The co-working concept, even at the turn of the decade, was largely unheard of in India. Today, in 2018, flexible office spaces are on a steady incline. According to conservative estimates, the country’s co-working ecosystem is set for at least a seven-fold rise by 2020, as more entrepreneurs and startups fuel the India growth story.
But what is a fad these days, was introduced on celluloid by auteur Satyajit Ray, more than four decades ago in Jana Aranya. Perhaps for the first time ever in Indian films, Ray showed what co-working is all about. The co-working concept in Jana Aranya was not merely limited to the sharing of a common workspace. It was about each entrepreneur extending support to his fellow brethren.
Jana Aranya was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, more popularly known as Shankar to Bengali readers. Somnath, the main protagonist in Shankar’s novel, is introduced to co-working by Bishuda, who mentors him on entrepreneurship.
Bishuda, in the film, was brilliantly brought to life by thespian Utpal Dutt. He played the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) immigrant who claws his way to success in the dog-eat-dog competition in a cosmopolitan city. Bishuda introduces Somnath (played by Pradip Mukherjee) to his co-working place in a dingy bylane of Kolkata’s trading hub Burrabazar. Each table in Bishuda’s office, houses several ‘offices’, with entrepreneurs taking turns to use the furniture in shifts. Each entrepreneur owns multiple ‘companies’ to tap all possible business opportunities. That aside, there is a peon who doubles up as a pawnbroker, an accountant (Adakbabu, played by Bimal Chatterjee) who takes care of all income tax matters, and of course Natabar Mittir, the public relations consultant, played by Robi Ghosh, in arguably his best on-screen performance ever.
The magically diverse co-working environment at Bishuda’s office leaves Somnath stunned. Bishuda imparts him important lessons on startup and entrepreneurship. Adakbabu gives Somnath a major lead, while Natabar Mittir comes in to close the deal for him, in a rare display of professional camaraderie.
Released in 1976, Jana Aranya is widely considered one of the most cynically dark films produced in India. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archived the film in 1996. While much of the credit of including the co-working concept in the plot goes to author Shankar since he had experienced it first-hand, Ray’s remarkable filmmaking vision and a superlative performance by Dutt, forged on celluloid what would become a trend of sorts in corporate India 40 years down the line.