American interest in Satyajit Ray appears to have peaked in the Peace Corps era of the early '60s. One wonders if he didn't forfeit his status as a Third World filmmaker once it became apparent that his theme was not the plight of India's landless masses but the social evolution of its Brahman bourgeoisie. That The Middleman (1975) … reiterates Ray's obsessive concern should be obvious from its title. What's uncharacteristic about the film—Ray's best since his chamber drama Charluta (1964)—is its bleak pessimism.
Shot during the early days of Indira Gandhi's "emergency rule" in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Ray's native Calcutta, The Middleman is played against a tatty backdrop of matter-of-fact chaos. The recurrent power failures and perpetually crossed phone wires are almost too routine to deserve comment. The lines of the unemployed snake through half the exterior scenes; the clamor of the street invades every interior. Nothing else can be taken for granted: Somnath …, the 24-year-old protagonist first seen in a hysterical crowd of students surging for their exam results, has his academic career wrecked because his test examiner is unable to borrow a pair of glasses from a neighbor….
Ray is the most conservative of neo-realism's heirs and he spends the first hour of the film carefully establishing Somnath's relationships with his family, friends, and colleagues. At the same time he makes sure that we're one step ahead in contemplating the hero's fate from a distance…. Everything builds up to the bottom falling out….
Somnath's father, a disciple of Gandhi, provides the film with a moral center—although it's clear that his values are hopelessly out of touch with the realities of modern India. Somnath, however, has broken through to that world of suffering and degradation which surrounds them, and, for this reason, The Middleman seems less a film of despair than disillusionment. But it is not depressing; Ray's characters are too rich, his criticism too sharp.
J. Hoberman, "Oy! Calcutta!" (reprinted by permission; copyright © J. Hoberman, 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 8, February 25, 1980, p. 42.