Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Women in Post-Independence Bengal:
Mahanagar by Narendranath Mitra and Satyajit Ray

Suddhaseel Sen

  1. In the short story 'Abataranika' (Introduction) (1949), the Bengali novelist Narendranath Mitra (1916–75)[1] examined how immigration from East Bengal, after India's independence in 1947 and the Partition of Bengal, put new economic pressures on the Bengali community in Calcutta, resulting in middle- and lower middle-class women taking up jobs for the first time. His short story is a grim reminder of how such a change in the role of women in the private and public spheres, driven by economic imperatives and unaccompanied by a concomitant shift away from patriarchal modes of thinking at large, made their move towards social emancipation insecure at the very roots. Mitra's short story was adapted into the film Mahanagar (The Big City) (1963) by Satyajit Ray (1921–92),[2] in which these changes were shown as inevitable, given the changing times. However, unlike Mitra, Ray suggests that such changes, when taken up by seemingly ordinary but ethically-impelled individuals, could lead to the questioning (and possibly, overhauling) of conservative Bengali middle-class values through a process of interaction between the older generation and the new, between men and women, and between different social groups, such as Bengalis and Anglo-Indians. Ray's film inspired Mitra to expand his short story into a novella (1965) bearing the name of Ray's film,[3] which highlighted further the feminist thrust of his original short story; it was, however, shot through with the overall pessimism of Mitra's short story, although Mitra made some significant alterations that I discuss in due course. An examination of the relationships between the works by Mitra's short story and novella, on the one hand, and Ray's film, on the other, illustrates how the writer and the filmmaker were in conversation with one another, with Mitra and Ray providing two different but crucial perspectives on the changing roles of women at a transitional moment in the history of independent India, as well as on the centrality of female figures in Ray's cinematic œuvre.
  2. Except in full-length studies of Satyajit Ray, such as those by Andrew Robinson and Ben Nyce, the film Mahanagar has received comparatively little critical attention. The film is mentioned in passing by Suranjan Ganguly in his study of Ray and modernism, and is omitted from the selection of films that form Myriam Alexowitz's study[4] of Ray's representation of women.[5] If it does not belong among Ray's greatest films, Mahanagar is, nevertheless, crucial to our understanding of the centrality of women in Ray's œuvre as a filmmaker, and the more participatory role he envisaged for women in a modern, egalitarian India. In a short span of five years, starting with Devi (The Goddess) (1960) and culminating with Kapurush (The Coward) (1965),[6] Ray made a series of internationally-acclaimed films centred on a female protagonist in different social, cultural and historical contexts in Bengal. In Devi, Ray made a critique of Bengali orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, while in Mahanagar, Charulata (1964) and Kapurush, all featuring actress Madhabi Mukherjee as the central protagonist, he explored the theme of women's emancipation in changing contexts of class and history: late-nineteenth-century liberal, upper-class Bengal in the case of Charulata, modern-day middle class with Kapurush, and the immigrant lower-middle class from East Bengal in Mahanagar.[7] As Ganguly argues, Ray's films between 1955 and 1964 can be seen as espousing an idealistic endorsement of Nehru's vision of nation building, an idealism which crumbled after Nehru's death in 1964.[8] In this sense, it is possible to read Ray's depiction of women's struggle for emancipation as an important component of the general move towards a Nehruvian vision of a progressive, modern India.
  3. Ray's exploration of the relationship between women's emancipation and changing social conditions is nowhere more subtle than in Mahanagar. Indeed, given its setting in contemporary Bengal, newly part of independent India, the film becomes more topical and more relevant than any of the women-centred films Ray made between 1960 and 1965. Ray has written that he planned to make 'Abataranika' into a film way back in 1955, immediately after his first film, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), but lack of financial backing prevented him from doing so at that time.[9] But, as mentioned earlier, Ray's film was made in 1963, and it is interesting to note that Mitra's novella Mahanagar follows Ray's film rather than his own short story in certain details. It was this novella that was translated into English by Suhrid Kumar Chatterjee and Marcus Francis Franda (1968), with stills from Ray's film. It is in this version that Mitra's story is available to readers with no knowledge of Bengali. To the best of my knowledge, 'Abataranika' remains untranslated into English, though it has been reprinted several times in collections (in Bengali) of Mitra's short stories.
