In 1963, Satyajit Ray directed Mahanagar, commonly considered to be his first ‘Calcutta film’. True, there is a little of the ‘Big City’ in Apur Sansar (1959). Equally true, Parash Pathar (1958) is about an elderly Calcutta clerk who comes into a sudden fortune, only to lose it in no time. But Parash Pathar is a fantasy film, can perhaps be read as a fable, and has little to do with the workings of a modern city, complete with an endless range of characters and their daily experiences. In that sense, Mahanagar is Ray’s first complete ‘Calcutta film’.
Running to 131 minutes, this urban drama, in black and white, of individual courage against a blight of the spirit, featured Madhabi Mukhopadhyay, Anil Chattopadhyay, Vicky Redwood, Haradhan Bandopadhyay, Jaya Bhaduri, Prasenjit Sarkar and Shefalika Debi in important roles. The film was produced by R.D.Bansal, who was to continue to support Ray for many years to follow (Charulata, Kapurush-o-Mahapurush, Nayak, Joi Baba Felunath). Ray’s usual team of renowned collaborators was seen to advantage in this case too – Subrata Mitra (camera), Banshi Chandragupta (art direction), Dulal Dutta (editing).
Narrative Of Friction Between Tradition & Modernity, Openness & Insularity
This foray by Ray into the lives and times of an educated, lower middle-class family living anxiously in one of the poorer sections of south Calcutta less than a decade since independence, has been little-seen and less-discussed. Compared to the director’s other works – both the distinguished ones, and those less so – Mahanagar has received scant notice. This is unfortunate because there are important elements of individual behaviour and collective psychology in the film which, together, give an idea of how precarious was the life forced upon families such as the Majumdars, uprooted from their blue-and-green ancestral moorings in east Bengal and sent packing to an alien city of slums and tenements choked and suffocated by concrete giants.
The Majumdars originally belonged to east Bengal, where life was easier because one’s basic wants could be met without too much stretching. For instance, in the old days, they used to have fish – the ultimate Bengali mascot and metaphor – each time they sat to eat, but such are the times in post-1947 Calcutta, that the family can afford fish not more than thrice a week. Desperation is written all over – the walls, faces of the inmates, et al.
The family consists of a retired schoolmaster with no money to call his own, reduced to depending on his son for even elementary needs, and not averse to holding out his palm in front of former students who have made good in the big city; his overworked wife who, when not working, is shown attending to her husband of poor vision and other nagging ailments; their poorly-paid bank clerk of a son; their dutiful, good-looking daughter-in-law who has studied upto matriculation; an intelligent and sprightly grandson, a little spoilt perhaps; and a much younger, school-going daughter whose studies may come to be interrupted because of monetary problems.
The family lives from day to day in an environment of mouldy, physical decay, but signs of culture belonging to a bygone time, flit in and out of the screen. The son reads The Statesman, Calcutta’s leading English-language daily of the day, and seems to have read Shaw; the father’s eye condition prevents him from reading the newspaper or doing crossword puzzles any longer; we are told that the mother is fond of taking her paan with a particular brand of zarda. The social milieu of the paara (locality) is established when we are told that the Mazumdars don’t need a radio in the house because their neighbours play theirs at high volume all through the day. If this interesting family of some education and little means manages to eat or dress reasonably well, it is partly because of the forced saving habit of the women of the house. Their windows have curtains, humble but curtains alright, and the son, when at home, hums occasionally from Hindustani classical compositions. Ray, a past master at detailing whether in visual or verbal terms, establishes early the basic character of the family or the atmosphere in which it lives.
Conflict between the new and the old, between tradition and modernity, between openness and insularity – briefly, this is the stuff of which the dramatic tensions in Mahanagar are made. When the daughter-in-law of the house, egged on by financial insecurity combined with the overtures of her supportive husband, goes out to work each morning and occasionally returns home late in the evening, it is a cause of deep shame and a suppressed anger to the pater familias, the retired teacher. It causes slight tremors in the daughter-in-law Arati’s life, but what happens at her office one fateful day, causing her to resign, is something she hadn’t foreseen in her wildest imaginings. The furore begins with Arati being rebuked by her boss for taking sides with an Anglo-Indian colleague who she thinks has been unfairly treated. Failing to bring around her boss to apologize to her undeservedly persecuted friend, Arati resigns and walks out in a huff. We can imagine Arati returning to her former position of an obedient and dutiful daughter-in-law – at least for the time being; or – who knows – for a long stretch, which will give her many opportunities to marvel about the many ways in which she was irreversibly altered by her varied encounters and experiences in the world outside the safe and restricted haven of her home.
