Today is the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray: he was born on May 2, 1921, in Calcutta.
I am not going to expend words and energy in writing even a short biography of Ray: is there any need, after all? Because Ray is too well-known, too well-respected, for him to need any introduction. If there’s one Indian film-maker who’s acclaimed even abroad, it’s Ray. And when you think of how he didn’t merely direct great films, but wrote them, composed music for them, designed costumes for them—and wrote novels and short stories, designed typefaces, created art: you realize just how multi-faceted a genius was Satyajit Ray.
To mark the hundredth anniversary of Ray’s birth, I was wondering which film of his I’d watch and review. I have reviewed only a handful of his films, so I had plenty to choose from. Finally, I settled on this one, set in the ‘Big City’ (which is the English title of Mahanagar), Calcutta. A big city where a small family is thrown into turmoil when the daughter-in-law goes out to work.
The story is not the prime element in Mahanagar; the characters are. There is Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee), who had dropped out of college after only a year in order to get married. Arati has completed her matriculation and understands some English, but, good daughter-in-law that she is, of a lower middle class family, orthodox and tradition-loving, she sits at home and does the housework and looks after the family.
The members of the household include Arati’s husband Subrata ‘Bhombhol’ (Anil Chatterjee), their little son Pintu (Prasenjit Sarkar), Bhombol’s younger sister Bani (Jaya Bhaduri, in her debut role) and Bhombol’s parents (Haren Chatterjee and Sefalika Devi). Bhombol’s father used to be an English teacher; he has long since retired and now spends his entire day ensconced in a chair, completing crossword puzzles and submitting them in the hope of winning the prize money. He never does end up winning anything, but he and some old friends who drop in now and then laugh it off, and hope that yes, someday, he will win something.
It would seem as if all was well, even if Bhombol’s having to work terribly hard at his bank job to keep body and soul together. But it’s in the little things that the family’s poverty makes itself felt: for instance, in the fact that despite his father having told Bhombol repeatedly that he needs new glasses, Bhombol hasn’t got around to making an appointment for his father with the ophthalmologist yet. That costs money, money they can ill afford, even if things are not so desperate that Bani has to drop out of school.
Bhombol and Arati are talking of this and that when Bhombol mentions a friend of his, whose wife has taken up a job. Arati is taken aback, a little shocked as well as somewhat awed. But later that night, she tosses about, sleepless, thinking over their predicament and that chance but of news. Finally, she wakes up Bhombol to tell him: she’s going to look for a job.
In the light of day, though he’s initially a little reluctant, Bhombol too comes around to Arati’s way of thinking, and begins scanning the newspaper, trying to find a job for her. Bani, whom they confide in, is excited and enthusiastic, but the three of them—Arati, Bhombol, and Bani—hide the idea from Bhombol and Bani’s parents. If and when Arati is able to get a job, says Bhombol, they’ll figure out how to break the news to the old people.
Bhombol is the one who gets the application typed out, and who buys all the necessary things to help Arati look ‘fashionable’ when she fears that she won’t get noticed during the interview because all the other applicants will be fashionable, ‘tip-top’. And when Arati gets the job—as a salesgirl, going from door to door to sell a knitting machine—Bhombol accompanies her to her office, encouraging her all the way, waving to her even as she goes up the staircase to the office.
It doesn’t take Arati much time to settle into her job. Initially hesitant, she goes on her first round of cold-calling still shy, but soon finds her feet, soon makes friends. Among her colleagues, all hired at the same time as salesgirls, is the Anglo-Indian Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood), who quickly becomes Arati’s friend, down to gifting lipstick to Arati, who’s both fascinated as well as somewhat shocked by the boldness of wearing lipstick…
Arati also manages to impress the boss, Himangshu Mukherjee (Haradhan Banerjee), who even praises Arati’s calm, respectful demeanour. After Edith manages to wangle commissions for all the salesgirls (she’s their representative in this matter) from Mr Mukherjee, he tells Arati separately that he would prefer her to be the spokeswoman in future for her colleagues: she isn’t as blunt as Edith, is the implication.