  4. Ray has been accused of having stayed away from making political statements in his films, and has been castigated for being less politically committed than other Indian filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. These are charges Ray himself vehemently denied.[10] In his best films, Ray avoided taking overt, ideologically charged positions. However, had Ray made the film in 1955, as he had wished, it would have been an extremely topical enterprise and might have prevented such charges from arising in the first place. The deep-rooted social changes brought about by the final partition of Bengal in 1947, the centralisation of economic activity in a still-multicultural but overcrowded Calcutta, labour migration and the consequent changes in the private sphere of Bengali middle-class life (such as in one's lifestyle and attitudes) precipitated by the profound upheavals in the public sphere—all these come together to form Ray's layered vision of a Calcutta that, in its state of transition, is metonymic of a larger transformation taking place in Bengali middle-class values. Mahanagar made in the fifties would have predated the Calcutta Trilogy of the more overtly political Ritwik Ghatak; but even in 1963, Ray's film was trenchantly topical, an acute observation on the winds of change. Unlike Mitra's 'Abataranika' or Ghatak's venerated film Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) (1960), Ray's Mahanagar presents a more optimistic view of the individual's ability to harness and channelise social change. The fact that Ray chooses the character of a woman to foreground this optimistic vision adds a peculiar edge to the issues surrounding gender in the film's social and historical context.
  5. There is good reason to 'read together' Ray's film and Mitra's short story and novella, for compositely, the three texts present a rich and complex picture of postcolonial India and the discursive nexuses of gender, genre, and literature on which is contingent a larger vision of social choice and ethical action. Mitra's short story is not much different from his novella either in terms of scope or of form—both are best described as 'long short stories,' with Mahanagar being the longer of the two (and hence, a 'novella'). A comparative study of Mitra's 'Abataranika' with Ray's adaptation, followed by Mitra's own novella Mahanagar shows, first and foremost, that Mitra alters details so as to subtly transform the characterisation of his protagonists, and especially the nature of the Aroti-Subroto relationship. In this sense, it presents an unusual case of adaptation in which the writer of the 'original' modifies his text in the light of the cinematic adaptation it generated. Moreover, the paratextual apparatus accompanying the Chatterjee-Franda English translation of Mitra's Mahanagar (a preface by Ray, a short note from Mitra commenting on issues of cinematic adaptation, and several stills from the film inserted into the pages of the text), helps the reader of the English translation to conceive of Mitra's Mahanagar as a novelisation of Ray's film. This is, of course, a fallacious assumption, and a more meaningful way to read the film and the novella is to see their interconnectedness as well as the manner in which these two works 'update' the vision of the short story 'Abataranika' by providing new intertextual perspectives. The mutually imbricated compositional histories of Ray's film and Mitra's novella, and the presence of paratextual connections between the three works call for a dialogic model, rather than a genre-based one, as a better way of examining the interrelations between them and the light they throw on issues of race, class and gender. I will, therefore, first summarise the plot of Mitra's novella, noting the differences with 'Abataranika' as and when necessary.[11] I will then examine the ways in which Mitra interrogates the dynamics between women's liberation and social changes in post-partition Bengal. Following this, I note the changes between Mitra's novella and Ray's film, especially with regard to their different readings of the consequences of women's emancipation. Finally, I will place Ray's Mahanagar in the context of his cinematic oeuvre and discuss some of the possible reasons for the comparative obscurity of Mahanagar in critical studies of Ray's films.

