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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Agent of change (Mahanagar)

You can simply witness 1963's Calcutta from the Mazumdars' perspective or you can regale in the transformation of Arati from the shy housewife to the confident breadwinner who shall not brook injustice. Both ways, the profit is yours. Calcutta is photographed splendidly in Mahanagar. The sights, sounds and scenes shown  in this Satyajit Ray classic will remind you of the city where every people face the daily grind with small dreams and aspirations in their hearts.

It is this Calcutta that fulfils those dreams on one hand, snatches away hopes on the other, only to replenish the ability to weave dreams once more. Its lanes and bylanes have memories of the days gone by. The houses at Kalighat shown in the film remind me of those many dilapidated homes that still exist and still face the same problems day in and day out.
A look at Mahanagar's Calcutta and you know that nothing has changed. Scores of people are still worried sick about how to sustain themselves, husbands and wives break their backs working hard to earn a decent living and in every house there lives a Subrata and an Arati, two individuals who represent Calcutta's populace.
That is why Mahanagar is so real. Ray's characters appear so next-door and hence, so credible. Subrata Mazumdar is one among thousands of young men who have to run a family with his meagre income. Juggling a bank job and private tuitions he is also a man who is not comfortable seeing his wife go out and work. Call it conservative or selfish, perhaps he balks at the idea of his wife coming into her own as an independent individual. Initially circumspect, Subrata agrees to let Arati take up the job of a salesgirl only when the burden on him seems too much. His family, comprising his old father and mother, opposes the decision but can't help it. After all they are old and feeble. Blame the age for the constricted mentality of Subrata's father. A retired teacher, he openly rejects the gifts from his earning daughter-in-law, but then does not think twice before going to his students and bad mouthing his son. And yes, the extreme happens when he demands 'guru dakshina' from almost all of them against his better judgement and self-respect.
Subrata's fear of letting Arati out in the big bad world has no basis. Rather it surfaces out of his own frustration and inactivity. The same man who egged on his wife to share his load soon starts feeling jealous of his wife's success. Her new-found confidence makes him envious and hence suspicious of her whereabouts. The hardworking and simple Subrata starts falling from our eye for his thoughts and actions. And words. I almost feel like smacking him when he rudely retorts to his wife's parting salutation with, "Aaj thotey rong lagabey na? (Won't you colour your lips today)" Which actually means that he now considers Arati's trade a frivolous one and hence hardly respectable. Arati's hard-earned money and financial independance stings him all the time and he is not brave enough to accept that his wife is indeed trying to help him out. At one point you feel like sympathising with this Subrata, but one the other hand you are angry with him for mistrusting Arati. And, mind you it is the superlative subtlety of Anil Chatterjee that extracts such reactions from the audience.
A stark contrast to Subrata is Himangshu Mukherjee, Arati's boss. He is a cut-throat businessman who is eager to laud hardworking employees. And he does that amply when Arati excels in her job. But, this astute character (Haradhan Banerjee absolutely gets into his skin) loses no time to brush away shirkers and insolent workers. He wants work and anyone who does not give him that will be forced to leave. He does that with Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood) and incurs the wrath of Arati, who has established a close bond with Edith. Reasoning with Arati that taking Edith's side will not be advantageous for her, he is stunned when Arati hands over her resignation.
The scene where Subrata comes to meet Mukherjee reeks of the fallen state of Subrata. He is here to just fish for opportunities. And just before this he was telling his wife to quit her job. Can a man really fall this low? And, the scene also projects the pragmatism of Mukherjee. This man can read between the lines and doesn't mince words when it comes to money...
The hero of this piece is Arati, played brightly by Madhabi Mukherjee. A doting wife and a loving daughter-in-law, she is responsible enough to understand that she needs to share Subrata's load. Unaware and a tad scared of the outside world, she takes this giant decision only to help him out. Subrata nods his acquiescence only because he is tired of the big burden. She braves the oppositions at home to step out. Even her son hates her for working outside and will only be appeased by the occasional bribe of toys. But there is someone who is happy for Arati. her sister-in-law Bani (Jaya Bhaduri in her introducing role). Arati weathers all the storm in the family to step out. She has new challenges to face. Her brave decision is worth loads of accolades. Though apprehensive about her new role as a sales girl, she takes it in her stride and does her job well. She also becomes worldly wise. She applies her lipstick only after coming to office (because at home no one will like it) because she wants to be more presentable when she visits people's homes.
But, then her success soon becomes a thorn in Subrata's throat and much to her disappointment he asks her to quit. You can feel her helplessness at being subject to the decisions of her husband and even gets blamed for having a career. What is this predicament that Arati is in? Her transformation as a brave feminist is complete when she fights for Edith's honour and the truth. Though her decision is impulsive, it proves that she is a strong individual, not ready to relinquish honour and respect. Subrata, though initially scared about the future, accepts her decision with happiness, because he realises that his wife is indeed a brave woman. And the two start their journey all over again in the big city of Calcutta. With new hopes and new aspirations...


  1. Excellent film. A trademark Ray take on what was then a pre-Naxalite Calcutta, the film is perhaps cinematographer Subrata Mitra's best work. Then there's something with the Ray-Madhavi combination --- the chemistry lights up the screen. Ray is perhaps the only director who transformed this not-so-beautiful actress into a diva. Just think Charulata.
    Fantastic analysis btw :)

  2. Just realised it's your 100th post. Congratulations. Take a bow for your searching analysis and searing pace --- 100 posts in flat seven months! Wow! Keep writing :)

  3. Sharmi, congratulations on your 100th post! That must be some sort of record - so little time, and so many great reviews already. I just discovered that my last post (Shama Parwana) was my 200th, so we sort of share a landmark! ;-)

    Great review, by the way - and another Ray film that I've yet to see, even though I've heard of it.

  4. Sharmi,
    Do you realise that we've done this movie at the same time almost exactly?! I enjoyed this movie so much, I'm glad it's the case for you too!

  5. Lovely review, Sharmi. It's always such a pleasure to see cities as they were years ago, and I love it when films explore their locations properly, taking you into another world.

    Congratulations on your 100th post. :)

  6. @Sharmi: Congrats on your 100th review! Keep it going :)

  7. This sounds excellent - like every other Ray film, in fact! :D More material for my Ray-to-watch list.

    And wow! 100 posts in barely 8 months?! That's a LOT of blogging. Keep the reviews coming! :D

  8. @Netdhaba: Thank you so so very much for egging me on. Hope I can sustain this enthusiasm and pace :)

  9. @Dustedoff: Congratulations to you too. Awesome job done on your 200th post. I was actually laughing at Shammi's plight. Yes, this is a great subtle film. Do watch it :)

  10. @Yves: Oh you too have reviewed this film? I must check it out :)

  11. @Banno: Thank you Banno. I'm glad you liked it.

  12. @Sreenath: Thank you Sreenath. I'm lucky to have all your support :)

  13. @Bollyviewer: Yes, this is an excellent film. Subtle yet strong. You will like it am sure. And thank you :)

  14. I haven't seen too many Ray films but was totally bowled over by this one. I think it's one of the most beautiful and nuanced portrayals of feminism and marriage.

  15. @NP: Yes, so it is. Wonderfully subtle yet very strong. Trust Ray to handle the issues so deftly :)