Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) opens with a closeup of a streetcar’s electric arm sliding along its cable, and the story moves forward with the same mechanical inevitability. Subrata & Arati Mazumdar are a young couple trying to support an extended family on the mean streets of Kolkata. When Arati decides to take an office job to make ends meet, her transformation from standard-issue village hausfrau to confident, lipsticked urban woman is easy to foresee. Ray made no secret of his debt to Vittorio De Sica, and the movie shows Ray at his Bicycle Thiefiest, crafting a neorealist class weeper with economy and skill.
Anil Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee are appealing leads, but the movement of their story didn’t interest me as much as its geometry. There’s no recurring “Charu’s theme” or dream sequences to let us inside these characters, and except for one or two bravura shots—Subrata smoking in bed behind gauze, Arati tracked with a handheld down a busy Kolkata street—the cinematography takes a back seat to the “face music” Ray relies on to carry the story. (Ray claimed the cramped set he created for the Mazumdar’s apartment limited his ability to do long shots.)
Flanking the couple on either side are two conflicting pairs, who define the edges of possibility in the big city. One is Subrata’s parents, who exercise their traditional privilege of living with their son, but protest Arati’s working outside the home to help support them. Subrata’s father is a retired schoolteacher who’s watched his students prosper in post-Independence India while his own son can’t afford to buy him a new pair of glasses to read with. Stubbornness and caste pride won’t let him tolerate a daughter-in-law working for wages, so he begins looking up his former students on the sly, scrounging for rupees and health care by pretending to lament Subrata’s neglect.
Ray takes a stab at rounding out the picture of the elderly father, who’s pretty much a stand-in for the dead hand of tradition, especially as it’s transmitted through schoolrooms and books. Ray stresses the old man’s frailty, and takes time to show us he’s short on other options. He may also have a point about the debt his students owe him, and all of them—even the grumbler who remembers how quick with the cane he’d been—pony up. But as a long-term solution to the Mazumdar’s dilemma, it’s clear that his isn’t, as they say here in Portland, very sustainable.
On Arati’s side, there’s an opposite pair beckoning the family to modernity. Edith is a smart young Anglo-Indian woman who’s hired at the same office where Arati begins to work. Their boss, Himangshu Mukherjee, is the genial pipe-puffing head of a knitting machine concern. Mukherjee and Edith both represent the thrill (and threat) of mixing that urban life extends. Mukherjee offers his all-female staff rides home in his car, gives lifts to the city poor despite his wife’s worries about their germs, sends his sales team door-to-door in the wealthiest sections of the city, where strange men often answer the bell, and relies on his best women employees to act as his managers. Over the four months of the story, he becomes a sort of “third way” between Arati’s traditional father-in-law and her underemployed husband. He’s “Himangshu,” not “Mr. Mukherjee”; his pipe contrasts with Subrata’s cheap bidis; and his office, with its expansive view of the city, is the aspirational counterpoint to the Mazumdar’s tiny home.
Edith is a more radical product of urban mixing, and lives her life almost entirely in the in-between: half-English, half-Indian; engaged, but not married; speaking English but understanding Bengali. Edith initiates Arati into the mysteries of lipstick and sunglasses, and quickly negotiates a higher commission for the sales team. It’s Edith who also unwittingly exposes the limits of Mukherjee’s broad urban tolerance. When Arati discovers that he’s fired Edith because she’s Anglo-Indian—a reminder of “our ex-rulers” and a threat to the native Bengali talent—she demands that Mukherjee apologize. Earlier, Mukherjee had promoted Arati over Edith because of her softer, more traditional manners; now that same code (the movie implies that Mukherjee insulted Edith’s sexual behavior) gives Arati the courage to resign on the spot.*
At the bottom of the stairs, Arati meets Subrata, who was on his way to see Mukherjee about a new job. Subrata supports Arati's decision, and in an instant the whole movie flips. The future doesn't belong to the Ediths and Mukherjees, who move so effortlessly through the urban milieu, but to couples like the Mazumdars, riding the tension between traditional Indian values and the freedoms of the big city.
*Both Edith and Mukherjee are hard to read, for Arati and for us.The movie holds out the possibility that Mukherjee may be right, or at least half-right, about Edith. Her fiancee never materializes, and when she's home sick from work, Arati finds her dressed and listening to records. Mukherjee claims he would have given everyone a higher commission anyway after a trial period, without Edith's demands in the first week. Edith's presented as a little self-centered and spoiled; it's a fair guess that Mukherjee's right in pointing out she wouldn't have stood up for Arati in the same way.
Likewise, we don't know if Mukherjee really does give rides to the poor as he claims to. His merit-based promotions, while not exactly a sham, are complicated by his prejudice against Anglo-Indians, his preference for Bengalis, and his soft spot for applicants like Subrata who happen to come from his region. At the same time, he has a point when he tells Arati that she's overstepped her bounds as an employee (if not as a woman of principle and compassion). What both Edith and Mukherjee are meant to show, I think, is that this looser urban life has limits and mores of its own: the restrictions aren't all on the side of tradition.
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