    Narendranath Mitra's 'Abataranika' and Mahanagar

      When I read my first batch of Narendranath Mitra stories some fifteen years ago, I was struck by their acute observation of middle class life. The field was narrow, familiar and even humdrum, and yet the yield was unusually rich and varied. Only a high degree of sensitivity and observation could achieve this.[12]

  6. The plots of both Mitra's novella Mahanagar and Ray's film are broadly the same, but the differences are significant. In Mitra's Mahanagar, Aroti,[13] a lively and intelligent Bengali girl, quits studies to enter into an arranged marriage. Subroto, her husband, works in a small private bank, but does not have sufficient income to support the large family comprising his father, his mother Sarojini, his sister and two younger brothers, and his wife Aroti and their son. At Subroto's suggestion, Aroti takes up a job as a door-to-door salesperson demonstrating the use of new models of knitting machines to the wives of the rich. She is successful at her job, but the older generation cannot come to terms with the idea of the housewife going out to the workplace. Things take a turn for the worse as Subroto's bank shuts down one day, leaving him jobless, making Aroti the sole breadwinner. His frustration and sense of inferiority starts to vitiate their marriage, and Aroti finds herself losing her equanimity, both with her rich clients (whose idle life, free of tensions and challenges, she begins to resent) as well as, occasionally with her husband.
  7. Aroti enjoys a cordial relationship with her boss, Himangsu Mukherjee, who is genuinely sympathetic to the economic pressures faced by lower-middle-class families like Subroto and Aroti's. Mr. Mukherjee is, however, more than a trifle chauvinistic in matters of ethnicity, and his deep-seated racial prejudice becomes evident in his dismissal of Aroti's Anglo-Indian colleague and dear friend Edith Simmons, of whom he is contemptuous and dismisses after (wrongly) accusing Edith of promiscuity. Aroti resigns in protest, knowing fully well that this would leave both Subroto and her jobless. Ironically, her in-laws and her husband Subroto, who had initially wanted her to quit her job, think that this is a foolish, headstrong decision, and only when a vulnerable, crying Aroti tells her husband in private that she expected him to support her, does Subroto realise and appreciate the courage that informs his wife's decision.[14]
  8. With his unusually perceptive focus on the minutiae of ordinary middle class and lower-middle-class Bengali life in independent India, Mitra is able to delineate in his novella tensions that ran through Bengali middle-class society after the 1947 Partition. A backdrop of economic pressures and uncertainties in the principal urban centre in the Indian part of Bengal, Calcutta, resulted in sweeping changes in the lifestyle of Bengalis, especially those who, like Subroto's family, had immigrated from East Bengal. This called for a rethinking of gender roles, and as women entered the urban job market in a big way, it necessitated a thorough overhauling of traditionally-assigned roles in the household as well as patriarchal modes of thinking. As Mitra's story shows, the latter remained firmly entrenched. As a result, radical social transformations at one level (the increasing presence of women in the workplace, the break-up of older systems of family) were not accompanied by necessary concomitant changes (the eroding of male chauvinism, for example), often giving rise to bitter conflicts between the older generation and the new, as well as between men and women. Tied to these changing paradigms of gender, class and cultural milieux are also racial tensions involving the Anglo-Indian minority, all of which come together in powerful ways in 'Abataranika' and Mahanagar.
  9. In both 'Abataranika' and the novella Mahanagar, Mitra locates the struggle of Aroti, a woman trying to balance her different roles within and outside the household, as an essentially lonely one. Mitra makes the clash between the older generation and the new run throughout the narrative (though not everyone among the older generation is equally averse to Aroti's new role as a working woman), but problematises other binaries such as those between modernity and openness to Western ideas on the one hand, and conservatism and an entrenched traditionalism on the other.
  10. Priyagopal, the patriarchal figure from the older generation whose 'regime' has been replaced by that of his son Subroto is, perhaps the most negatively etched character in the short story and the novella.[15] As a young husband, he was a wife-beater; in old age, he quotes Sanskrit verses that describe women as irrational, and tells his grown-up, married son that whether or not he actually beats his wife, he should occasionally threaten to do so, for only then will a woman 'know that there is a real man in her house.'[16] Subroto's acute revulsion for his father, Priyagopal, is tied up with his awareness that '[m]an becomes decrepit inevitably, but not necessarily wise.'[17]
  11. Subroto, however, is no model of open-mindedness himself. Although as a believer in equal rights for women he is very different from his father, Subroto finds his egalitarian views put to the test when 'brought from the realm of discussion into his own home.'[18] He comes to feel the burdens of patriarchal role-playing when, increasingly dispirited after the loss of his job, his (masculine) anxieties are compounded by Aroti's success at her workplace. From being a 'progressive' thinker, he starts thinking more and more like his father: 'Today it seemed to him that, aside from the slavery and subjugation to others embodied in the prejudices [sic] of Hindu women, there was very deep, sweet, and unsurpassed love concealed in it,'[19] and regrets that he has drawn on his wife for 'coarse material needs,'[20] no matter how real those needs are.
  12. The novella problematises binarist distinctions between modernity and traditionalism even further. Aroti's employer, Mr. Mukherjee, is different from both Priyagopal and Subroto in many ways—he is a successful businessman who loved and married a well-educated woman, is 'Western' in his outlook,[21] and does not differentiate between his male and female employees.[22] However, as Subroto realises when he first meets Mr. Mukherjee, there is also an element of clannishness that both men share, and which unites them across class divisions.[23] Subroto recognises also that, like him, Mr. Mukherjee invests in Aroti as commodity and resents the fact that any person other than he could lay claim to it: Aroti's own views on her role as a working woman is far from the minds of either men. The novella, in fact, shows that the middle-class woman's 'liberation' in post-Partition Bengal stems from deteriorating economic conditions, which results in the need for men to exploit her both at home and in the workplace. Such a change, taking place in a society that is otherwise deeply rooted in patriarchal mores, makes the struggle for women like Aroti all the more difficult, for the very people who make her leave home for work also deeply resent her for doing so.
  13. In fact, one of the principal differences between Mitra and Ray is that the former is more sceptical—about the possibilities of a change of sensibility, about the degree of support and understanding the new class of middle-class working women could expect to get from their families—and also, crucially, about the general economic situation of Calcutta after Independence, especially with the influx of millions of refugees over a very short period of time.[24] Mitra seems to have realised that Calcutta was one of those major urban centres whose population had become too large to be sustainable, and, in an important passage, highlights the profound divide between the Calcutta of one's imagination and the rather more sordid Calcutta of the 1950s:

      It seemed to Aroti that the city of Calcutta itself had gradually changed. Aroti remembered the time after her wedding, when she was living with her father-in- law and mother-in-law in their village home. Then she had imagined Calcutta to be a fairyland - a vast city, with endless variety, and endless mystery. It was like a heavenly city. . .

