Subrata Mazumdar is a bank employee in 1950s Calcutta who has to support a family of five with his meager income. His family comprises of his wife Arati, a son, his parents and sister-in-law. Seeing that they can’t go on like this, Arati decides to look for a job as saleswoman. Her conservative family is not very pleased with this at first but they agree to let her go, halfheartedly. Arati gets the job. She is initially shy and apprehensive but soon comes to enjoy her job and new-found independence. Her father-in-law is of the opinion that this not a very traditional thing to do for an Indian woman and has difficulty looking at her face. He doesn’t accept the money she gives him and instead goes around town indirectly asking for favors from his former pupils, which he thinks he is entitled to. Subrata starts to envy his wife’s current status and becomes insecure. He somehow convinces her to give up her job but before she is able to tender her resignation, the bank where Subrata works is closed down and this leaves him in a predicament. He manages to inform her of this and asks her to continue with the job. Arati is now the sole breadwinner of her family.
Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar is a film that celebrates true feminism. In this day and age of pseudo-feminists, you don’t see films like this. In my book, Mahanagar is a bonafide masterpiece. The mood and tone of Mahanagar is quite reminiscent of Italian neo-realist films, especially those of Vittorio De Sica. Ray was a big fan of Italian neo-realist cinema and he used to cite De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as the one film that led him to the decision of becoming a filmmaker. But the difference is here is that Ray doesn’t resort to sentimentality. With this film, Ray showed us that female empowerment is not something that happens in other parts of the world but also in India. But unlike the West, women in India encountered many obstacles when it came to choosing their own independent paths. In an early scene, Subrata tells Arati that there is an English proverb that goes like this: “A woman’s place is in the home.”
The role of a working woman is something that’s new to Arati and she not only has to face her own self-esteem issues but also her own family who welcomes her every evening with frowny faces when she gets home from work. The only exception is her son who is not yet aware of all the ridiculous patriarchal nonsense that’s going on in their home. Arati is not the kind to easily give into her ordeals and instead rises above them. She treats them as punching bags and finally comes out a woman who is strong, self-confident and well-equipped to deal with any future adversities that might come her way. In contrast, her husband turns into a pathetic weakling who finds it hard to deal with the hand that fate has dealt him. There are also a few problems at the workplace, particularly one involving an Anglo-Indian co-worker Edith, who is not being treated fairly by her boss. In a powerful scene, Arati stands up to her boss and defends Edith. Seeing that he can’t be persuaded to change his mind, she finally decides to quit.
Madhabi Mukherjee plays Arati, a role that is tailor-made for her. There is nothing fake about her performance. She plays Arati with a kind of subtlety and intensity that you very rarely see in Indian actresses today. She has that unique ability to say more through her eyes and facial expressions than words. Mukherjee would go on to collaborate with Ray on two more films, Charulata (1964), another favorite of mine, as well as Kapurush (1965). Mahanagar was based on a short story named Abataranika by Narendranath Mitra. The film won Ray the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival in 1964. It is a must-see for any serious film aficionado.