Setting out in the Real World isn’t a Cakewalk: On Satyajit Ray’s Timeless ‘Mahanagar’ (1963)
By Prithvijeet Sinha
I watched Mahanagar (The Big City) on a whim nearly five years ago during the festal month of October, closely aligned with Durga Puja celebrations, an occasion sacred and inseparable from the Bengali ethos. Since Mahanagar was made by the great Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray, the particularity of that event was special to me as I too come from the same background. For those still not aware of the cultural thrust here, Bengali refers to anything related to the Eastern Indian state of Bengal, positioned as the true creative and intellectual hub of a diverse nation such as India. Bengali, however, does not limit itself to just one moniker as it extends its influence over the millions of Bengali-origin people settled across India and overseas. I emphasize this crucial fact because nobody looks at the subtle nuances of life quite like the way Bengalis do and armed with expressive eloquence, they succeed in recreating its essence without hitting the bush.
That cultural pivot established, Mahanagar (1963) is one of the most balanced portrayals of the real-life struggles in middle-class families, both at a particular and universal level. Let’s face it then that times may have changed, and the man-to-woman ratio of working individuals may have tripled. But in a whirling male-dominated economy, tilting the scales in favor of an equitable representation for females is still a challenging proposition for thousands. The social mindsets have a large role to play, especially when children occupy a marital set up and the woman is expected to be primarily a homemaker. That’s still the only pursuit that traditional models of societal functioning dictate and though we are in the ultramodern age, 2021 and all, some things have still not changed. If you want to see these pertinent issues through the most practical, non-partisan prism where individual viewpoints of all contribute to the larger discourse, then begin by watching this incisive tale of big city foibles and the everyday struggles of a couple (Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee) that steps in with the times and decides to contribute equally to the monetary well-being of a family consisting of their ageing elders (Haren Chatterjee and Shefalika Devi), a young child (Prosenjit Sarkar), and a teenage sister in her senior years of high school (Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan in her first screen credit).
Set in the 1960s, it is imperative to note that the cost of household items and lifestyle choices then were worlds apart from the skyrocketing shape the modern economy has taken in the present times. Mahanagar is timeless and peerless because it tells us that life and its attendant drills essentially remain the same irrespective of price tags. However, the spaces between exorbitant displays of wealth now stands in contrast to the marked, relative simplicity of the preceding thirty years and before. It was also taboo to even suggest that a woman could work in the sphere outside that of the home. Today, the right to make a mark in professional fields of one’s volition has been earned by the womenfolk with distances blurring with each passing day. Yet, the very real pinch of managing the needs of a family and ensuring that there is no compromise in their sustenance is something that is at the center of humanity’s quest for earning money and attempting to gain financial stability beyond the monthly income. A filmmaker and keen observer like Satyajit Ray invests this otherwise earnest core of concerns with charm, wit, interpersonal opinions, and a genuine sense of a breakthrough for its protagonists. The title of the film, to me, alludes to the agency of the people inhabiting these metropolitan spaces who dare to leave their comfort zones and take risks at the expense of personal adjustments.
The husband here encourages his better half to step out of the threshold, but his real battle is to counter his father’s traditional views on these pressing matters. The old and wise former schoolteacher insists that he was able to singlehandedly raise his family on a meagre salary and the mere idea of his beloved daughter-in-law working to fend for them is not pleasant at all. He addresses her with the traditional Bengali term of endearment ‘Bouma’ (a conjunction of daughter-in-law +mother) implying that the role of a mother is supreme for female figures. He makes peace with Aarti’s final decision by observing silence as an act of opposition foremost directed towards his son who he feels has fallen short of fulfilling his responsibilities and it gets worse when the man loses his job.
The mother-in-law smiles and silently supports her, reminding her husband about how grateful they must be to their son and daughter-in-law who are toiling hard to make ends meet and are ensuring the senior prefects of the family stay with them in the big city (and one as populous as Calcutta) rather than back in their mofussil town, underlining their considerate tempers and sacrifices. This is a wonderful exchange, reflecting the opposite situation in this day where older members are conveniently discarded from the familial ethos as soon as the young start earning well enough to fend for themselves.
The old man isn’t a bad person because of his hard stance in this case – it’s just that the gender roles he has learnt like so many of his ilk doesn’t easily afford him the leeway to think out of the league. It just didn’t happen this way even in dire straits in his prime and so he cannot change his views regarding this extraordinary situation overnight. In reality, an equal footing is established when both the wife and husband work in their respective capacities and this collective understanding is what we need to promote and highly appreciate. However, as we know, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Generational differences add to the complex farrago.
An interesting counterpoint to this circumstance is provided by the sister who believes her sister-in-law is being paid less and expresses her own interest in working after completing her studies.
Mahanagar is, above all, about Aarti’s quest to attain her self-identity. First, she breaks pre-conceived barriers by opting to work. Then, by literally taking the first step out of the threshold of her home and gaining personal and financial satisfaction through work as a sales representative in a private company, she realizes what individuality is all about. Finally, by maintaining a friendship with Edith (Vicky Redwood), the sole Anglo-Indian counterpart in the firm, she breaks barriers of cultural expectations to suggest that diversity is never in your face and is informed by commonplace, everyday human interaction. Her transition into a confident woman who gradually progresses in her line of duty makes for some of the most engrossing and entertaining passages as she visits tony areas of Calcutta to present her sales pitch. The interior reactions on Aarti’s part to these shifts in moods and experiences define this as first and foremost her tale. Holding wads of crisp currency notes and putting on make-up are then imbued with a larger meaning and symbolism.
