'The People's Jungle'
The official English translation of the movie's name is 'The Middleman'. But the literal meaning of the title is 'a jungle of people'; I suspect it is a parody of phrases like 'janatantra' or 'ganatantra' (meaning democracy, as in 'people's republic' or 'popular government') - reflecting a deep disillusionment with a system which claims to be democratic (or republican) but where actually jungle-law prevails.
The movie has been variously described by reviewers as 'unknown masterpiece','underrated classic' and so forth...
This is indeed an exceptionally tautly narrated story and there are some passages where Ray equals his best work. Unlike other Ray films I have seen, this is a 'morality play' (an 'immorality play', to be precise) so most characters are actually types and personifications; but despite the resulting - necessary - 2-dimensionalization, almost all of them are exceptionally well-realized. In his patented style, Ray uses music sparingly and tellingly (the absolute highlight: a montage showing a mountain of job-applications piling up at a post office, the background score progresses gradually from a sumptuously orchestrated movement to the 'dhup dhup' of the envelopes being stamped). However, in spite of all these virtues, I feel the film could have been an even better piece of work.
For instance, the episode where an elderly examiner fails to read Somnath's small hand-writing and gives him a low grade. This marks a digression from a 'third person limited' style of narration (ideally suited to a story of this type) to 'third person omniscient'. The result: we are prevented from sharing fully the sheer disbelief of Somnath's father when the results are out. Imho, a wisecrack by the cynical elder brother to the effect: "As usual Kokon (Somnath's 'daak-nam') would have written in that cute little style of his.... you can't expect the examiner to be carrying a microscope around!" would have been sufficient.
Further downstream, Somnath is not witness to Bishuda's brief but interesting 'exchange' with a fruit-seller - and Ray could easily have (and to me, he should have) constructed the scene so that he is.
A jarring note, to me, was the rather stagey depiction of the protagonist's angst-ridden father. His suffering is real; but something about either the acting or the dialog or ... grates.
And the nitpicker in me also spotted a miniscule continuity problem: When Mitter and Somnath discuss 'strategy' over chicken omelettes, the camera repeatedly cuts between their faces and the latter is shown with specs and without them alternately in a brief sequence of shots - a bit earlier, he has been shown taking them off and hence should have been without them for the entire duration of the switching shots.
This movie, like quite a few others of Ray, features some intimate Devar-Bhabhi (younger brother - elder brother's wife) cameraderie ('Charulata' is easily more famous on that count and Shakha-Proshakha too such an episode). Maybe there are no 'darker' undercurrents to the relationship between Somnath and his 'Baudi' but somewhere, I sensed a lurking doubt, a shadow of a certain 'physical tension'. Indeed I am reminded of Dutta and Robinson's biography dissecting Tagore's relationship with his sister-in-law, where it is mentioned the word 'Devar' (husband's younger brother)literally means 'second husband'.
Remarkably, Calcutta streets of 2010 look almost exactly the same as in this thirty five year old b/w film. I have heard millions of times of the timelessness of Indian villages but this is the first time I have encountered such an 'urban time warp'.
'Jana Aranya' was the first Ray movie I saw (nearly 20 years back) and over the last week, I have seen it about half a dozen times. And I have liked it so much its few flaws disturb me. A personal reason for this special affinity could be that I see parallels between this story and my own 'The Loop', which, if things go well, will be out in book form later this year.