Friday Feminist Reviews 8th April, 2019

‘In this vast and great city, is there place for working women?’ Asks Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963).

For a Bengali, and even an Indian, the name Satyajit Ray brings nothing but pride and certainly for good reason. He is known to have directed some of the most phenomenal films in his times and Mahanagar (1963) is no less. Both written and directed by Ray, the film can truly be called feminist and is undoubtedly very progressive, keeping in mind the context and time of the production of the film. Yet one realizes that most of the problems depicted are relevant for women even today, more than half a century later.

The film stars Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays the protagonist Arati Mazumdar, while her husband Subrata Mazumdar is played by Anil Chatterjee. Arati and Subrata hail from a modest background, and Subrata is trying to make ends meet with his job as a banker. As Arati realizes the burden on Subrata, she decides to take up a job despite the objections of her sick father-in-law.

Her husband is fully supportive of her decision and helps her find the job of a ‘smart and attractive’ saleswoman and guides her through the process of application and interview. Subrata assures his father that her job is only temporary and that she would quit once he finds an additional part-time job, but things go astray as he ends up losing his job. From someone who still covers her head at home in front of the elders to a person who begins to wear lipstick and sunglasses to work, Arati is compelled to become the sole bread-earner in the family.

The beauty of the film lies in the simplicity of the portrayal of complex issues like the patriarchal system and unemployment. Nothing is overly dramatized, everything is shown for what it is. The film is accessible to all, and the director makes no attempts to intellectualise it. While the popular perception those days was that a woman only had to work if her husband couldn’t provide sufficiently for her, the film tries to problematise this notion and depict that a woman may genuinely enjoy her financial autonomy and that may not have anything to do with her husband, as can be seen when Arati proudly tells her father “Nobody has sent me to work, it is my own decision and I enjoy it”. With this one statement, Arati asserts her sense of agency and autonomy by highlighting her own choice.

Most of the problems depicted are relevant for women even today, more than half a century later.

As Arati earns the status of being an earning member, she receives ‘special treatment’ like being able to sit and eat with her husband, and even leave before he finishes. This is a huge change from the earlier days when she would be the last one to eat in the family as that is what is expected of the ‘bou’ (wife).

Sure, she feels guilty for leaving her son and going to work, as years of maternal altruism have conditioned almost every woman to feel guilty for pursuing a career and ‘neglecting her family life’, yet she soon comes to terms with it as the joy of being able to buy him toys over-rides her sorrow for the inability to be with him all the time. As is usually the case, her husband soon grows envious of her success at work and even asks her to quit, but soon comes to his senses and prevents her from going ahead with the resignation.

An important scene at the beginning of the film is when Subrata asks his school-going sister the point of studying because, at the end of the day, she’s going to have to be a home-maker, just like her sister-in-law. In her response, she acknowledges that even household work is taught in school, under the guise of ‘domestic science’. This is noteworthy because it is an appreciation of the fact that even household work, which is often treated with no respect and dignity, is actual work which needs training and skills. Also, we still live in a country where anything that is hailed to be a ‘science’ is automatically treated with respect and importance. Therefore, in a subtle yet significant manner, Ray accords housework the due recognition and value it deserves.

The film is accessible to all, and the director makes no attempts to intellectualise it.

There is also a scene when Arati’s father-in-law is waiting at the clinic to meet the doctor when he picks up a magazine and skims through it. Yet, the moment he comes to a page which shows women in ‘exposing’ and short clothes, he immediately shuts the magazine and keeps it back. It was a reaction of disgust, of immediately dismissing these women as sexualised objects who are too low to even be looked at. It’s the same old story – you either deify women or demonize them, never look at them as normal humans but sexualised beings. It is once again a subtle but important scene, where Ray tries to show how natural it is for men to dismiss women who aren’t of the ‘right’ morals.

The climax of the film comes down to what would be known as sexual harassment in today’s times, where Arati’s boss, who has been sceptical of the ‘firingee’ (foreign, ‘white’ woman) Edith since the beginning dismisses her from the job on the grounds of false claims that question her ‘character’ and insinuate that she is of ‘loose morals’. He refuses to believe that she had been unwell and accuses her of ‘having fun’ while missing work. It is here that Arati vehemently takes a stand for Edith and asks Mr Mukherjee (her boss) to apologise.

The title of the film, Mahanagar, translates to ‘The Big City’, which presents nothing but a paradox. While the big city is known to be a haven for opportunities and upliftment, it is also a place for lakhs of urban dwellers who try to navigate their way through unemployment and the perennial question of ‘log kya kahenge?’, which haunts every middle-class household. About half a century ago, it would have been almost inconceivable to think of a woman as the sole earner of a household and one wonders what kind of an impact it might have had on the audience of those days, even though Ray normalises it to a large extent in his film.

Also Read: Amar Film Review – Cinema’s Portrayal Of Sexual Assault Hasn’t Changed Much


Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: IMDb

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