Loving and Learning in the City: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar Is a Bittersweet Ode to Survival

Empowerment is a capricious temptress. When served in the desired amount, it is a reasonably enjoyable experience for all. However, when one develops a fondness for it, it may mutate into a disruptive force. Mahanagar (The Big City), set in the Dickensian Calcutta of the 1960s, is an ode to the untold tales of survival bubbling in the veins of middle-class families as they struggle to find their place in the larger picture. Such families aren’t impoverished. But, as Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) tells his loving wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), People become millionaires making cigarettes, yet a common BA-pass bank clerk struggles to make ends meet. His remark is in jest. Yet, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice; anguish at the endless list of requirements a man must fulfil to sustain his family in the metropolis.

Akin to several of Ray’s masterpieces whose core is the complicated relationship Calcuttans have with Calcutta, Mahanagar is about the quest for respectable existence. The film is based on two short stories by Narendra Mitra. It follows the journey of Arati and Subrata. Theirs is an endearing marriage, complete with a little boy and a sweet family that may suffer from want but never falls prey to the wanton bitterness born from scarcity. Considering the exponentially mounting expenses of living a fulfilled life, Arati decides to join the workforce to help her overburdened husband and contribute to the family’s financial well-being. Of course, it doesn’t please her father-in-law, Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee). He is a conservative schoolteacher and loathes the idea of his daughter-in-law stepping out of the house. So deep runs his unyielding machismo that later in the film, Priyogopal begs for free assistance from his successful students by foul-mouthing his son but refuses to accept glasses made from Arati’s salary. Eventually, his way of thinking causes immense strains in the family. 

In contrast to his father, Subrata is a kind and witty husband. He is happy with the idea of his wife pitching in and understands the urgent need to overlook his father’s traditionalism. One of the sweetest scenes in the film is when Arati expresses her apprehension about her clothes not being fancy enough for the job. A door-to-door salesperson must look good. So Subrata takes an advance from his office for his wife to purchase befitting attire. It is a sensitively written moment, and Anil Chatterjee’s innocence with Madhabi Mukherjee’s expressive eyes makes it unforgettable. This is the starting point; Arati landing a job as a saleswoman. What follows is a discourse on unemployment, gender dynamics, class, and ingrained attitudes stretched thin between an archaic past and uncertain future.

Mahanagar is about a lower-middle-class family’s experience in Calcutta. But the lens of the film solely belongs to Arati. Through her eyes, we see the confusing times. We witness how rampant want and the changing ideas of domestic responsibility impact familial bonds. We understand the aspirations and inhibitions of working women and the growing fluidity in their movement between the private and public spheres. Using the larger canvas of Arati’s life, Ray explores how differences in religious and economic backgrounds temper the female reality. For this, we have the character of Edith Simmons. Edith is a feisty Anglo-Indian girl who has been conceptualized to represent the moral antithesis to Arati’s old-fashioned ideals. The two women, disparate in the way they dress, speak and live, become close friends. She gifts Arati a red lipstick saying that if Hindu women wear vermillion in their parting and a red bindi on the forehead, there is no harm in red lips.

Edith is honest, hardworking and efficient. Exactly like Ararti. The only difference is in the realisation of self-worth. Edith is aware of how much she deserves as an employee. Therefore, she protests when the executive plans to reduce commissions and successfully negotiates a 5% share for her colleagues. To the management, this attitude is belligerent. Not only because she is a female worker demanding to be compensated according to an industry standard but more so because of her ethnic background. Edith is scathingly referred to as the “firingee.” Their supervisor at the firm is appreciative of Arati’s work and supports her growth. Yet, he looks down upon Edith. In the end, Edith is fired. A prolonged illness prevents her from working. Upon return, she is humiliated, and her character is deemed questionable. She is accused of lying, and the manager claims that Edith was partying instead.

Edith’s narrative reflects how diverse life is for women living in the same city and working in the same office. When Arati is on the field, she is invited into plush living rooms belonging to wealthy homemakers dressed in modern saris and sleeveless blouses. The vast houses with guards at the front gate are in stark contrast to her cramped quarters, which cost Ray and his art director only Rs 2000 to build. In such a scenario, Arati is the disadvantaged one. However, when pitted against Edith, the “modern” woman dressed in skirts, wearing lipstick and belonging to an Anglicized background, Arati is privileged. At the workplace, she is taken seriously because irrespective of her employment in a corporate office, she resembles the conscientious Bengali housewife dressed in modest saris and hair tied in a simple bun. Aarti earns more respect and opportunities not only because she is efficient, but her larger identity is Mrs. Mukherjee. Edith is just Edith Simmons. Not married. Not Hindu. Not modest.

