The much cited view of Satyajit Ray as an outstanding humanist director but not a political one sits uneasily with me. Take for example, Days & Nights In The Forest (1970), where complacent young middle-class men from the city are confronted with rural poverty, Distant Thunder (1973), with its treatment of the caste system, or the abuse meted out against a poor man by a wealthy brahmin in Deliverance (1981) as he seeks a wedding date for his daughter. Company Limited’s central characters are too richly drawn to act as mouthpieces, and as always he ascribes no ideology to his work, but the film contains a withering examination of the corrupting nature of corporate culture.
Company Limited forms the second part of Satyajit Ray’s informal Calcutta Trilogy, in between The Adversary (1970) and The Middleman (1976). Each film stands independently but addresses the city at a time of crisis. While Company Limited is set firmly amongst the elite, the chasm that exists between their environment and life as experienced by much of Calcutta is clearly defined in the opening shots. Here, documentary-style footage reveals the crowd outside Calcutta’s unemployment exchange, while the dire rates of unemployment in the city are recounted in voiceover. Poor job prospects were not the sole cause for concern. In his biography of the director, The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson describes the Calcutta of this time as an “urban guerrilla battleground,” with violence meted out by Maoist insurrectionists known as the Naxilites responded to no less brutally by the police. Subimal Misra claims that of approximately 200 monthly murders in the region, 130 were committed by the police.
This initially appears far away from the luxurious world of Company Limited. Shyamal Chatterjee stands removed from any of the unpleasantness that is going on beneath the height of his company owned apartment. Charming and likable despite an all consuming ambition, he has risen from modest beginnings to become the sales manager of his employers’ fan division, where the possibility of further promotion and a seat on the board now hangs alluringly before him.
We are guided through this privileged world alongside Tutal, Chatterjee’s sister-in-law, who pays a sudden visit. While Chatterjee’s wife limits her activities to gossip and magazines, Tutal proves a deeper and more perceptive character. While it is she who occupies the moral center of the film, her position is more nuanced than that suggests. She is at once seduced and discomforted by this new environment in which she finds herself. It is Tutal who will unwittingly provide both idea and impetus for Chatterjee’s eventual corruption. For now however, she is happy that success has not made her brother-in-law into a monster. For his part, her intelligence encourages him to make her the confidant that his shallow wife cannot be, and a crude joke about marrying the wrong sister quickly acquires a degree of seriousness. Tutal’s symbolic enrollment into the class of her hosts comes with the loan of a wristwatch, an indispensable tool of Western workplace efficiency.
The of-its-era sexism that pervades corporate life might be attributable to foreign influence, and it is towards the post-colonial status of India that much critique is aimed. While in the past ten years the Indian upper classes have gained access to the country clubs, the very name of Chatterjee’s employer, Hindusthan-Peters, suggests that India has reached an accommodation with its former masters, rather than true independence. This is emphasized by the lecherous Indian board member, Sir Baren Roy, who talks of having “wrestled the British on equal terms,” but his title and Rolls Royce suggest a joining of the enemy. However, the starkest criticism of British influence is reserved for its corrosive impact on the family unit. Chatterjee has shunted his son off to boarding school. The grandparents moved to Calcutta along with their son but, in a breach of tradition, the company does not permit them to share their apartment. Arriving unannounced at their son’s apartment and finding a party in full swing, the elderly couple find themselves unceremoniously swept into an adjoining darkened room by their embarrassed son, anxious to hide his lower-class parentage from his colleagues. Chatterjee’s son writes of missing his Mom and Dad. His parents miss Patna, the city previously their home.
Given the shallow nature of Chatterjee’s world it is fitting that when the crisis occurs, it appears on a surface level. Discovering that the paintwork on the fans in a consignment ready for shipment is faulty, he faces ruin. If the shipment is sent, it will be refused. Should it be delayed, the company will be in breach of contract and his reputation will be lost. One way out exists: to create the conditions that enable the “Act of God” clause to be evoked.
The unstable conditions endured by the citizens of Calcutta, previously so distant, now encroach. In the sequence of events that Chatterjee unleashes, with the provoking of a strike and the throwing of a bomb, a man is injured. Beginning these actions necessitated Chatterjee’s overcoming a moral crisis, and a visit to the worker in his hospital bed heralds a second one. Still, he receives his place on the board, and in the workplace celebrations his misgivings are swept aside. For the death of a poor man, a large wreath would have sufficed to put things right. And further enhance the generous reputation of this company limited.
Ray’s camera constantly draws our attention to plugs and switches, but the unreliability of the mechanics that underpin his lifestyle is evident from the outset. Soon after we meet Chatterjee, he complains that his residential phone line is faulty. Later he discovers that a light on his billboard advertisement is malfunctioning. Now, as he returns home for his family celebration he discovers that his building’s elevator is out of order. As Chatterjee trudges up the staircase, his increasingly hot and uncomfortable climb comes to mirror his career ascent. Previously, his wife extolled the height of her apartment compared to living down below “with the dust… flies… pollution… everything else…” No longer above the dirt that fills the city, our protagonist appears to carry it before him. With darkness subsuming his home, innocence remains at floor level, where a group of children happily kick a ball around in the sunshine.