Mahanagar (1963)

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.

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.

Arati at home

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.

Bhombol's father with some friends

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.

Arati has an idea

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.

Bani, with Bhombol and Arati

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.

Bhombol accompanies Arati to work

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…

Edith gifts Arati a 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.

Me Mukherjee has a chat with Arati

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.

Bhombol's mother, pleased with a gift

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.

Arati, self-confident, assured

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.

Light and shade: Bhombol broods

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.

18 thoughts on “Mahanagar (1963)

  1. “Mahanagar” is a superb film – so incredibly well acted. It is the film that opened my eyes to the mastery of Satyajit Ray the director. I had seen both “Charulata” and “Jalsaghar” before this and neither had appealed to me. I have since changed my mind about “Jalsaghar”, but somehow “Charulata” has not done it for me despite everybody around me raving about the film.
    Jaya Bhaduri does make a strong debut in “Mahanagar”, not a major role, but she holds her own against the rest of the cast.
    One of my favorite Ray films, which I HIGHLY recommend if you have not seen it is “Seemabadhha” with Sharmila Tagore and Barun Chanda. Brilliant made film, and superbly acted by Sharmila. Sharmila has never acted as well as she does in Ray films – the other one that stands out for both her and Uttam Kumar is “Nayak”
    There are so many great films by this director, and such a range.

    • Yes, really so many great films, and across such a range. Ray was amazingly versatile.

      I haven’t seen Seemabaddh, though I’ve heard of it. Thank you for the recommendation! Will put it on my watchlist.

  2. In Mahanagar Ray displayed all the skills of a mature director. It is one of my most-watched films of Ray. There was a lot of press on the last scene where the camera pulls away from the couple and shows a lamp post with one bulb lit and the other dark. Critics started ascribing a lot of meaning to this shot until Ray clarified that it was just a coincidence – just an example of how many things don’t work in Calcutta. :-)

    • How interesting! And how amusing, too. When you reach that level of genius and skill, even coincidences conspire to add another layer to your work, it seems. :-)

  3. Love Mahanagar. Interestingly, young A was just mentioning that he wants to watch it before he watches Joi Baba Felunath with us. Your review – excellent as always, by the way; I love the scenes/nuances you picked to highlight – makes me want to push Mahanagar to the top of my watch list.

    • This reminds me that I haven’t watched Joy Baba Felunath yet, though of course I’ve seen Shonar Kella (BTW, my sister mentioned Shonar Kella on Facebook one day, and Facebook immediately offered up a translation: Golden Banana).

      Thank you for the appreciation, Anu. Coming from you, it means a lot.

      • Facebook immediately offered up a translation: Golden Banana).
        I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. :) You know I sub-title for Tom, right? Sometimes, when I’m stuck for exactly the right word/phrase, I put it into Google translate to see if it would throw up something that would inspire me to make my subs better. You can imagine my annoyance/frustration/amusement when I see the results.

        Your review: I think this is one of your best reviews, and that’s saying something given all the others I have liked.

        • Yes. The problem is that language is far too nuanced and rich to allow for machines to translate them as accurately as a human being can. (By the way, on a tangent: have you read Chester Nez’s autobiography, Code Talker? He was one of the original Navajo code talkers during WWII, and the book is a fascinating one about not just being Navajo, but about the intricacies of language as well – the code was the only one which could never be cracked).

          Thank you for the praise, Anu!

  4. Excellent review, as always !
    While writing about the movie in Gujarati on webgurjari, I had seen the movie at least 4 times and the more I saw it, the more was I mesmerized by the versatality of the Master movie-maker.
    And how one can forget the performance of Madhabi Mukherjee in the lead role ? Its unforgettable. When we talk about her growth from a housewife to an independent woman, let us not forget her growing as a human being too. How steadfastly she stays by the side of her anglo-indian friend when injustice is meted out to her, not caring about her job, knowing fully well that she’s the only breadwinner in the house now !
    You must review _Charulata_ too. Many ( including Ray himself ! ) say that it’s a film with least flaws among all his movies.

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed this review. I agree that Madhabi Mukherjee was superb here – the gradual and believable transformation from the shy and demure housewife to the self-confident saleswoman who has the guts to stand up to injustice, is brilliantly portrayed. And I like that, unlike a lot of similar transformations in other films, this one does not detract from Arati’s own femininity or sweetness – she still remains, at heart, the same mother/wife/daughter-in-law.

      I have reviewed Charulata, a long time back:

      https://madhulikaliddle.com/2012/04/11/charulata-1964/

  5. Very well written review. Ray confessed years later that he was smitten and in love with Madhabi Mukherjee. I really liked the dialogue at the end “If I were you, I would not have left the job.” Why? “I don’t have the guts.”

    • Thank you for the appreciation. And yes, I agree totally about that dialogue. It’s such a fine comment on how far she’s come, and how even Bhombol is accepting that.

  6. This one must be a true classic. And by reading this review of yours only, I have come to know that Anil Ganguly directed Hindi movie – Humkadam (1980) starring Rakhee Gulzar, Parikshit Sahni and Biswajit in principal roles is actually a remake of Mahanagar only. I had liked Humkadam so much that I had virtually fallen in love with the pivotal female lead of the story knowing not that this highly impressive movie had borrowed it’s script from Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar. Your review is also admirable saying a lot about the quality of the movie.

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