Before long, Arati is wearing lipstick when going on her rounds. Arati is laughing and chatting with her colleagues. And when she comes home with not just her salary but a solid commission, and bringing with her gifts—toys for Pintu, a sari for Bani, scented tobacco for her mother-in-law, fruit and money for her father-in-law—it’s obvious that Arati is a success at her job.
But what is the impact of this success on those around her? Because, barring Bani and Bhombol, nobody is initially happy about Bani stepping out of the house to work. Bhombol’s father is angry and disappointed, and takes refuge in shutting himself off. He doesn’t rage, he doesn’t use emotional blackmail, but his disapproval is keenly felt. Bhombol’s mother is more resigned to it, but her husband’s pain and anguish affect her too.
And Pintu, angry that his mother is not going to be home all day to look after him and entertain him, is truculent at first, but is easily won over by promises, by toys, by kisses and hugs when Arati does get home.
But somewhere down the line, the balance tips, until Bhombol is telling Arati that she should quit.
What I liked about this film:
The acting, especially that of the actors who play the characters of Arati’s home: Madhabi Mukherjee, Anil Chatterji, Haren Banerjee, Sefalika Devi and Jaya Bhaduri are all uniformly excellent, and very convincing.
But yes. Pretty much everything else that is superb about Mahanagar (and there is a lot) owes itself to Satyajit Ray. The direction, the screenplay, the nuances, the details. The silences that speak, the symbolism in a shiny little tube of red lipstick, which Edith gifts to Arati, and which becomes an emblem of Arati’s emancipation, of sorts.
I love the realism here. The realism, of course, in showing how cruel and cold-hearted the mahanagar can be, but more than that, the more moderate realism which, unlike Bicycle Thieves or Pyaasa, is not harshly brutal all the way. Yes, Bhombol and Arati and their family do not have life easy, but their life isn’t impossible, either, in the final analysis. There are options, they have friends and well-wishers. More importantly, they have hope and—in Arati’s case—self-confidence.
This self-confidence is a vital part of Arati’s character by the end of the film, and the way it develops, as well as how it is manifested, is to me one of the most important elements of Mahanagar. The Arati of the initial stages of the story is hesitant, unsure, a woman who has lived so sheltered a life that her stepping out into the world to work is actually an act of great bravery for her.
But in the course of the story, Arati grows. It is not as if she forgets her home and family and becomes the cold-hearted businesswoman a more melodramatic film-maker might have turned her into; she is still warm-hearted and caring, still the loving mother, wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law. But she has acquired a self-confidence and a self-worth which make her a stronger character.
And the way Arati’s transformation affects those around her is a fine example of domestic politics at work. One sees here just how a man so obviously affectionate towards his wife slowly begins to change as he sees her change. In the first few minutes of the film, Bhombol, to save Arati having to cook, gives his mother (who’s cooking fish) some spiel about how he won’t eat the fish if she hands it over to Arati to finish cooking; he only will eat the fish Ma has cooked. Ma, of course, is flattered and happily laughs. But behind her back, Bhombol and Arati are winking and smiling, happy that he’s managed to free her of this chore. The bond between them is visible in their connivance.
Yet. When Arati gets her commission, Bhombol’s male ego does take a beating. You can see it in his face when he sees her beaming and offloading gifts. You can hear it when he phones an influential friend, trying to get a part-time job, even specifying how much money he would want (more than Arati gets). You can see it in the suspicious, haunted look, the occasional snide remark. The silence.
These two characters are especially interesting, and the way their relationship changes, going through ups and downs as Arati makes progress in her job, is fascinating.
If you are the kind who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven film, this is perhaps not for you. But if you want to see a very fine piece of film-making, a character-driven work about believable people going about living their lives in a believable way… give Mahanagar a try.
Thank you for the cinema, Mr Ray. There will ever be another like you.