Mahanagar (1963) (aka The Big City)
Satyajit Ray

“I think you should apologize to Edith”


The other day I was reading some of the reviews of Deepa Mehta’s Oscar nominee Water (2006) and almost in every one of them, I could find a comparison of Mehta’s work to Satyajit Ray’s films.  What is more surprising than the fact that Ray’s films are universally accepted with open arms and considered timeless, is that a large part of the west is able to relate only to works of Satyajit Ray whenever cinema of India is discussed. Similar to how Satyajit Ray’s phenomenal body of work eclipses all other commendable efforts from the country, his own Apu trilogy overwhelms his other worthy films. Case in point – Mahanagar (1963).

Mahanagar is a decidedly contemporary story of a middle class couple Bhambal and Arati Mazumdar (With a ‘Z’, not ‘J’!), struggling to make ends meet in the ever happening City of Joy. As the money crunch intensifies, Arati decides to take up a job as a sales girl in a company owned by a chauvinist, Mukherjee. It is here that she meets Edith, an Anglo-Indian, and instantly bonds with him. She learns courage and assertiveness from Edith and shines in her job. Things go sour as Bhambal starts envying her and asks her to quit. But just as she proceeds, she comes to know that her husband has lost his job. Arati musters faith and asks Mr. Mukherjee for a pay hike and works harder than ever. But when she sees discrimination against Edith based on race, she does the unthinkable.

There is also a thread about Bhambal’s father, a retired teacher who is restless at his dormancy at home and is surprised to see the vast change in times that he had been unknowingly moving along with now. He seeks out his old students in search of consolation and respect in order to tell himself his contribution to society has been quite vital. Being a staunch conservative he is visibly disappointed with his self-indulgent son’s attitude and his daughter-in-law’s decision of taking up a job. And there is also Bhambal’s daughter, played by a very young Jaya Bhaduri, adding warmth to an otherwise tense household.

In Mahanagar, Ray does not merely suggest that women should be given an opportunity to work, but also makes larger statements about their present and ideal positions in society. He put forth the idea that equality is not just a right for women, it is their responsibility. He suggests that women have to stand up against all odds and voice their opinions for their needs. If they witness injustice, against them or otherwise, it becomes their duty to fight it.  And yet, Mahanagar is not one of those feminist films that are made only to put forth principles and theories. It follows a single woman’s choices with as much honesty as her impulsive acts.

I do not have much knowledge about Calcutta, but I have heard that the streets of Calcutta have the potential to change the way you look at life. Indeed, Bhambal’s and Arati’s ordeal may be just a tiny drop in the vast ocean of happenings of the city. Ray captures the microcosm of the society in the family and depicts the most realistic picture of the then Indian society without once going over the top or making it overtly dramatic. The entire drama one feels while watching the film is internal. And as we watch Arati develop into a truly independent and morally strong character, we can’t help but admire the hope that the character instills in us.