Ignorance – Prejudice – Cruelty : Contested Identity of ‘The Other’
“In our heterogeneity and in our openness lies our pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this, and that lesson is profoundly important for India… A deep respect for distinctiveness is combined in Ray’s vision with an appreciation of the importance of inter-cultural communication and also the recognition of much internal diversity within each culture. In emphasizing the need to respect the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. Indeed, opening doors of communication was an important priority in Ray’s work. In this respect his attitude contrasts sharply with the increasing tendency to see Indian culture (or cultures) in highly conservative terms – wanting it to be preserved from the ‘pollution’ of Western ideas and thought. Ray was always willing to enjoy and learn from ideas and forms and lifestyles from anywhere – within India or abroad.”
– Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian
Among other things, Mahanagar draws our attention to the vulnerabilities within ‘the other’ and, as surely, to expressions of viciousness invading it from without. Together, they comprise much of what may be described as the ‘fractured fate’ of ‘the other’. The serious socio-politico-economic disadvantage in which ‘the other’ has always found itself in this country but, arguably, in never so pronounced a manner as today, is to be traced to a fatal combination of at least three negative/notorious ‘sentiments’. What are these ‘sentiments’? The first is ignorance about an individual or the community to which he belongs; the second is prejudice, born of that ignorance; and the third is cruelty, to be understood in terms of the coming together of the first two. Here we have an almost axiomatic progression towards the dark and the destructive, often hastened by the chaos of majoritarianism.
Himangshu Mukherjee of Mukherjee & Mukherjee, a company selling expensive knitting machines for upper-class ladies, has appointed several attractive young women as salesgirls or ‘canvassers’, as he puts it with a trace of haughtiness in his voice. From the beginning, the viewer can make out that Mukherjee is not exactly fond of the lone non-Bengalee among the salesgirls, an argumentative Anglo-Indian named Edith Simmons. Ray prepares his audience subtly and well for a show-down between the two, which occurs in no time. Without making any effort to find out the reason for Edith’s absence from work one day, Mukherjee accuses her of having stayed away deliberately. The boss says he doesn’t believe Edith’s explanation that she had been sick that day. Edith is badly stung by the accusation, and she reacts, whereupon she is given the marching orders. In a sense, far worse than the sack is Mukherjee’s insinuation that ‘firingi’ girls are morally wayward and are not to be trusted.
(The word ‘firingi’ can mean many things, including ‘foreigner’ or ‘of mixed race’ or ‘Eurasian’, but the sense in which Mukherjee uses it has only pejorative connotations. Having spent his whole life in Calcutta at a time when the city was home to many Anglo-Indians, Ray was far from innocent of the excesses that many belonging to that community had to suffer at the hands of the pucca Baangaali babu.)
When an agitated Edith tells Arati of the loss of her job, the latter is furious. Arati, who knows of Edith’s sickness, having visited her home on the day of her absence from office, confronts Mukherjee like a woman possessed. She demands an apology for what she considers to be an act of insult and grave injustice to someone she has begun to value as a friend and, perhaps, even as a working-class sister burdened with similar economic difficulties. Mukherjee is stunned at Arati’s impertinence, and asks whether she has gone mad to be pleading for a woman of doubtful character. The boss, who has perhaps never before been challenged like this by any of his employees, refuses to take back the dismissal order. Whereupon, Arati is left with no choice but to hand in her resignation. Regardless of whether it is a sudden rush of blood, or her naïve, impressionable nature that made her do what she did, it is clear that henceforth Arati will feel greatly empowered wherever she goes, whatever she does or is called upon to do, as a result of her remarkable sacrifice. It is likely that nothing will ever be the same again for her.
Even as Mukherjee goes hurtling down in the estimation of the viewer and ends as a defeated tyrant, pathetic in his failure to subdue a frail, poor housewife, Arati rises to a position of substantive inner strength, the full depth or many-sided splendour of which might manifest itself at some point in the future. But what she has achieved outstrips her personal empowerment in emotive or social terms. She has revealed the need to emphasize one’s sense of right and wrong; the good man or woman’s basic moral fibre. By standing up for the wronged ‘other’ and refusing to go along with the prejudices of her employer, Arati has roundly placed herself at the centre of a discourse of convinced dissidence, although it is unlikely that Arati had seen the issue in that light. Since we are discussing her decision to stand beside a wrongly persecuted member of a miniscule community different from the overwhelming majority in racial, religious, social or cultural terms, perhaps it would not be far-fetched to characterize her act as a ‘political’ one.
