Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Mahanagar is known as Satyajit Ray’s first portrayal of his native Kolkata. The film follows a husband and wife, Subrata and Arati Mazumder (Anil Chatterjee and Madbabi Mukherjee respectively), as they deal with money troubles. Arati decides to get a job despite the fact that a woman with a job is a faux pas in 1960s Indian society. The film reflects on Subrata’s circumstances and the family tensions created with her husband and his parents, decisively portraying the imprisonment of the female in Indian society.
This visual clearly conveys conformity and the difficulty of breaking away from a straight-line system.
The opening sequence of Mahanagar follows a line system, like that which a trolley or ski lift runs on, through Kolkata. This visual clearly conveys conformity and the difficulty of breaking away from a straight-line system. Ray exercises this clear, effective metaphorical approach throughout the film. Another early example is that everyone in the family wears glasses except the grandfather, who inevitably becomes the person most resistant to the notion of Arati working. He even specifies in a confrontation that while he can tolerate the situation, he cannot share in her and Subrata’s resulting happiness. The older versus current generation conflict is always looming overhead.
The difficulty of Subrata’s situation is not limited to the older generation; her husband too interally struggles with gender equality despite being more open than his parents. The first sign is present during a conversation with his daughter who is studying for an exam. He tells her, “What’s the use of studying…you’ll end up with kitchen duty like your sister-in-law.” On the subject of his wife working, Subrata explains that Arati is too attractive. Her presence will reduce the output of male employees. Despite a certain degree of openness, he also tells her that he would prefer if she stayed in the home where a woman belongs. Ultimately, he allows her to work and even helps her find a job as a salesgirl.
The film generally observes the process of Subrata discovering the possibility of supporting the family to ultimately being the sole breadwinner when Subrata is fired. One area of Ray’s skill in telling Subrata’s story is in her self-reflection. She first views this work opportunity as a way to alleviate the suffering of her husband. From a modern day perspective, she deserves the right to work equally as her own means of self-worth. Many films foolishly have their subjects view their situation clearly as if they’d truly understand the way things could be. If you’re always taught a particular notion about yourself, it’s generally unusual to not at least partly believe that yourself. Clarity of your true value, and the falsehood in what you’ve been taught, is gained over time through experience. It takes an excellent filmmaker to recognize the process by which a person realizes truth, understanding the pace and the varying stages.
Ray’s visuals are highly competent and astutely patient with characters but doesn’t leave as much to be remembered.
Mahanagar expectedly asks the classic question present in most movies that depict a societal cycle: what about the children? Right near the beginning of the film, Arati tells her daughter that she’s looking for a job. The daughter, who had been studying for exams despite the expectation that she’d always stay in the home, opens her eyes wide with excitement. This daring move by her mother fills her with hope, despite her father’s lack of support. This moment, like all the other typical elements of Mahanagar, is mostly moving but partly tiresome (from a 21st century perspective). Characters only exist in the context of this particular conflict pertaining to woman in the workplace. The viewer doesn’t gain a rounded view of them as human beings.
By contrast, similar feminist concerns were explored in the cinema of Mizouchi (Sisters of the Gion and Sansho the Bailiff for example), which while being of the same time period, have significantly more powerful, beautiful and memorable images. Ray’s visuals are highly competent and astutely patient with characters but doesn’t leave as much to be remembered. The one exception is a late foray into the topic of racism and its implications for prejudice on a broader level. This is the most affecting aspect of the film but only comes near the end.
In the end, Mahanagar is an excellent entry in the social cause film genre. The authenticity with which Ray portrays his characters within this situation is moving. This success, however, is limited by his flat portrayal of each character outside of their relation to feminism.
Mahanagar is an excellent entry in the social cause film genre which is limited by a lack of overall character depth in favor of straightforward political metaphors.