Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

I could write a book on the impression Mahanagar left on me as a girl growing up in a feminist household and the life-long influence it has had on my approach to cinema viewing.

Anna MM Vetticad September 12, 2020 13:47:11 IST
Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

(Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a series by film critic and consulting editor Anna M.M. Vetticad)

Cinema is a political enterprise. 

Films are entertainment, they are a means of travelling to places you may never physically see in your life and exploring foreign cultures, but over and above everything else for me, they are political. I was obviously not capable of articulating this view with such clarity as a child in the 1980s when I watched Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (The Big City) on our family’s box-like TV set, a far cry from the sleek flat TVs of today. I do know though that it is back then that an awareness began to dawn on me of the feminist potential of films. 

When a proposal was mooted for me to write a series on Firstpost about the cinematic works that planted the seeds of a film critic in me, Mahanagar came to mind immediately. I was a kid when I first watched it, not yet a teenager as far as I remember, and I cannot be sure I knew the word “feminism” at the time, but I can never forget the impact on me of the heroine Arati’s increasing self-confidence manifested in her changing body language through the length of the narrative.

When Mahanagar was released in 1963, Ray had already been a household name in West Bengal and a celebrated director across India and the world for almost a decade. His debut feature, 1955’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), had earned him immediate global recognition, a National Award for Best Feature Film at home and at the Cannes Film Festival, the Best Human Document Award. Mahanagar was the first Ray film I watched though. 

Based on Narendranath Mitra’s short story Abotaranika (The Prologue), Mahanagar is an account of altered power equations in a patriarchal, lower-middle-class Bengali household in 1950s Kolkata, when the daughter-in-law of the family gets a job. Arati Mazumdar (played by Madhabi Mukherjee) is initially shown as a meek, self-effacing woman who spends her days dutifully catering to the needs of her husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), their only child Pintu, her school-going sister-in-law Bani and elderly parents-in-law, Sarojini and Priyagopal. While each of these characters is important, the focal point of the plot remains Arati’s bond with Subrata. 

That the Mazumdars are struggling financially is established quickly in Mahanagar’s opening scenes. They live in a cramped flat, and among other signs of their straitened circumstances, Priyagopal is struggling with his vision because he desperately needs new spectacles and Arati borrows tea leaves from a neighbour to serve her tired spouse a beverage when he gets home.   

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Satyajit Rays Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

Anil Chatterjee, Jaya Bhaduri (later Bachchan) and Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar

Just as quickly established is the benevolent patriarchy in the household. Subrata is almost affectionate in his tone when he chides Arati for not being there to serve him as soon as he returned home. He is not rude, overbearing or violent, and the couple are, to all appearances, fond of each other, but his admonishment is not non-serious. He later adopts a half-jesting tone when he tells her “a woman’s place is in the home” during a discussion on whether or not she should take up a job. 

The idea of a job comes from Arati who is ridden with guilt since the burden of the family’s finances is entirely on her beloved Subrata’s shoulders. She goes so far as to ask, “And what do I do? I never saw how you were suffering...” – considering that when we observe her within the confines of their home, she is occupied at every instant, her assessment of her contribution to the household makes Mahanagar a telling illustration of how economies, families and women themselves till date continue to underrate women’s work within the house. 

What is equally interesting is Subrata’s enthusiastic involvement in Arati’s quest for a chaakri (job). His only worry at that point is how his parents might react. As days roll by though, as Arati’s new-found self-assurance becomes visible, he is wracked with insecurities and it becomes clear that he is using his parents as an excuse to camouflage his own ego, which was massaged by her earlier diffidence and dependence on him. 

Subrata is shown enjoying his wife’s hesitation as she applies for a job and in her initial days as an office-goer, patronising her – again affectionately – with an air of superiority that seems to enhance the warmth of his feelings towards her. His feminism (if it can be called that at all) is a feminism of compulsion and convenience that cannot withstand the later realisation that his wife no longer needs him in  precisely the way she once did. This is the eternal dilemma of the modern man: to value or not to value the love of a woman who is with you not because she needs to be, but because she wants to be with you.

A decade later, another great Bengali director – this time one working in Hindi cinema – presented a far more aggressive, unpleasant version of Subrata on screen in Abhimaan (Pride). Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film starred Jaya Bachchan nee Bhaduri as a successful singer whose husband (Amitabh Bachchan) ruins their marriage with his jealousy. Subrata in Mahanagar is milder, he is also apparently embarrassed by his own small-mindedness which can be the only reason why he hides behind his parents’ conservatism for so long. (Aside: coincidentally, Jaya had debuted in Mahanagar, playing Subrata’s little sister, Bani.)