Where an educated, well-off man with two cars and, who knows, what else to boast of, can see only the dissimilarities between himself and the woman he holds in utter contempt for reasons which would crumble before any enlightened scrutiny, a mere matriculate racked by financial uncertainties like Arati lays bare for our inspection her moral sense and cultured sensibility. Together, they convince her of the need for mutual respect and appreciation between individuals or groups of people, regardless of visible differences. Additionally, it is not too difficult to appreciate that an experience of similar economic insufficiency binds the two women together in a sisterhood of the deceived and the damned.
Writing in The Telegraph, the Calcutta daily, on April 21 2018, the writer and political columnist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray mentions ‘the dangers of making nationality dependent on race and religion’. Datta-Ray : “Two of my oldest friends in Britain, both now dead, were British-born Jews I had known for more than sixty years. They emphatically gave the lie to the title of a New Statesman article, ‘You’re Jewish? You Can’t Be English’. As other Jewish friends who observe no sectarian food taboos and have no particular interest in Israel anxiously try to identify and compare the elements that comprise the Jewish and English labels, I can hear the echo refrained at home, “You’re Muslim? You can’t be Indian” or “You’re Dalit? You can’t be Indian”.
In the context of Mahanagar, the refrain could well extend to : “You’re Anglo-Indian? You can’t be Indian.” And hence the status of the Anglo-Indian man, woman and child in a scheme of triumphal majoritarianism, can only be that of a pariah, an outcast, the marginal, to be tolerated as long as he, she and it are willing to stay put at posts assigned to them on the periphery of mainstream society.
Dangers of Deceiving Comfort
“We go, sometimes, to art for danger, to be riveted by experiencing the strange; by understanding suddenly how uncanny the familiar is. We go to be urged, shaken into reassuring thoughts we have taken for granted; to learn other ways of seeing, hearing. To be excited. Stirred. Disturbed.”
– Black American writer, Toni Morrison, in her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech
When I first saw Mahanagar decades ago, I remember having been impressed by this doubtless important film. Truth to tell, today, I no longer feel the same enthusiasm for the film, largely because of the manner in which Ray ends it.
Let us examine the closing frames of the film. With bated breath, the viewer follows the confrontation between Arati and Mukherjee, her boss, culminating in her resignation. An agitated Arati meets Subrata, who had been waiting for her at the foot of the staircase of the office building. The exchanges between the two dissipate much of the ‘charge’, the ‘dangerous edge’, that had been created earlier on in Mukherjee’s chamber. What do the wife and her man say to each other in that moment of tense nerves, anger and deep disappointment? After an understanding Subrata has held Arati’s hands, assuaging her fears, the camera tilts upwards, taking in several storeys of a tall building, in probability housing many offices and establishments. Having wiped her tears, Arati wonders, “Such a big city! So many offices, so many kinds of jobs! Surely, there will be something for at least one of us!” Subrata, as if to underline Arati’s optimism, adds, “Why, there may be something for both of us!” And with that, the two of them stride out of the building, walking close to each other, a new-found confidence in their gait. They cross a busy street and mingle into the evening crowd, to the accompaniment of a piece of victorious music. It is difficult to divine any grandeur in the film’s denouement, the music sounding more rhetorical than resonant.
Adapted with a strangely inappropriate felicity from a long, dark short story called Abataranika (The Descent) by the renowned writer, Narendranath Mitra (1916-1975), Mahanagar has an ending that looks problematic to me. Ray’s resolution of the couple’s difficulties in both their working and married lives is too neat to be taken without a generous pinch of salt. The note of optimism in their words and, later, in their walk looks forced, imposed. Given the dire circumstances in their lives, showing Arati and Subrata practically marching into a horizon of hope, has a deceptive quality about it which is difficult not to notice.
