“Mahanagar” - Satyajit Ray (1963)

Satyajit Ray’s early films may have led viewers to expect from him thoughtful dramas set mostly in the past and removed from our current hectic lifestyle. But with Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), he shifted his external focus into the noisy, cluttered world of modern urban life. However, his characteristic inner focus on the evolving feelings and understandings of the main characters remained. Ray based his script on two stories by Narendra Mitra, “Abataranika” (“Descent”, 1949) and "Akinchan” (“Desire”, 1954). But with Mitra’s approval, Ray made some alterations, notably changing Mitra’s pessimistic ending into an optimistic one [1].

With the opening shots, we see low-level businessman Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) on a crowded city bus returning home from work. At home in his dingy lower-middle-class apartment, we are quickly introduced to his crowded household.  There are his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), his five-year-old son Pintu, his teenage sister Bani (Jay Bhaduri), and his parents. Since his father, a former schoolteacher, is now retired, Subrata’s job at a bank is their only source of income, so they are all dependent on him.

From this opening sequence it appears that the story will be about Subrata and how he manages things under these conditions and in the face of possible difficulties.  But in fact the story turns out to be primarily about his wife, Arati, and how she adapts to the events that she encounters. As such, the story turns out to be one of the more thoughtful and sensitive examinations of a woman’s place in society (particularly Indian society), and I think the film represents one of Ray’s finest achievements. The film also displays an array of Ray’s masterful use of cinematic techniques to tell his story.

Although the events in the narrative jump around among the adult characters and appear to be somewhat episodic, there is a progressive four-part structure to the narrative.  In it everything ultimately pertains to Arati’s psychological development and in each of the four phases, there is a presentation of some development on the part of Arati’s situation, followed by a reaction on the part of her various family members.
1.  Arati takes a job
After Subrata comes home, he mentions to Arati that a friend’s wife has had to take a job in order for them to make ends meet.  Arati immediately thinks of her own family’s stressed circumstances – they don’t even have enough money to replace the lost eyeglasses of Subrata’s elderly father, Priyogopal (who is always referred to as “Baba”).  So Arati determines to get a job in order to support the family. Subrata is reluctant and offers the traditional response to Arati, “a woman’s place is in the home”. But eventually he acquiesces to his wife’s enthusiastic commitment, and soon she manages to get a job as a door-to-door saleswoman.

Despite the good fortune of getting a job, though, the family is resentful and stages a “cold war” against her going out of the family to work. Baba and his wife feel that the family has been humiliated by having a woman work on the outside (and so presumably be exposed to potentially compromising situations). Pintu, too, is upset that his mother is no longer around the house all day to attend to his needs.

2.  The working woman gains confidence
After some initial false starts, Arati soon becomes proficient at selling her company’s knitting machines door-to-door to upperclass households.  In the process she makes the acquaintance of other salesgirls for the company, which expands her social perspective, increases her confidence, and apparently gives her a sense of psychological independence. One of her new co-worker friends is Edith (Vicky Redwood), an Anglo-Indian woman who dresses and acts in a thoroughly Western fashion but whose family finances are just as precarious as Arati’s. Along the way, we see that Anglo-Indian people like Edith are not socially accepted by the British or the “pure-bred” Indians of class, so they generally have a rough time in society.  
When Arati comes home with her first paycheck, she still meets continued family resistance.  Baba  is reluctant to speak to her, and now even Subrata, feeling threatened by his wife’s newfound confidence, demands that she resign from her job. 
3.  Setbacks
Just when the coerced Arati is about to reluctantly hand in her resignation letter, she hears that there has been a run on Subrata’s bank, and it has collapsed. Subrata is now jobless, and so Arati has to hold onto her job. In fact since Arati’s effective work is well appreciated by her boss, Himangshu, she manages to secure a fifty percent pay increase when she asks for it. In addition Arati’s new friend Edith gives her lipstick and sunglasses to make her look more fashionable for her upperclass sales environment. These developments and glossy accoutrements make the increasingly insecure Subrata even more disturbed, but he is now helpless. 

Meanwhile Baba, who has been running around town seeking to borrow money for new eyeglasses from his former students who are now successful, suffers a heart attack. Though Baba survives, his behavior presents a further humiliation for the chastened Subrata.

4.  Movement to freedom
Fishing around for job prospects, Subrata now pays a visit to Arati’s boss, Himangshu, who turns out to be very cordial because they were both raised in the same district.  He says he has connections and can find something for Subrata.  A bit later Arati comes to the same office and learns that Himangshu, who is prejudicially scornful of Anglo Indians, has just fired Edith for allegedly slacking off.  Arati is distraught by this injustice and emotionally demands that her boss apologize to Edith.  When he refuses, she resigns on the spot and walks out.