      But when she came to Calcutta, Aroti could not find any of the happiness and comfort of city life. . . Aroti received only a small fraction of the happiness she had expected, after it had been parcelled out to everyone else in the family. It wasn't even like getting a share of happiness; it was as if they had all become shareholders of mutual distress.[25]

  14. In 'Abataranika,' Mitra suggests that if women's liberation was fuelled by economic imperatives rather than by a more deep-seated rejection of patriarchal ways of thinking, how could the movement sustain itself when there was neither support for women at home, nor was there much hope for overall economic betterment over time? Indeed, Mitra's adoption of Ray's title Mahanagar (The Big City) for his novella lends the title an ironic edge that is not quite there in Ray's film. However, in his reworking of 'Abataranika' as a novella written after Ray's film, Mitra changes the ending of his short story to suggest that an individual's personal integrity could bring about a measure of change in others (for example in Subroto), even though the economic problems remain.[26]
  15. It is Aroti who changes the most in the course of the novella. It is not so much that becoming a working woman makes her independent or liberated financially or sexually, for the economic welfare of her family still remains the focus of her life[27] and the theme of sexual transgression is a minor concern as far as Aroti is concerned.[28] Rather, it results in the growth of her personality in ways that would have been impossible if she were confined to being a housewife: indeed, Aroti makes the best of the changes in her life and roles in both personal and social terms. She proves to be extremely efficient in interacting with her upper-class clients, whose refinement, politeness and tastes initially appeal to her. Later, however, as she realises that, despite her superior intelligence and talents, the insidious fissures of class differences prevent her from bonding with more socially-privileged clients on their shared identity as women, Aroti becomes resentful.[29] She complains that she and her colleagues are occasionally treated 'like street beggars,' and fights back whenever she gets a chance.[30] Indeed, it is women of Aroti's age or younger, and of a similar social class, who bond much more easily with each other, and one of the family members with whom Aroti shares a close bond is her teenage sister-in-law.[31]
  16. Compared to Ray's Aroti, Mitra's heroine presents greater self-assurance, picks up social and language skills far more quickly, and is more resolute in her convictions. She overcomes her initial hesitations to make friends with Edith, becomes more and more friendly with her, and gradually realises that underlying the superficial differences, there are many things that bring them together—their financial constraints, their shared nature of work, and most of all, their being women. Her developing friendship with Edith makes her question the way her husband and Mr. Mukherjee categorise Edith without a moment's reflection into the stereotype of the 'loose' Anglo-Indian woman, although neither man knows her well or even attempts to do so.
  17. Aroti's increasing awareness of how class and gender issues circumscribe her freedom and rights as a woman results in the climactic confrontation with her boss, Mr. Mukherjee. Mr. Mukherjee's condemnation and dismissal of Edith is an injustice on several levels, and Aroti's recognition of this precipitates her momentous decision. Aroti is, of course, aware that the bonds of class and gender are stronger than the ostensible fissures of race and religion. If her absence from home puts her outside of patriarchal domination, however temporarily and only qualifiedly so, triggering fears among her father-in-law and husband, it is precisely Edith's escape from Mr. Mukherjee's domination outside of the office that triggers Himangsu's anxieties, and brings out the worst racial and gender prejudices in a man otherwise quite likable. The binaries of public and private, and their relationship to patriarchy are thus blurred. Early in the novella, Priyagopal, a one-time teacher himself, takes Aroti to the cowshed of his village home, and tells her that her dropping out of college following her marriage is not a big problem, for the practical work she is to learn at home she could not have learnt at any university.[32] Mitra, a master of irony, instead shows that in her brief foray into the public sphere of the workplace, not only does Aroti develop in terms of her personality or her knowledge about the workplace, she also becomes crucially self-conscious about her class and gender, and is able to transcend apparent cultural barriers in a way that eludes the men in the novella.
  18. Mitra's bleak assessment of women's struggle against patriarchal modes of thinking and living stands in contrast to Ray's more validatory treatment of the same theme. Mitra shows that despite her intelligence and efficiency both at home and at the workplace, her sense of responsibility and her moral uprightness that leads her to protest against racial discrimination, Aroti's heroism can at best have a limited impact. Patriarchal modes of thinking are not broken down in any substantial way by the dynamic new role women like Aroti take up under the pressure of economic imperatives. Moreover, the monetary pressures that make women like Aroti seek work do not solve the larger economic uncertainties faced by the people at large. As 'shareholders of mutual distress,'[33] Calcuttans, both women and men, employers and employees, all face a bleak, uncertain future.

    Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar: A 'semi-optimistic' reading
  19. In an interview with Andrew Robinson, Ray described the ending of his film as 'semi-optimistic.'[34] Ray's partial optimism is emphasised both musically (in the way the principal motif, in a minor key, gets repeated immediately in the major throughout the film) and, visually, in the last scene, in which the camera focuses on a streetlamp with one out of two bulbs working, as Aroti and her husband fade into the distance. At first glance, Ray's film may seem to foreground clashes between generations or critique middle-class Bengali conservativism. However, when compared with Mitra's 'Abataranika' or Mahanagar, Ray's film can be seen as presenting a more positive vision.[35] This optimism springs from Ray's belief that human interactions hold the possibility of positive changes arising from them; as he puts it himself: 'I am interested in people, in human beings, in human character, in their interplay; in the relationship of characters. That fascinates me in itself.'[36]
  20. For Mitra, the ideological differences between the old and the new are unbridgeable: the tensions between Aroti and her in-laws do not get resolved. In Ray's film, it is still possible for the older generation to understand, even if after painful misunderstandings and embarrassments, the reasons for changes in society. From such understanding can stem a fuller appreciation of how these changes require women of the post-Independence generation like Aroti to assume new roles both at home and in the workplace, an appreciation that ideally will usher in a change of attitude on their part. Hence, for example, Aroti's father-in-law, who is a schoolteacher, comes to repent having solicited financial aid in the garb of gurudakshina from his former students,[37] and makes peace with Aroti, finally appreciating her role in ameliorating the family's social circumstances. A comparison of the final scenes of 'Abataranika,' Ray's Mahanagar and Mitra's novella Mahanagar further illustrates this point. In 'Abataranika,' after Aroti informs the family of her resignation, she is neither understood by Subroto's parents, nor by her husband. Indeed, Subroto goes on to make a racist distinction between Edith, whom he has never even met, but whom he glibly assumes as 'probably going to office, smoking all the way,' and Aroti, the 'sentimental Bengali girl.'[38] As Aroti's eyes well up with tears, Subroto recognises the old Aroti he knew and feels satisfied—it is her return to familial and patriarchal dependence that finally placates him. In his novella Mahanagar, made after Ray's film, Mitra retains the original ending, but adds a last line in which Subroto acknowledges that he has been in the wrong in not having supported Aroti's courageous decision.
  21. Ray, however, shows Aroti meeting Edith after she has been dismissed. It is in fact in the face of Mr. Mukherjee's insinuation that Edith's dismissal will mean her own promotion that Aroti submits her resignation. Unlike Mitra's heroine who finds in the slandering of Edith the slandering of all women, Ray's heroine stands up as an individual for another: to her boss's racist slander, she replies that she does not have any Anglo-Indian friend other than Edith, but she does know her and will, therefore, not accept his remarks. This kind of ethical uprightness in the face of grave economic adversity connects Aroti with other protagonists in Ray's oeuvre as well: for instance, in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959), the impoverished Apu refuses to take up a job offer as the opening was made possible by the dismissal of workers on strike.
  22. Could this be read as naïve idealism on the part of Aroti and her creator? There is no simple answer to this question. For one, Ray reads the ending of the film not just in terms of Aroti's ethical decision-making, but also as the coming together of Aroti and Subroto as husband and wife, after a period of psychological separation.[39] As a result, the film does dilute some of the feminist and political overtones of the corresponding scenes in Mitra, but examines the psychological states of the protagonists in a more sensitive way. In fact, it is in the delineation of the individual protagonists that Ray's film offers greater insights than Mitra's 'Abataranika.' Unlike Mitra's Aroti, who picks up Hindi and English, languages she does not speak, all too quickly, Ray's heroine retains her linguistic shortcomings even as she rapidly develops as an individual. Again, Ray shows the dividing lines of class more subtly than Mitra does in 'Abataranika.' In the film, Aroti is quick to note in the house of her upper-middle-class client Mrs. Sinha, a certain indifference accompanying the politeness with which she is spoken to, as Mrs. Sinha, engrossed in the booklet given by Aroti, ignores her attempts to carry on a conversation. Mitra's heroine is, on the other hand, all too readily accepted in upper-class society, and both this acceptance and the rather sudden emergence of Aroti's class-consciousness appear a little contrived.
  23. Mitra's detailed portrayal of East Bengal immigrants of whom he had personal knowledge[40] makes the sketchiness of his description of Edith stand out in contrast. Ray, on the other hand, had noticed during his search for an Anglo-Indian actress to play the role of Edith that the conditions of living of lower-middle-class Bengalis and Anglo-Indians were very similar indeed:[41] in the film, the squalor of Aroti's house is paralleled by that in Edith's home, and shows in Ray's typically understated way the economic similarities that are among the factors that bring the two women together. Moreover, unlike Mitra's Edith, who is dark in complexion,[42] Ray's Edith (played by Vicky Redwood) is fair-skinned—she is a domiciled Briton. Taking advantage of the visual medium, Ray highlights rather than underplays the dermatological marker of Edith's racial difference and shows how it becomes significant in her fraught relationship with Mr. Mukherjee, while Aroti, having visited Edith in the latter's home, comes to see, despite their differences in complexion and use of language (Aroti speaks in Bengali with Edith throughout, while the latter responds only in English) the similarities of their economic and social predicament as lower-middle-class women.
  24. Such a nuanced representation of society with a focus on individuals, rather than an overtly class or gender-based representation, allows Ray to avoid turning Aroti's story into an allegory for an incipient nation's teething problems. In fact, the refusal to sublimate in this fashion Aroti's story endows greater agency to her as a woman, while keeping her story firmly rooted in a particular social-historical context. However, Ganguly is correct in his general argument that Ray's optimistic commitment to a Nehruvian vision of India gradually erodes from the 1970s, as a kind of cynicism takes over much of Ray's later work. Mahanagar was soon followed by the so-called Calcutta trilogy[43] in which the big city was not so great any more. Ray's vision is bleakest in the last of the films of the trilogy, Jana Aranya (The Middleman) (1975), in which the protagonist, Somnath, after a series of rigged-up job interviews, gets a business contract only after he gets his client a call girl, who turns out to be the sister of his childhood friend. Ray later contrasted Somnath with Aroti in an interview with Bert Cardullo:

      These days I prefer a short time span during which the character undergoes a change or transformation on account of a traumatic experience. . . A good example of it can be found in Jana Aranya, where the time span is no more than one or two months. During this short period of time a totally honest, innocent boy becomes totally corrupted—and, ironically, then and only then can he stand on his two feet.[44] This movement from a certain state of character to another state—this complete inner change—quite fascinates, I must say. Even in an older film of mine, like Mahanagar, you can find such an inner change. Here a woman who does not want to work, starts working at her husband's insistence,[45] becomes successful, encounters her husband's envy, and even comes to dominate when he loses his job; then ultimately there is a reconciliation between the two.[46]

  25. Indeed, from the 1980s onwards, Ray's later films became more and more bleak and uncharacteristically didactic. Mitra had recognised early on that the presence of women in the workplace in Calcutta was based largely on economic imperatives, and that the post-Independence economic uncertainties were leading to an implosion in the metropolis. His contrast between the notion of Calcutta as a great city in the imagination of its people and its ugly, sordid realities that made Calcuttans 'shareholders of mutual distress'[47] seems, in retrospect, to have pointed to the malaises of the country at large, before the patterns became fully discernible to most writers and filmmakers, including Ray. Indeed, the Naxalite movement in Calcutta, which fed on the grievances of the educated-but-unemployed urban elite, would follow a few years after the making of Ray's film, making Aroti's paean to the city at the end of the film sound hollow when compared with Mitra's prescient pessimism.[48]
  26. This should not, however, imply that the optimism of a film like Mahanagar, or for that matter, most of Ray's films of the 1950s and '60s have no insights to offer in political or socio-economic terms, or that the Nehruvian vision which Ray seems to have espoused, was itself fatally flawed. It is possible to see in Mahanagar that Ray's insistence on the agency of ethically responsible individuals hints at a powerful source for enduring social transformations. Ethically correct decisions taken by ordinary individuals like Aroti, even in the most trying of times can, the film suggests, potentially lead to the overhauling of racial and gender biases, and openness to people from culturally diverse backgrounds can potentially open up spaces for a more culturally pluralist society in the future.
  27. The urgent need to communicate this idealistic vision to his audiences probably made Ray deliberately opt for a simplicity of style so that he could reach out, as much as possible, to a wide cross-section of audiences. Speaking of the absence of avant-garde Indians films, he told Chidananda Das Gupta,

      I wouldn't dare to make experiments like that. . .not because I don't appreciate them, but because I never want to go above the heads of my audience. You must go slowly to raise the level of appreciation.[49]

  28. It could be a reason why his film Mahanagar has a simplicity, even plainness, of style that makes it accessible to the general audience while making it less interesting for theorists of film. Indeed, Ray himself did not count it as among the most significant films he made since his first, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Moreover, since social conditions have changed tremendously since the film's release, and women in the workplace is now the norm and no more the exception, in Calcutta or any other major Indian city, the film has also become somewhat dated in this regard. All these factors have combined to give the film a more marginal place in the Ray cinematic canon than it deserves, and which I hope to redress in this article.[50] After the cluster of women-centred films of the 1960s that form some of Ray's greatest works, Ray returned to male protagonists as he became more cynical regarding the direction in which he perceived India was going. The theme of individual choice and its potential for triggering social change remained an abiding interest throughout Ray's life—an interest that tied up well with his attraction as a filmmaker to strong women characters. In a late interview with Cardullo, Ray affirmed this abiding interest:

      Although they're physically not as strong as men, nature gave women qualities which compensate for that fact. They're more honest, more direct and by and large, they're stronger characters. I'm not talking about every woman, but the type of woman which fascinates me. The woman I like to put in my films is better able to cope with situations than men.[51]


    [1] Narendranath Mitra, 'Abataranika' ('Introduction'), Galpamala (Garland of Stories), Calcutta (Kolkata): Ananda Publishers, 1986. First published in Anandabazar Patrika, Puja edition, 1949, pp. 122–43.

    [2] Mahanagar (The Great City), dir. Satyajit Ray; prod. R.D. Bansal and Co., 1963.

    [3] Narendranath Mitra, Mahanagar (The Great City), trans. Suhrid Kumar Chatterjee and Marcus Francis Franda, Bombay (Mumbai): Jaico Publishing House, 1968.

    [4] Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (new edition), London: I. B. Tauris, 2004; Ben Nyce, Satyajit Ray: A Study of His Films, New York: Praeger, 1988; Myriam Alexowitz, Die Darstellung der indischen Frau in ausgewählten Filmen von Satyajit Ray, Alfeld/Leine: Coppi-Verlag, 1999; Suranjan Ganguly,Satyajit Ray: In Search of the Modern, London: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

    [5] In an excellent article, Dipendu Chakrabarti has analysed Ray's Mahanagar vis-à-vis other films featuring working women as protagonists by Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. See Dipendu Chakrabarti, 'The working woman in three Bengali films: a retrospect,' in Films and Feminism: Essays in Indian Cinema, ed. Jasbir Jain and Sudha Rai, Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2002, pp. 140–46.