Just as important to her narrative is that of Edith, who is moulded beautifully as a rare voice of freedom owing to the fact that she has nothing to lose, given that her ancestors (the British forebears) ruled over the country as imperialists, and in the post-independence scenario, she is in a minority. She belongs to the very few from her community who stayed back in India and that itself makes her a naturalized citizen. The screenplay delves deep into the reverse prejudices hauled at her by her male boss (Haradhan Banerjee) who questions her every move just because she isn’t one of the locals, as if the imperial past was shaped by her alone. Even here, Ray employs a certain psychological conditioning of ‘othering’ that defeats Edith on the basis of not just her background but maybe her gender. But any careless instance of sexism is absent from the writing. That Edith has to prove her worth, despite living her whole life in Calcutta, is very similar to how classifications are called into play to drag down so many people in the here and now. Edith is a rock and hardly gives in to myopic mindsets.
For me, Mahanagar will remain seminal to the point that no modern work to this date can match its vitality and courage at confronting the cumulative whole of all prejudices, at the workplace or in life.
There are instances where the male protagonist’s actions make us wonder if gender consciousness is indeed ingrained in all of us. Cue the early scene where he playfully holds his kid sister’s ponytail to ask her if she is preparing well for her upcoming examinations. This action displays a hint of exclusive male aggression because it is next to impossible to imagine the opposite happening at any given moment. Also, he teases her about how studying and working hard will be futile as like her sister-in-law she will be relegated to the kitchen in few years’ time. Looked at in another light, he is wise enough to know this fundamental truth and just states the facts. But the sister knows that she would not compromise on her studies and even openly expresses that she would love to earn her own share by working.
As Aarti begins to blossom in her work sphere and even buys her father-in-law his pair of long-delayed reading glasses from her own salary and given that he is jobless as his bank shuts down, there are moments where he suffers from a sense of inferiority complex. It is never aggressive or in-your-face because ultimately he is a balanced individual who loves his wife and family and is instrumental in bringing about a breakdown of traditional structures. But the complex values of a home run by the male members is imprinted in his mind and we cannot blame him entirely as that is what he has known all along. His own unemployment and taunting father who gives him the silent treatment and goes asking for money from his distinguished students, also expressing his unhappiness with his own son, only triggers the self-imposed bitterness. But it never boils over or becomes a way to disrespect anyone. Everybody is flawed and for a struggling man like him, the stakes are high. More so because his own father thinks he is irresponsible to the point that he makes his wife work. Now it is a muddled internalization and Ray etches his emotions in the same way, influenced by social conditionings and not really a personal will to be bitter, without appearing to apologize for the rampant strain of male hegemony. He lets us see everyone as they are. The need to interpret has been left to us. Humans are flawed, even the best among us, he seems to tell us.
By the last half hour, some important resolutions are made by all. They bypass immediate impulses to mark definitive consequences, for the very robust idea of individuality. The father-in-law, bed-ridden after a fall, apologizes to his daughter-in-law, his beloved Bouma, and son, accepting his folly of badmouthing him to others when in reality both of them have accommodated his needs, put the family first, and overworked to fend for them. So, there is a welcome strain of rectification on his part where he is willing to acknowledge his mistakes and overcome his ego.
It is Arati who triumphs by renouncing her secure cocoon in the private firm, by standing up for Edith as umpteen humiliations shatter her. Her iron-willed confrontation with the boss and eventual resignation is the true example of empowerment coupled with no-holds-barred solidarity, extremely attuned to the ‘Me Too’ era. The final scene between the husband and wife is ruminative of the way the big city creates opportunities and at the same time overwhelms two honest, simple people who have lost their bearings but not their collective integrity. It is now up to them to stand together, redeeming the man in the equation, and claim their shares. Practical, life affirming, and perched on precarious beginnings for this middle-class ethos, illustrative of a million more across eras and locations, Mahanagar is a brilliant study of urban livelihoods and the role each plays in upholding a lucid picture of unifying temperaments amid daily pressures. No work can match its timeliness and spirit of change.
The film must be watched by everyone.
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India, and teaches at the English and Modern European Languages Department, Lucknow University. He launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad in 2015 and on his WordPress blog AN AWADH BOY’S PANORAMA. He has published in several publications such as Gnosis Journal, Reader’s Digest, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Cafe Dissensus Magazine, Confluence, The Medley, Thumbprint Magazine, Wilda Morris’ poetry blog, Screen Queens, Borderless Journal, Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Livewire, Rhetorica Quarterly, and his writing is to about appear on Dreich Magazine, encompassing various genres, from poetry to film reviews, travel pieces, and photo essays to posts on culture. Two of his poems, “Dreams” and “Wish Upon a Star” have been published in the children’s anthology titled Nursery rhymes and children’s poems from around the world you may not have heard, edited by Anita Nahal and Meenakshi Mohan, published by Author’s Press.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.