Mahanagar: Satyajit Ray highlights how flawed the prejudice against working women is
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
The year was 1963. Satyajit Ray, already established by then as one of the best filmmakers India had ever produced, had just come out of making two of his weakest and least popular films which had earned him unprecedented critical and commercial flak. He had, in his own words, learnt the bitter lesson of what happens when commerce starts interfering with the art of filmmaking. Under such unfavourable circumstances, Ray made a film which silenced all his critics in a single sweep — a film which once again exposed the hypocrisies of the middle class Bengali society when it came to empowering its women. That film, which Ray adapted from a short story by Bengali author Narendranath Mitra, was Mahanagar (The Big City).
Arati is the quintessential middle class Bengali homemaker — a perfect wife to her loving husband Subrata, a caring mother to her eight-year old son Pintu, and an obedient, dutiful and deeply respectful daughter-in-law to her husband’s parents, Priyagopal and Sarojini. Although not quite hand to mouth, the family does live under significant financial strain, especially after retired schoolmaster Priyagopal decides to leave his village behind and come and live with his son in the big city. Subrata is the single earning member of the family and has as many as six mouths to feed, including a school-going sister. Outside work, he gives private tuition to a few students, but even then, his income seems to fall short.
Arati manages the household without any complaints and performs her duties with grace and elegance. One day, when she learns that a family acquaintance’s wife has taken up a job, she wonders why she herself can’t take up a job to ease the burden on her husband. Subrata supports his wife, but her in-laws don’t. Arati soon secures the job of a sales girl in a firm selling knitting machines, and the money begins to flow in. Thanks to the hard work that comes so naturally to her as a housewife, Arati’s income soon begins to exceed even that of her husband, and this makes Subrata rather insecure. He asks Arati to give up her job and resume her role as the perfect homemaker once again. Arati agrees, because to her, domestic amity is far more important than money. But on the very day that she is supposed to submit her resignation, her husband loses his job, which forces her to continue to play the role of the bread-earner of the family, even amidst grave personal turmoil at her workplace.
Ray’s usual technical brilliance, economy of dialogue, appropriately paced narrative and mind-boggling detailing aside, what really sets Mahanagar apart is the social relevance of its subject. Anyone who has either experienced or studied the life of a typical middle class household in India would be able to identify with the many obstacles which the woman of the house has to negotiate day in and day out. While some of these problems are financial in nature — for instance when her husband asks her about the condition of her coffers at the end of the month, Arati says with a reassuring smile, “We have enough to go for three more days”, there are some others which are to do with the mindset of the people around her — for instance when her father-in-law refuses to accept her first month’s salary, when she offers it to him as a respectful gift. ‘The place of a woman is in the home’ — this has always been the unwritten rule of such a household, until not very long ago, and perhaps even today. Suffering under severe financial burdens, and yet not allowing a smart, educated and perfectly capable housewife to bring home money — that has been a common practice. And this does not even begin to take into account the other consideration of the entire issue — a woman’s financial independence, her own individuality — separate from that of her role as a wife, mother or daughter-in-law. Ray strikes, and strikes hard, at the heart of this prejudice — and shows us, in a very gentle way, how flawed the logic against working women is.
One of the most fascinating things about Mahanagar is its deep character studies, without even once showing a single individual in negative or poor light. Take the patriarch of the family, for instance. An aged and mentally anguished retired school teacher, who laments at the cursed luck of meagerly-salaried teachers in this country, Priyagopal goes around the city, visiting his former students — all established and successful individuals in their own right now — and vents about his misgivings towards his own son. In a beautifully written scene early on in the film, he goes to one such ex-student, a famous ophthalmologist now, and tells him with great hesitation that he needs eyeglasses, but cannot afford them. When his student tells him with great reverence that he would be more than happy to offer a pair of eyeglasses to him as a ‘Gurudakshina’, the old man seems to find great peace, not because he would have glasses now, but because of that specific word that his student has chosen to use.
Subrata’s character has been beautifully portrayed as well. Towards the beginning, despite feeling helpless amidst his financial constraints, he takes it all with great maturity and composure — for instance, when he remarks jokingly, “People are becoming millionaires simply by manufacturing beedis, and a BA-pass bank employee is losing his hair worrying about where his next meal is going to come from.” When his wife decides to take up a job, he is enthusiastically supportive of her — in fact, he actually finds the idea rather useful for the family. But in the face of domestic dissension, further fuelled by his own rapidly diminishing stature as the sole earning member of the family, he feels threatened and coldly withdraws his support — inadvertently distancing himself from his wife. He does come back to his wife though, that too in the face of a great tragedy, standing up for her in heartfelt, unconditional support this time, showing that his natural maturity and sense of right and wrong hasn’t been shrouded by the veils of prejudice.
But the biggest and brightest start of the film is undoubtedly its leading lady — played by Madhabi Mukherjee, in one of her career's best performances. She goes from the all-seeing, ever smiling, perfect housewife towards the beginning of the film to a fiercely independent, strong, confident and ethically upright young woman, who knows how to stand up against injustice by the end of the story. She is a loving mother in one instance and a skillful salesgirl in another. A good friend in one scene, and a dutiful wife in another. She doesn’t have any qualms in playing second fiddle to her man, simply because she doesn’t believe that thwarts her stature in any way. And at the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to protest against racial prejudice at her workplace. And in doing so, she shows us that be it a homemaker behind closed doors of a household, or the bright employee of a reputed merchant firm out there in the big bad world, there is one thing that is common to all women — an indomitable spirit.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.