    [6] Kapurush is usually shown along with Mahapurush (The Holy Man), also 1965, though the two films are thematically unconnected.

    [7] The modern republic of Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan between 1956 and 1971. At the time of the partition of Bengal following independence (1947), it was known as East Bengal.

    [8] Ganguly, Satyajit Ray, p. 6.

    [9] Satyajit Ray, 'Introduction,' in Narendranath Mitra, Mahanagar, trans. Suhrid Kumar Chatterjee and Marcus Francis Franda, Bombay (Mumbai): Jaico Publishing House, 1968, pp. v–vi, p. v.

    [10] See, for example, his comment in an interview to Udayan Gupta: 'I have made political statements more clearly than anyone else, including Mrinal Sen,' cited in Satyajit Ray: Interviews, ed. Bert Cardullo, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007, p. 127.

    [11] Narendranath Mitra, 'Abataranika' (Introduction), in Galpamala (Garland of Stories), Calcutta (Kolkata): Ananda Publishers, 1986, pp. 122–43. The story was first published in the Puja edition of Anandabazar Patrika (1949). I have used Mahanagar as the basis for my discussion because, unlike the short story 'Abataranika,' it is more readily accessible to readers worldwide through the English translation, while the short story remains untranslated. It may be noted here that the changes introduced by Ray in his adaptation of 'Abataranika' into the film Mahanagar, many of them due to differences necessitated by intermedial adaptation, were approved by Mitra. See Robinson, Satyajit Ray, p. 149.

    [12] Satyajit Ray, 'Introduction,' in Chatterjee and Franda, p. v.

    [13] The spelling of names here follows Chatterjee and Franda.

    [14] This occurs in Mitra's Mahanagar; in the earlier 'Abataranika,' Subroto does not apologise, and Mitra gives the reader the impression that even a strong-willed woman of intelligence like Aroti cannot overcome the tyranny of patriarchal oppression through individual effort alone. Ray's take on this is very different, and will be taken up later in this article.

    [15] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 30.

    [16] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 61.

    [17] Mitra, Mahanagar, pp. 82–83.

    [18] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 29.

    [19] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 32.

    [20] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 33.

    [21] In Ray's film, Mr. Mukherjee is shown as being westernised in his attire; in Mitra's novella, he wears traditional Indian dress to the office (Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 51).

    [22] Marie Seton points out with regard to Ray's film that 'no triangle develops as it probably would in a Western film'; it does not happen in the novel either (see Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, London: Dennis Dobson, 1971, p. 262). Indeed, the possibility of woman's sexual transgression going hand-in-hand with her entry into the public space regularly crosses only Priyagopal's mind in Mitra's short story/novella but not in Ray's film. Subroto does make a single sarcastic comment about Aroti's 'new kind of charm' ever since she starts going to office (Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 55), but this theme is not developed in the novel, except in the case of Edith, where it is tied to the theme of racial stereotyping and discrimination. For a powerful critique of male sexual anxiety triggered by the changing role of Bengali women in urban society, see Mrinal Sen's film Ekdin Pratidin (One Day, Everyday), 1979.

    [23] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 51.

    [24] Joya Chatterjee describes the official estimate of about 5 million Bengali refugee immigrants from East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) between 1946 and 1964 as 'improbably conservative' (see Chatterjee, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947–1967, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 105, n. 3). There are strong reasons to agree with her, given that the official number of Hindu and Sikh immigrants into India from the more sparsely populated regions of Pakistan between August and December 1947 alone stands at 7.5 million.

    [25] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 83.

    [26] Ironically, Ray too would become increasingly pessimistic by the late 1960s, and as I argue later in this essay, the rise of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta shows that Mitra's pessimism has a greater ring of truth to it than Ray's idealism.

    [27] When, at Subroto's insistence, Aroti goes to the office about to submit her resignation, she resents her husband for not considering her opinion. However, her focus is firmly on her family's future, and not on the loss of her own freedom (Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 81).

    [28] It is essentially Priyagopal in Mitra's story/novella who is concerned about Aroti's possible sexual transgression. However, both Subroto and Mr. Mukherjee share the stereotypical view that Anglo-Indian girls like Edith are 'loose.' If, for someone like Priyagopal, Aroti becomes a woman of loose morals at the workplace (where she is out of his sight), Edith becomes so once she leaves the workplace (where she is out of sight of the Subrotos and the Mr. Mukherjees): what bind all three men share is a deep-seated fear of female sexuality and the urge to control it by constantly keeping women in their visual focus. Seen in this light, the typecasting of the Anglo-Indian girl as being promiscuous in her private life by the Bengali middle class points to the lack of interaction between Bengali males of this class and the Anglo-Indian woman in the private sphere—a case of racial segregation leading to deep-seated misogyny.

