi) (1970), the first film of his Calcutta Trilogy. The second and third films of this trilogy, Company Limited (Seemabaddha) in 1971 and The Middleman (Jana Aranya) in 1975, respectively. Though Satyajit Ray never intended to make it a trilogy like he previously did with Apu and his world. This was rather an unintentional trilogy made by Ray. As, all the three films share a borderline portrayal of contemporary Calcutta, the world of the rapid growth of industries, unemployment, urban poor, cosmopolitan expansion, refugee and massive migration of people from villages to the city in search of jobs and better living standards, Naxalite movement and changing psychology of the people. The films staunchly depicted the rejection of ingenious products and the decline of native markets by the native. The film portrays the heteroglossic existence of the people who are oscillating between choices. Moreover, the film also talks about the neocolonial domination through aid and development by foreign companies and investors. Satyajit Ray in his Calcutta Trilogy echos Charles Dickens’ famous depiction on Victorian London in his A Tale of Two Cities:


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” (Dickens 4).


The Adversary (Pratidwandi), the first film of this trilogy, pictures the rise of the Naxalite movement in Bengal. It was set during a time when communist sensibilities are at their peak. The Adversary staunchly depicts the transformation of young educated men and women from prosperous families believing in the ideology of the Naxalite movement. Even Siddhartha, the protagonist of the film, has a younger brother who was driven by the Naxalite ideology in the film. But, the protagonist, Siddhartha, unlike his younger brother, was not driven by the ideology of the Naxals. He is simply a middle-class man caught up between turmoil and social unrest. Ray deliberately crafted the character of Siddhartha as a symbol of resistance to neocolonial domination. Satyajit though never joined the party directly but he was always leaned to the left. Through the character of Siddhartha, Satyajit Ray delineates the contemporary neocolonial Calcutta wrapped in the passivity of capitalism, corruption, unemployment and bloody revolution. The Adversary pictures a chaotic post-independent city doomed by uncontrolled capitalism and development.


Economically troubled by the death of his father, Siddhartha went out in search of a job. And while returning, he went to a Swedish film, which turns out to be boring for him. Here we see a blunt rejection of foreign culture by Siddhartha. Siddhartha is Ray’s vocal for revolution and abolition of the Zamindari system and foreign capital investments. Siddhartha understands the implication of foreign investments, but still, he cannot actively reject them because he is a part of this new coexistence. The only way Siddhartha could manage to escape from this heteroglossia of existence is by leaving the city by taking up a modest job as a salesman in a far small town. In the last phase of the film, we see Siddhartha cherishes his life midst of birds and trees and nature. But in the final scene of the film, he hears sombre chants of the funeral procession. The ending scene is reminiscent of his father’s death which symbolizes the end of Siddhartha’s aims and aspirations to get a job in the big city. The end of Siddhartha’s quest to get a job and his final rejection of the neocolonial domination by retreating and accepting the basic indigenous living, but, the flashback of his father’s death, in the end, suggest the dullness and lifelessness inside him. Satyajit Ray beautifully crafted Siddhartha’s duality of existence - between his aspirations and his contempt for the newly evolved culture. Film Critic Dennis Schwartz observed that “Satyajit Ray, gives his nod of approval to world-wide counter-culture revolution, the revolt of youth against the stagnant older generation, and the social upheaval taking place in his beloved Calcutta. But he also points out that India is a different animal than the Western countries in upheaval. He says it's because India has a different temperament after being oppressed so long by being colonized by the British and therefore the youth has to re-establish their own true identities before they can change things for the better…" (Schwartz).


The second film of the trilogy is Company Limited (Seemabaddha), unlike the quest of Siddhartha to get a suitable job for him, Company Limited focuses more on the aspect of rampant modernization of the culture, the rise of corporate sectors leading to the end of the indigenous market, greed and quest to climb the social and financial ladder by atrophying indigenous values and culture. 


Shyamalendu, the protagonist of the film, works at a British fan manufacturing company as a sales manager and aspire to be the company’s director, is a typical prototype of native created by Satyajit Ray, who is oscillating between the choices of climbing the social ladder to be as white as possible and holding back his indigenous values. The film focuses more on the erosion of the native value system in the quest for an affluent lifestyle. At the beginning of the film, Satyajit Ray pictured Shyamalendu as a man with a modest background and as an idealistic teacher. But eventually, as the story progresses we see his loss of self-identity in the glamour, money, ambition and charm of the corporate world. 


Shyamalendu’s wife’s sister, Tutul, comes to visit them from Patna. She is a small-town girl with a very organic sensibility. Tutul has always looked on to Shyamalendu in a very idealistic manner - a principled young man with a refined taste of life. Tutul’s initially enjoys going out with his brother-in-law around the city, fancy dining restaurants, clubs, racecourse, shopping malls. But her mirage about Shyamalendu breaks when she discovers his greedy plans just to get a promotion.