Arati’s relationship with her husband is the second important pillar of Mahanagar. We become a part of a very tender relationship, both blemished and eventually reunited by circumstances. Initially, Subrata is quick to ease into his role as the husband of a working woman. However, when Arati begins to discover her pride and self-worth as an earning member of the household, things falter. Arati’s professional rise and her increasing interactions with more powerful male authorities cause tension and insecurity. Subrata is never cruel. He has a sweet disposition and cares deeply for his wife and family. However, he is only a man, caught between moving on with new ideas and maintaining peace with the conservative past. He needs Arati’s support. Simultaneously, he is distraught with the situation at home. His father has not spoken to him in months. When the latter collapses in an ex-student’s clinic (while on another round of seeking free treatment), the student embarrasses Subrata by insinuating he doesn’t care for his father. It is an interesting commentary on aggressive masculinity and its power to make emotionally vulnerable men absorb its toxic juices. Things collapse further when a bank crash costs Subrata his job. Arati is the man of the house. He feels like a burden, distanced from his affectionate partner. 

Narendra Mitra’s stories ended pessimistically. However, the optimist in Ray didn’t want Mahanagar to conclude on such a note. He wished to grant Arati and Subrata a new lease of life, hoping for a perfect balance of sweet and realistic. In the end, Arati quits her job to protest against the harsh treatment meted to Edith. She apologizes to Subrata, scared that her impulsive decision has jeopardized their future but she is pleasantly surprised when Subrata admires her courage. Now a more evolved man, Subrata consoles her by saying that they will soon find work and together run the family. They walk out of the building as equals, holding hands and blending into the crowd of nameless thousands hoping to find employment.For me, Mahanagar is like a coming-of-age story. Yes, the characters are not teenagers. Yet, it is a remarkable story of a woman, her husband, and Calcutta –  all coming to terms with the fact that life is changing. Ray’s writing is sentimental, haunting, and full of passion and moments of happiness. It is a poetic film that relies on simplicity, subtlety, and observation to make a mark. It does not let you stay sad for long. But, neither is it stuffing the audience with false hope. Mahanagar tells us that life is tough. The city is tough. However, human relationships are tougher. One hundred years of Ray, and it still feels like Mahanagar could be our story.

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Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

The Undefeated, the Irreplaceable: Thinking of Soumitra Chatterjee!

On 24th July 1980, Mahanayak Uttam Kumar passed away. His death was unexpected, the result of a massive stroke. My paternal grandmother, an ardent and inconsolable admirer of the star, refused to eat. On 15 November 2020, the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last. For more than a month, his battle with COVID-19 has been a matter of extensive media coverage. Every other day we would find updates about his unresponsive and failing health. His demise didn’t surprise cinema lovers. We all saw it coming. So, when I went downstairs to inform my maternal grandmother of the news, I found her sitting pensively. She already knew. Her age didn’t permit her to skip dinner but she retired early, ate a morsel and hardly spoke a word.

But here’s the catch. She wasn’t the only one grieving for this immense loss. The sense of bereavement trickled down to the youngest generation in my house, my 15-year-old sister who knew the actor as Feluda, the most popular sleuth in Bengali literature.

While Kumar and Chatterjee represent the two factions that Bengali audience has been divided into, the latter was the flagbearer of a much more accessible narrative. Uttam Kumar was the star; suave and charismatic. Soumitra was down-to-earth, a disarming mix of romantic and cerebral. So deeply did his personality and sensibilities seep into the characters he was portraying that one cannot imagine them without remembering his intelligent face, piercing eyes and defenseless charm. It doesn’t matter if the people he played were fictitious, written by authors who had no particular face in mind. Today, if one reads Tagore’s Nashta Nir (the book on which Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata is based), they will finish the book visualizing Amal as Soumitra Chatterjee. This is irrespective of the fact whether they have watched the film or not. Similarly, he is Apu incarnate.