When Arati meets Subrata on the street, she tearfully confesses that she has stupidly resigned from her job, and now they are both out of work. Subrata silently realizes that her resignation has killed his own job prospects with Himangshu, but he praises his wife for her courage to stick to her principles. Arati is thrilled that her husband is so understanding, and they embrace. They both realize that though their material situation is dire, they live in “the big city”, which is full of opportunities.  She is sure that they will survive and prosper.

The ending of Mahanagar reminds me of O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), in which an impoverished married couple separately ruin their only material assets in efforts to buy gifts for each other.  In that story, though the couple is now more destitute than ever, they realize that, more importantly, their love for each other is boundless, and they are happy.  Similarly in Mahanagar, Subrata and Arati realize that their mutual love is more important over the long term than the specifics of their current lost employment.  After all, they live in the “big city”, where something good may be just around the corner.  Thus this is one of Ray’s most positive and optimistic story endings.

There are a number of interesting cultural elements that Ray includes that embellish the story.  I have already mentioned the issue of Anglo-Indians and their uncertain place in Indian society. The more wealthy Bengalis apparently regarded these people as immoral opportunists, perhaps on the prejudicial grounds of “compromised blood”.  Also among other themes in the film was the concern for the changing situation of elderly parents in the evolving Indian society. After a lifetime of sacrifice, elderly parents increasingly found themselves displaced and less respected in the turbulent conditions of the modern world. A symbol of this turbulence was the uncertain prospects of the proliferating banks of that day (a problem that is still with us).  In fact the year in which the film is set, 1955, was one during which there was a big bank run in Kolkata (Calcutta ). 

Ray manages to convey the subtleties of these issues by means of his adroit mise-en-scene.  In the context of confined living quarters, Ray has many well-composed shots in depth that capture the multiple activities in one shot.  Also, throughout the film there are excellently sequenced visual closeup and medium shots used to  sustain our awareness of characters’ feelings.  This included fine-grained and slow forward-tracking shots that unobtrusively help maintain the psychological tenor of the scene, suggesting an understated version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s visual choreography [2].  There are also visual motifs that accentuate the mood and issues. Examples include the crisp bank notes that Arati receives (and Edith doesn’t) when she is paid, Arati’s lipstick and her sunglasses.  In addition there are the detailedly (but culturally contrasting) cluttered apartments of Arati and Edith.  On top of those visual elements, there was the atmospheric use of offscreen city noises to convey the nervous energy of the urban environment. 

To make all these themes come together into a coherent narrative, Ray needed a special acting performance, and this is what he got from his lead actress, Madhabi Mukherjee. Her smiles and tears seem so natural and authentic, we feel we are watching real life. She was not the polished, glamorous type, but she had a certain natural, sensual warmth that had its own magnetism, especially when working with Ray. She went on to play the lead in Ray’s next film, Charulata (1964), and it was not surprising to me to learn that Ray and Ms. Mukherjee were romantically linked in the mid-1960s. 

But, of course, the most important theme was that of the woman’s role in society, particularly in connection with the working woman.  This is not an issue that comes up once in society’s historical course and then is settled.  Satyajit Ray’s own mother was a working mom, and the issue persists today in ever-changing forms.  Ray’s Mahanagar treats this theme with a much greater degree of subtlety and modern relevance than does Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879), a modern version of which in an Iranian setting is Dariush Mehrjui’s film, Sara (1992).  Arati in Mahanagar has many different social forces pulling at her.  Most of these things come from people whom we recognize from our own experiences and understand.  Arati’s father-in-law “Baba” is selfishly concerned about his own pride, but he does not impose his views upon her.  Subrata, too, thinks that wives shouldn’t work, but he does try to accommodate her.  Her son, Pintu, wants his mother to be always around – of course, we can sympathize with that. And Himangshu, whose prejudice concerning Anglo-Indians was commonplace, is generally well meaning and cordial; he just bristles when he is accused of malfeasance by a junior employee. These ordinary, imperfect people depicted in the film are not inherently bad people, but they all place conflicting demands on Arati. And she tries to respond by seeking to find some kind of balance in order to keep as many people around her as happy as possible. In the end, with all the various conflicting demands that have been made on her, she comes out of it stronger.  She is still positive, still loving.  That’s what makes this film’s ending beautiful.


  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 260-268.
  2. One noticeably awkward piece of cinematography, however, was a very artificial studio shot using back projection and showing Himangshu at the wheel driving Arati home in his car.

1 comment:

Avec Maître said...

As far as I remember, Subrata was not a businessman. He workd in a bank.