In Company Limited, Ray highlighted unchecked greed not only to seek money but also to climb the social ladder. Satyajit Ray never tried to make Shyamalendu a villainous character; rather he is a victim of the circumstances. He is a mere pawn whose ideas and instincts are motivated by the illusion of development and progress created by the Neocolonial enterprises - in Company Limited, it is the British fan manufacturing company. 


Satyajit Ray made the last film of the trilogy The Middleman (Jana Aranya) (1976), more bleak and pessimistic. The film tells the story of a college graduate Somnath who fails to get a job in this big competitive world. Somnath starts business as a middleman and soon money starts flowing in, but his moral code breaks down in the climax of the movie when Somnath discovers that his best friend’s sister is a prostitute by profession and he has to sell her to a wealthy man just to get business done. The Middleman is Ray’s most ruthless and unmerciful representation of a neocolonial society. One of the important scenes in the movie where Somnath’s father, who himself was a freedom fighter during the independence of India, asks him about the ongoing Naxalite movement in the city, he wonders about the idea of young men and women sacrificing their lives just to hold up an idea. Ray was not interested in depicting the generation gap between Somnath and his father, rather he was keen to reflect the fact that it was incomprehensible for Somnath’s father that unlike his days of struggle with the British Raj, now the enemy is within the system. People are fighting amongst each other and turning against each other just to climb the mirage of the social ladder created the new neocolonial culture. Satyajit Ray deliberately created the character of Somnath as a who is transiting with shock and surprises into a neocolonial world that has a fragmented value system and centering into the idea of rapid commercialization of ingenious markets as well as native values.




Though Satyajit Ray filmed his Calcutta Trilogy twenty years after the independence of India and in the first reading, the film reflects deep social disorder persisting in the city of Calcutta in the 1970s. But Ray never shifted his focus from the neocolonial domination of the country. The movies lambently chronicle the plight of educated unemployed men to get a suitable job, it also talks about the rat race to climb in the quest for climbing the social ladder, moral and social degeneration of people, the transformation moral transformation of people just to earn money. Apart from this, the films also focus on the change in the market system, the introduction of new multinational companies which is eventually leading to the end of domestic markets. 


Be it Siddhartha in The Adversary who was troubled by the death of his father and wrapped under the passivity of corruption and unemployment, or Shyamalendu in Company Limited who has lost his morals just to seek the position of manager and climb the social ladder, in a British fan manufacturing company, or be it Somnath in The Middleman, who is himself in shock and wonder of the new social order as he has to unwillingly break his moral codes and his values just to complete his assignment.


Rapid globalization has initiated the alteration and mixing of cultures, values commodities and people. The separation of countries is now restricted in maps only. The global flow of products not only created the world a small stage where everyone has access to everything, but there is a cultural exchange too. And since the economically superior countries already have superiority in the market, the cultural authority also went with them. So, the neocolonial domination of the native countries, culturally and economically, went into the hands of economically superior countries. This cultural control of the land is taken by discoursing the native culture, values and ethos as primitive. The narrative of West as culturally superior leads to the loss of self-identity of the natives as they reject their own culture in quest of becoming as white as possible, just like Siddhartha, Shyamalendu and Somnath in Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy, struggling with the loss of self-identity in the quest of footing into the elite class (economically superior) of the society. Neither three of them can atrophy the desire to be in that section of the society nor they can leave their indigenous values and thus they deal with psychological inadequacy leading to an existential crisis.


Work Cited

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks (Penguin Modern Classics). Penguin Classics, 2019.

Neo-Colonialism : The Last Stage of Imperialism. Panaf Books Ltd., 2022.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1st Ed., Vintage, 1979.


(Phiz), Hablot Knight Browne. “A Tale of Two Cities Complete Illustrated and Unabridged Edition.” A Tale of Two Cities Complete Illustrated and Unabridged Edition, Independently published, 2022, p. 4.


Schwartz, Dennis. “ADVERSARY, THE.” Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, 5 July 2019, dennisschwartzreviews.com/adversary.


“Pratidwandi (1972) Satyajit Ray.” YouTube, uploaded by Dadabhai, 13 Sept. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-inaeJjndRg.


“Simabaddha | সীমাবদ্ধ | Classic Movie | English Subtitle | Sharmila Tagore, Dipankar Dey.” YouTube, uploaded by Bengali Movies With English Subtitles, 23 Apr. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=HORb6BwyHkY.


“Jana Aranya (জন অরণ্য)-The Middleman, 1976 Satyajit Ray Hd Full Movie.” YouTube, uploaded by Anirban Mandal, 23 Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEMA1upF0rw.