Perhaps, there is no harm in a film adapted from a novel or a short story having an ending radically different from what is there in its literary source, but it is questionable, as in the present instance, whether a film’s conclusion can be touched up with hopeful colours when the ground realities offer little, if any, room for it. A vein of similar dissatisfaction with the way Ray draws the curtain on Mahanagar, is to be found in the words of Chidananda Dasgupta, eminent critic and the director’s life-long friend. Dasgupta : “The ending with its mild and charming assurance of one of the two finding a job in the vast city, is a little too four-square, easily achieved, as a solution to a problem (meaning the problem of unemployment) that is going to plague us for a long time.” (The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Vikas, 1980, Page 68)
Adversity, especially when it is undeserved, makes people angry, restless and frustrated; and the more extreme the adversity, the more resentful its victims tend to become. This is very often the case, but sometimes, adversity has the effect of instilling a rebellious wisdom through pain and suffering. Speaking to an interviewer in 1991, the Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende, made certain observations which, come to think of it, seem to have a bearing on the excess of hope which the Majumdar couple has latched on to. Allende had said : “I wish it were not that way, but it is impossible to imagine living in a world without pain. The only place in the world where people think they can live without pain is the US. The rest of humanity, for centuries and millennia, has known that there is no growing, no learning without pain and failure. One doesn’t learn from success and joy. Those are only slight instances of good luck. In Latin America, where I have lived all my life, this is assumed to be a fact of nature. One rebels against it and suffers all the anxiety, pressure and fear that goes along with this knowledge, but in the end we understand that this is what it means to be alive.” (Conversations with Isabel Allende, University of Texas Press, Edited by John Rodden, 1999)
The principal danger of the kind of deceiving comfort that Subrata and Arati appear to have fallen for, is that it releases the sudden daydreamers (?) from the “anxiety, pressure and fear” which Allende speaks of; which alone can provide an effective and lasting antidote to the narcotized condition they have brought upon themselves. If the couple can so easily cook up such an extravagant hope of not just one but two jobs in a hostile environment of a recessionary market and hard employers, notably Marwaris and Boxwallahs, it is likely that a plague of problems is awaiting them in the days to come. Wearing rose-tinted glasses to beat the burning sun may suit the liberal humanist in a hurry to end his film, however patchily and antithetically to the terms of reference available on the ground, but that is a prescription unlikely to be heeded by every ‘hewer of wood’ and ‘drawer of water’.
However, despite what may strike one as a film with a flawed ending, Mahanagar is to be remembered for the care and compassion with which Ray delineates Arati’s experience of empowerment to a point where she is prepared to fight for her wronged colleague in an act of unbelievable solidarity. Arati would, perhaps, never have known that her ordinary self was capable of such extraordinariness if she hadn’t taken her first step out of her family confines, ideally, in search of her hitherto unclaimed entitlements. But it will not do to forget that Subrata initially supported his wife in no small measure to commit that act of transgression – of all things, a traditional family’s daughter-in-law going out to work! If Preogopal, the retired schoolmaster – father of Subroto – had his way, Arati would never have known how it felt to be able to earn her daily bread by dint of sheer hard work in the outside world. Only working women like Arati know how the taste of the cake of emancipation lies in the eating.
Postscript, Or How ‘The Other’ Was Always More Sinned Against Than Sinning
Whenever I watch Mahanagar, I have the feeling that I have always known more than one educated boor like Himangshu Mukherjee, who causes no end of worries for Edith; worries she didn’t deserve and which she certainly could have done without. Viewers have often been known to be drawn to films where they detect similarities between their own experience of life and those of someone on the screen. This may be called ‘The Identification Syndrome’.
During the years I was growing up in the then small, sleepy, steel township of Jamshedpur, there was a generous sprinkling of Anglo-Indians working in the steel mill, the engineering industries, or the English-medium schools as teachers or administrative staff. Frequently, they had to put up with sly and sarcastic comments regarding the community’s ‘traitorous’ role in the days of the Raj. The hotheads would react angrily, but the level-headed among them took the insulting remarks in their stride. One good thing about them was that they knew how to make merry; another was that they were innocent of the dubious art of nursing quarrels. They simply refused to be discouraged by the verbal opposition from the ‘Indian’ crowd. Some of them seemed silly when they spoke of ‘home’, meaning England, with gushing enthusiasm, but there were also those who adapted themselves to a changed order with remarkable maturity.
As children, it never occurred to us that Anglo-Indians of a later day might be more sinned against than sinning. Prejudice comes easily to people; witness Mukherjee, how easily he can allow his prejudices to cloud his vision about an entire race.
Many an Indian child growing up in the 1950s was brought up on a diet of hostility to those with a drop of British blood in their veins. Adults often instilled in their children a contempt for those carrying strange surnames (e.g., Laporte, Depreizer, Vanjour, Debrulais, Lowther). Can you imagine what kind of a father or uncle or neighbour someone like Mukherjee would be if it ever came to discussing ‘the other’ with the young and the impressionable? When I witness Mukherjee charging Edith with being promiscuous and wayward, my mind goes back to those days when it was common for so-called ‘mainstream’ people to say whatever they wished about the Anglo-Indians. It was customary for them to be referred to as ‘teen putiyas’; in other words, it was a given thing that the Anglo-Indian woman would ‘patao’ (have fun with) at least three men before settling down in a regular marriage.
Again, I can recall how the similarly disparaging racist remark of ‘coal Christians’ would be used to describe the local Adivasis who had converted (the Lakras, the Kispotas, the Kerkettas, theTirkeys, the Dungdungs, et al). Indeed, the history of fundamentalism, solidly entrenched in the perverted being and soiled consciousness of upstarts like Himangshu Mukherjee, stretches back to a hoary past. When that history is not racial, religious or linguistic, it is sartorial or culinary.
Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a critic of forty years standing and is an expert on Latin American cinema