Friday, November 11, 2016

Satyaji Ray | মহানগর Mahānagar (The Big City)

stepping into the world
by Douglas Messerli

Satyajit Ray (screenplay, based on a story by Narendranath Mitra, Satyaji Ray (director) মহানগর Mahānagar (The Big City) / 1963, USA 1964

The Mazumdar family, husband, wife, son, daughter and the husband’s parents are having a difficult time given the low pay of the father, Subrata’s job at a bank. Although they are a loving and caring group, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) cannot afford to bring his children the toys they might enjoy, and his father, Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee), a former teacher, desperately needs a new pair of glasses. He’s been thinking of trying to get an extra job, but is already overworked. 
        Almost by accident, he mentions that a friend’s wife has begun working to help with finances of her family, which sets the conservatively raised Aarti (Madhabi Mukherjee) to thinking. Although she has only one year of college, perhaps she too might find a job to help out, and breaches the subject with her husband. At first he opposes her idea; certainly his father and mother will never come round to accepting her decision to enter the working force. 
        But, finally, realizing their plight, he agrees, helping her to pick the right job (as a salesgirl) and to write a letter of application. After an interview, Aarti is hired. Surprisingly, she is quite adept at selling the knitting machines, despite the fact, that unlike some of her colleagues such as Edith (Vicky Redwood), she can speak little English and dresses in a traditional sari, without makeup. Soon she is being praised by her affable boss (Haradhan Bannerjee) and is promised a future job as manager of other saleswomen. Edith even encourages her to use lipstick and demonstrates how to negotiate for commissions.

        Ray gently and delicately reveals how her new position in life begins to transform her, as she becomes far more self-assured and learns to not fear her natural beauty. Yet her in-laws are angry for her activities, creating, as Subrata describes it, a “cold war.” Her young son, Pintu, is also angry with her and his lack of maternal attention. Yet when she brings home her first pay along with gifts for the entire family, they temporarily recognize the wisdom of her decision.
       As Aarti gradually changes, becoming a proto-feminist before their very eyes, Subrata insists she resign and return home to work as a house wife. Still obedient, she agrees to do so, and plans the next morning to tender her letter of resignation.
       As she begins to explain to her boss her decision, however, he interrupts her several times telling her of his pleasure in her work. That very morning, Aarti arrives at the bank where he works to discover that it has failed and closed, putting him entirely out of work. He quickly calls his wife, asking her to keep her job.
        Aarti does so, working even longer hours when Edith becomes sick for a few days. But Subrata, now unable to find a new position, becomes more and more discontented with her  absence, one day accidentally discovering her in a cafe in conversation with another male, even though she is praising her husband and pretending to her companion that he works long hours.
       She visits Edith to find out how she is recovering. But when she returns to the office, she discovers her boss has fired Edith. In Ray’s wonderful story, the formerly meek Aarti, demonstrates her complete transformation by boldly telling her employer that he is unjust and demanding that he change his mind. 
     When he refuses, she takes the letter of resignation she still carries in her purse and hands it to him. Meeting her husband on the street, she explains what has just happened and apologizes for being so rash. 
      Yet Subrata now recognizes how much courage she has shown, and commends her for actions, promising her that in a big city such as Calcutta, they will both find new jobs.
       If Ray’s ending is not entirely a positive one and feels a bit hackneyed, it reveals how both husband and wife have grown in their perceptions of themselves and the world, and bodes well for a more westernized and sexually equal society in the future.
       This film—which represents also Ray’s return to his home city—serves almost as a sociological picture of Calcutta, representing its combination of urban modernity and ancient backstreets where the older traditions survive. Even being able to leave the house clearly makes for major changes for women who we most often represented in this and Ray works sitting low on the floor cooking dinner for the husbands and children. At one point her daughter even marvels to see her parents eating together, actually sharing a meal instead of dining separately. And we recognize just how easy and necessary it is to upend patriarchal systems. The lives of women can change only as they involve themselves in the world at large instead focusing simply on their families.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2016

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