Mahanagar, 50 years on

Ray ended Mahanagar on a remarkably upbeat note... the image of husband and wife walking off side by side, as equals, is not far from the idealistic-romantic ending of a Shree 420 or a Pyaasa

Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar (The Big City), which released exactly half a century ago, in September 1963, is about a Calcutta housewife who steps out to work for the first time, and the tumult that this causes in her middle class family. The film is built around the central character of Arati, played to perfection by Madhabi Mukherjee in her first Ray film; she would go on to star in Charulata the year after.
Arati is very much the assured housewife, but she has never held a job before. Nothing in her experience has prepared her for this particular form of adulthood. On the momentous morning of Arati first going to work, when her husband Subrata laughs at how clammy her hands are, she says, “It's happened once before. On the day of our marriage.” On the same morning, when Subrata and Arati are eating, Ray underlines his point. Subrata's younger sister (Jaya Bhaduri making a wonderful bespectacled debut), fondly fanning the couple, points out they've never eaten together after the ritual feast of their wedding day – until now. The scene foreshadows what the film is poised to explore: how Arati's new engagement with the wider world might reshape her marriage, turning ritual parity into real partnership.
Because Subrata, while forced by straitened circumstances to encourage his wife to work, is still in denial about the permanence of the changes to come. “What's the point?” he teases his sister about studying so hard for an exam. “You'll grow up and have to push cooking pots around. Like your boudi.” The 14-year-old makes some reply about having domestic science as a subject in school. We don't quite know what to think: is cooking's new scientific status reflective of changing social attitudes to women's work? Or is it just a dressing-up to delude women into carrying on with hard domestic labour?
Certainly, Ray does not yet visualise a future in which women might not run the home. All three generations of women in his film take pride in cooking. The mother-in-law looks thrilled when her son knowingly insists that she cook the fish curry. Arati acquiesces with a smile, confident that her own cooking is not being berated. For the young sister-in-law, too, adulthood means being trusted to cook a meal. The joint family back-up makes Arati's absence possible: as her husband says, it's not as if Pintoo won't get bathed on time.
Off-stage, seemingly beyond the arena occupied by primary middle class actors, is another kind of working woman: the maid. Her pay is discussed, as is the need to keep her on. But we never see nor hear her. We hear her being addressed, but she is not granted the privilege of a name, only the demeaning appellation 'jhee'. That silence is not incidental. It prefigures a world 50 years into the future, in which a million Aratis go to work only by leaving their homes and children in the care of the still nameless, faceless maid. But we have still not got to the point of wondering who the maid leaves her children with.
There is another kind of woman in Mahanagar: the Westernised woman. Here Ray refuses easy binaries. He forges unexpected connections. And he quietly places the curiosity and openness of Arati's friendship with her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith against their boss Mukherjee, whose prejudices are clearly distasteful to Ray. Mukherjee is the kind of man whose cosmopolitan veneer has failed to alter an older mindset: he will help a stranger from his hometown (“Apni-o Pabnar, ami-o Pabnar”), but won't even hear out the firingi girl he assumes is amoral.
Ray ended Mahanagar on a remarkably upbeat note. The in-laws see the error of their ways, and the image of husband and wife walking off side by side, as equals, is not far from the idealistic-romantic ending of a Shree 420 or a Pyaasa -- though Arati and Subrata walk into the city, not away from it. As they melt into the urban crowd, the camera pans suggestively up to the street lamp.
Rituparno Ghosh's Dahan (1997), made in less optimistic times, burrows down a dark tunnel at the fraught heart of middle class life. Dahan's powerful comment on the unfreedom of women feels, if anything, stronger in 2013. The father-in-law does not come round. The husband does not half-jokingly call himself “bhayanak conservative, like my father”. It is the young wife, Romita (Rituparna Sengupta), who ribs her husband about not letting her buy a skirt and blaming it on his parents. You’re the one who’s conservative, not them, she says. And the husband, instead of laughing at himself as in Mahanagar, implodes in anger. The city in Dahan is more threatening than Mahanagar's respectable white-collar world, but so is the home. Romita is not doing anything so outre as wearing a skirt, but a sari and a husband are no shield against molestation on the street. And marriage is no shield against rape at home. When Arati steps out from behind a clothes-line to join her husband, Ray evokes (with characteristic lightness) her breaking of a lakshman-rekha. But Romita's balcony is the boundary of her prison. When she breaks out, she must leave alone.
Violence is not just a sign of terrible times. It is also a sign of growing resistance. The parity so tentatively offered to the middle class woman in Mahanagar is now demanded as a right. But clearly the world will not give us that right without a fight. We must wrest safe homes from the city, and the city from our safe-keepers. Oh, and the jhee? She still remains invisible.

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