Very often, Soumitra Chatterjee was described as Satyajit Ray’s muse. The actor marked his debut as Apu in Apur Sansar, the third film in the celebrated Pather Panchali trilogy. He starred in fourteen of the director’s films. Some of his best works were accredited to Ray. Together, they created a cinematic chronicle that encapsulated imaginative thought, subtle expression of complexities, the vulnerability of characters and above all, enlightenment. They created frames and moments that have crystallized in our collective consciousness. Recollect the warm poignance of the final scenes of Apur Sansar. Apu, with his young son balanced on his shoulders, is walking away from a past of untimely loss and towards a new future of hope and rekindled relationships. In the backdrop is an idyllic river, a boat floating on the calm waters. Apu hesitates to reveal to his young son that he is his father. Instead, he introduces himself as a bondhu (friend). That split-second reluctance holds within itself the entire emotional arc of not only Apur Sansar but the entire Pather Panchali trilogy. Right from Apu losing his sister Durga to a fever, his arrival and struggle to survive in Kolkata, the death of his beloved Aparna and finally uniting with his son. 

Through Soumitra Chatterjee’s approach to emotion and expression, we haven’t been spoon-fed happiness or grief or for that matter, any sentiment. This isn’t the Yashvardhan Raichand brand of emoting with dramatic music and glycerin fogging the screen. This is understated, moving and full of space for the audience to comprehend the depth of what has transpired. And this isn’t only for an intense moment. He was capable of conjuring copious amounts of charm without being overbearing. In Charulata, Chatterjee is playing Tagore’s Oh Go Bideshini on the piano when his sister-in-law arrives with paan. Lightheartedly, he refuses to accept her present and continues with the song. Attractive and endearing, without clogging the viewer’s sensibilities with tropes.

Soumitra Chatterjee never agreed to be cast in the mold of the demure Bengali bhodrolok. In the 1969 Bengali adaptation of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, he portrayed a menacing antagonist with ease. Pitted against Uttam Kumar, the megastar of Bengali cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee held his ground! In fact, the era in which Bengali films were overcome with the juti (star-couple) fever with Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen leading the pack, Chatterjee stood out for his refusal to be pushed into that direction. He even dabbled with the strict-yet-caring sports coach characterization much before Kabir Khan stepped into the picture. In the 1984 film Koni, Chatterjee plays Khidda, a swimming instructor. He takes a talented girl named Koni under his tutelage. But Koni’s journey to becoming a professional swimmer is thwarted by poverty and petty politics. In the 32nd National Film Awards, the film was honoured as the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.

Soumitra Chatterjee belonged to children as much as he belonged to adults. Adults my age will remember him most vividly as Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s Charminar-puffing detective whose greatest weapon was his magajastra (the power of brains). Tall, often sarcastic, fiercely protective of his companions and dignified, Chatterjee’s portrayal transformed the character into a cultural icon. Ray’s Feluda can be considered as respite amongst the dreadful and one-tone depictions of the character that the screen has seen in the last few years. No actor has been able to imbibe Feluda with Chatterjee’s cleverness and dry wit. 

Many are unaware that, unknowingly, Soumitra Chatterjee had sparked a revolution in fashion. Never a proponent of flamboyant dressing, he popularized smart casuals. Feluda ignited the trend of wearing the Bengali-style kurta with trousers and a Kashmiri shawl wrapped around the shoulders. In Aranyer Din Ratri, Chatterjee’s character Ashim wore crisp shirts, trousers, big watches and sunglasses. Pranay Baidya went a step ahead and created an entire line of men’s clothing inspired by the actor’s striped kurta in Charulata.

To conclude that Soumitra Chatterjee’s career was a bed of roses liberally sprinkled with meaningful cinema and consistent accolades will be undermining his tenacity. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bengali film industry went through an era of acute crisis. Piracy was rampant and the quality of films was terrible (to say the least). During this time, he had to accept roles that were nowhere near his intellectual capacity. Nonetheless, he tried to rise above the difficulties and starred in impactful films such as Koni and Tapan Sinha’s Atanka. Both made strong commentaries on evils such as poverty, lobbying in sports, and political murders.

As I write the conclusion, my mother has logged off from her official portal and my sister has finished her studies. They plan to spend the evening watching Joy Baba Felunath on Zee TV. Soumitra Chatterjee lives on. In his characters. In the history of intelligent cinema. In the legacy of unaffected, naturalistic performances. In childhood memories. In middle-class households who learnt to appreciate film by watching Soumitra’r Chobi (translation: Films of Soumitra).

Additional Reference:

https://thevoiceoffashion.com/intersections/film-x-fashion/the-costume-drama-of-soumitra-chatterjees-everyman–4143