    [29] It is interesting to note that while Subroto and Mr. Mukherjee are able to transcend class differences over questions of origins (for instance, both bond over the fact that they are from East Bengal) and gender/racial stereotyping (the prejudicial assumption that Anglo-Indian girls are, by nature, promiscuous), Aroti finds that women from upper and lower classes do not come together as readily over the question of women's liberation. Indeed, a strong reason why Aroti and Edith are able to bond as women is because they share similar economic problems. Mitra's story suggests, therefore, that belonging to the same class may help women bond with each other across racial differences, while the bonding of women across class barriers is more fraught with problems, at least in India. Ray's film sustains such a reading as well.

    [30] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 86.

    [31] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 79.

    [32] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 9.

    33 Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 83.

    [34] Qtd. in Cardullo, Satyajit Ray, p. 152; Robinson, Satyajit Ray, p. 155.

    [35] It will be incorrect to see Ray as an out-an-out optimist, since, as a filmmaker working with/in a realist tradition, he was not out there to make a film endorsing Nehru's vision of a modernised India, ignoring the numerous difficulties and struggles such a vision entailed. Unlike a film such as Charulata, which is located in the past, Ray's Mahanagar is situated in the present, where the only constant is transition. The only ideological position that Ray takes is that individuals can change society for the better through ethically-sound choices, despite the problems involved.

    [36] Cited in Buddhadev Dasgupta, 'Satyajit Ray: Ek Samaj-Sachetan Shilpi' (Satyajit Ray: A Socially Conscious Filmmaker), in Satyajit-Pratibha (The Genius of Satyajit Ray), ed. Bijit Ghosh, Calcutta: Radical Impression, 1993, pp. 28–33, p. 29.

    [37] A tribute or offering traditionally given by students to their teacher. Mitra presents Priyagopal's taking gifts from his former students only in passing; Ray develops this theme considerably in the film, showing how by going around asking for gurudakshina from his students (even the unwilling ones), Priyagopal was ready to demean himself, rather than make truce with his working daughter-in-law. Ray later provides Priyagopal the space for an admission of guilt when he apologises to his son and daughter-in-law for having spoken ill of them to his students.

    [38] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 142.

    [39] See Cardullo, Satyajit Ray, pp. 152–53.

    [40] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. viii.

    41 See Seton, Portrait of a Director, p. 265.

    [42] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 22.

    [43] Pratidwandi (The Adversary), 1970; Seemabaddha (Company Ltd), 1971; Jana Aranya (The Middle Man), 1975. Each of these films is directed by Satyajit Ray.

    [44] It is interesting to note how cynical Ray had become about post-Nehruvian India. While for people like Apu and Aroti, economic imperatives were not sufficient to call for moral compromises, the obverse holds true for Somnath: he is required to become cynical by society for the sake of survival (so that economic issues become more central than they are with Apu or Aroti), and the same holds true for Shyam, the protagonist of Seemabaddha, though Shyam's stakes are much lower. In contrast to Ray's films of the 1960s, centred around strong female protagonists, the films of Ray's Calcutta trilogy focus on central male protagonists who become increasingly cynical and hardened for the sake of survival.

    [45] This is a curious comment on Ray's part. What he says holds true of Mitra's short story and novella, while Ray's film shows how an odd comment from her husband first makes Aroti think of taking up a job herself. In the film, Ray projects greater agency to Aroti's individual decision to start working than this comment might suggest.

    [46] Quoted in Cardullo, Satyajit Ray, p. 183.

    [47] Mitra, Mahanagar, p. 83.

    [48] The Naxalite movement began in the late 1960s after the Sino-Soviet split. The name comes from a small village in West Bengal, Naxalbari, where the movement originated as a peasant movement, but it spread quickly to Calcutta, where the movement found tremendous support from university students. As the movement turned violent, so did the repercussions, which turned increasingly brutal, leading to massive unrest in Calcutta and other parts of Bengal. The first phase came to an end in around 1971, but Naxalite unrest continues in parts of the country, especially in the states of Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

    [49] Cited in Cardullo, Satyajit Ray, p. 44. Ray discusses the aesthetics of film, and the relationship of different filmmakers to his own work in his book Bishoy Chalachhitra (On the Subject of Films), 6th edition, Calcutta (Kolkata): Ananda Publishers, 2005, pp. 9–25. It is interesting to note that in his introduction to the 1968 English translation of Mahanagar the novella, Ray writes that 'the time [1955] was not ripe yet for a story that questioned traditional middle-class values, offered no romance and no opportunities for songs or high dramatics' (Ray, 'Introduction,' p. v). The trajectory of the making of Mahanagar, therefore, explains aspects of Ray's socio-political views as well as the narrative simplicity of the film.

    [50] The film is still quite interesting on account of Ray's polished cinematic technique. (Ben Nyce discusses this much-neglected aspect of the film in his study of Ray's films), as well as to its sensitive treatment of the theme of professional jealousy, especially between husbands and wives. However, as mentioned earlier, Ray felt the urgent need to make the film even as early as 1955, perhaps because he felt the subject matter to be of topical importance in post-Independence India, when the relationship of the film with its audience would be quite different from what it is now.

    [51] Cited in Cardullo, Satyajit Ray, p. 126.


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