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Satyajit Rays Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

Madhabi Mukherjee is luminous and brilliant in Mahanagar

Both men exist in the real world. However, this week when I happened to read Abotaranika (an English translation by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay in the collection 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray) I was fascinated to learn that Ray was kinder to Subrata than the writer Mitra had been. (Minor spoiler alert for those who have not yet watched Mahanagar) In the closing chapter of the film, Arati unilaterally makes a significant decision that could greatly affect the family’s financial situation. It is a morally correct choice, but one that many may consider impractical and foolhardy. Subrata is surprised but ultimately supportive. Mahanagar thus wraps up on a feeling of positivity towards Subrata. In the short story though, when he hears of Arati’s decision, he makes a petty remark – it is hard to come away from Abotaranika liking him. (Spoiler alert ends)

Mitra wrote of the more probable experience a real-life Arati would have ended up having with her Subrata. Ray perhaps wanted to leave viewers, especially women, with a sense of optimism and a conviction/hope that men would evolve at the same pace as women. 

What seals Mahanagar’s position among Indian feminist classics is the fact that though the Arati-Subrata relationship is central to the plot, the film is, without question, Arati’s story. When I first watched Mahanagar, and at every subsequent viewing, what has struck me most is that Ray does not reduce Arati to a woman who is “supplementing her husband’s income”, which is how large sections of society tend to view women who work outside the house even today. Interestingly, Arati herself describes her employment in such terms to a friend, in a bid to preserve her husband’s dignity and social standing, thus reflecting prevailing social attitudes towards economically independent women at the time. 

A turning point in the film comes when Arati openly expresses pride in how good she is at her job and declares that she has begun to enjoy it. Ray was telling us over half a century back what too many families are not willing to accept even now – that women, like men, derive satisfaction and fulfilment from working outside the house and that women too may seek careers, not mere jobs/employment. 

The most enjoyable aspect of the progression in Arati’s graph comes in the way her gait and posture shift subtly although the volume of her voice does not. In a film packed with impeccable performances, the luminous Madhabi Mukherjee made her place in history books with her brilliantly subtle turn as Arati Mazumdar. 

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Satyajit Rays Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

Anil Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in a still from Mahanagar

It is tragic that mainstream Bengali cinema appears to have regressed in its stance on women since then; a regression exemplified by the massive commercial success of Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee's directorial works in the past decade, and epitomised by their deeply regressive 2016 film Praktan (Former) in which Rituparna Sengupta and Prosenjit Chatterjee play a divorced couple whose split the film – and ultimately the ex-wife herself – squarely blames on the woman’s unwillingness to “compromise”. 

In Mahanagar, Arati faces disapproval from her in-laws and, as time goes by, Subrata, but Ray himself is always firmly on her side.

The master filmmaker here goes beyond exploring patriarchy within a 1950s upper-caste Hindu  Bengali family though. In an era when his contemporaries in the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry were persistently stereotyping and othering Christian women (always Anglo-Indians and Goans) as quasi-foreign, hyper-Westernised, often sexually available creatures – in sharp contrast to the ‘good’, sexually conservative Hindu heroine – a few state borders away, Ray took up cudgels on behalf of Anglo-Indian Christians through the medium of Arati’s colleague Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood) in Mahanagar

We see from the start that their boss, Mr Mukherjee, is prejudiced against Edith who he repeatedly dismissively describes as “that firangi” (foreigner/Anglo-Indian). It is noteworthy that Mukherjee himself is not portrayed as an archetypally ‘bad’ man – he is, in fact, a constant source of encouragement to Arati, who he considers one of his own, and is nothing but kind to her. The duality in his attitude to women is an uncomfortable reminder that narrow thinking resides not just in the overtly evil ‘other’ but also in ‘people like us’. 

After rewatching Mahanagar on Youtube this week, I learnt from a 2013 essay by Professor Chandak Sengoopta of the University of London on the Criterion Collection’s website that Vicky Redwood was a pseudonym the actor had assumed to play Edith and that she was actually a Bengali, not an Anglo-Indian. This is remarkable because Redwood’s performance and styling – factually accurate but shorn of cliches and caricature – is evidence of how committed Ray was in his opposition to stereotyping. 

When Arati stands up for Edith in Mahanagar’s most troubling episode, it is not spelt out to the audience whether she did it because it was the right thing to do or because she saw in Mukherjee’s judgment of this young woman a ripened, hardened version of the doubts that had begun to seep into Subrata’s mind about his own wife. Perhaps both factors played a part in her actions. Either way, this passage in the film is crucial also because the public discourse in India tends to emphasise women who pull each other down and women enablers of patriarchy, while largely ignoring the women who have supported each other for millennia and have helped each other survive the soul-crushing effects of patriarchy. 

I could write a book on the impression Mahanagar left on me as a girl growing up in a feminist household and the life-long influence it has had on my approach to cinema viewing (and now reviewing). Years later, watching another landmark Bengali film – Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan (1997) – I almost choked with emotion and disbelief that a man could have made a film on a woman with such empathy and sensitivity. Ray’s Mahanagar though is what kicked off my list of “men who understand women” and male feminist allies in the world of cinema.

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