Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963). Directed by Satyajit Ray; screenplay by Ray based on the stories "Abataranika" and "Akinchan" by Narendranath Mitra.
In Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar, family is a source of both strength and vulnerability, and Calcutta—the "big city" of the title—is a place of both danger and possibility.
Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) is the head of a multigenerational household, but his jobs as a private tutor and as a bookkeeper for a bank barely bring home enough money to support his struggling family. His ailing father Priyagopal (Haren Chatterjee), a retired schoolmaster, needs medicine and new glasses, and his young sister Bani (Jaya Bhaduri, in her first role) needs books and school fees. The money worries are even taking a toll on the teasing closeness of his marriage to Arati (a luminous Madhabi Mukherjee).
When Arati discovers that the wife of one of Subrata's friends works outside the home, she tells him that she will take a job to help support the family. At first Subrata is resistant to the idea,
—he literally tells her, in English, that "a woman's place is in the home"—but he soon bows to necessity.
It is Subrata who finds a want-ad listing for a "smart and attractive" door-to-door salesgirl, but he and the rest of the family, including Arati, have distinctly mixed feelings when she gets the job. Subrata's father is concerned about the loss of the family's social standing, and his mother Sarojini (Sefalika Devi) feels guilty for the burden that the elders' presence places on the household economy. Arati herself is anxious about whether she'll be able to meet the demands of her new job. Even their son Pintu (Prasenjit Sarkar) feels abandoned and angry. Only Bani is delighted at the news:
Bani is soon to take her secondary exams, and she recognizes that Arati's taking a job represents a broadening of possibilities for her as well (her idea of a good job is "film star").
On her first day at the firm of Himangshu Mukerjee (Haradhan Bannerjee), Arati meets Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood), a lively Anglo-Indian girl who was hired at the same time. Edith defuses their potential rivalry with open friendliness, and a bond quickly begins to develop between them.
Arati is full of trepidation as she sets out on her rounds. She is also a bit in awe of the spacious, expensive homes she's invited into—the contrast with the cramped flat she shares with Subrata, his parents and the children is all too apparent. But as the days pass she grows more at ease with her work, and clearly even starts to enjoy it.
And she grows closer to Edith, despite their differences. Edith wears Western dresses rather than saris, applies face powder and lipstick, and is boldly willing to negotiate with Mr. Mukerjee on behalf of the five-woman sales force. There's even a suggestion that she's having premarital sex with her fiancé. In a key scene, Edith and Arati meet in the employee restroom after receiving their first pay packets. Arati gazes in wonder and delight at the crisp new bills; Edith (whom Mr. Mukerjee calls "firingee," or "foreigner") has gotten crumpled and dirty old ones. Arati insists on trading half of her notes with Edith's; Edith returns the favor by giving Arati a tube of lipstick and showing her how to wear it.
After telling Arati that lipstick is mentioned in the Kama Sutra, Edith says that "It's good for business." Exchanges of all sorts are taking place in this scene.
Arati comes home with the lipstick hidden in her purse and an armful of gifts for her family. The gifts are received with delight by the children, wariness by Subrata, and outright rejection by his father, who tells Arati,
Subrata isn't sure he likes the changes he sees in Arati. When she tells him, "You wouldn't recognize me at work," he responds, "Would I recognize you at home?" Although she attempts to reassure him that "I'm still the same housewife," Subrata knows that she, and the household, will never be the same again.
To Arati's dismay, Subrata insists that she quit her job. But just as she's on the point of doing so, his bank fails and he's thrown out of work. On the spur of the moment Arati negotiates a substantial raise from Mr. Mukerjee (who, it's clear, likes her and values her conscientiousness).
This sudden turn of events makes Subrata feel even more insecure, resentful and jealous, while Arati is blossoming as she discovers her own resourcefulness and inner strength. The stage is set for a crisis between the old patriarchal values Subrata has inherited and the new reality of Arati's self-realization.
Mahanagar's final scene is perhaps unrealistically hopeful. My initial response was that it had seemed as though the movie was heading towards a different, and much darker, ending. But on re-viewing the film, it became more clear how the couple's emotional dynamic has been altered by Arati's newfound confidence. The film's conclusion suggests that Arati's new role has enabled not only her, but also Subrata, to grow and change. Mahanagar is another of Ray's masterpieces, and (as my own experience shows) rewards multiple viewings.
The Criterion Collection's 2013 DVD reissue does full justice to the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Subrata Mitra; extras include an interview with Madhabi Mukherjee about the filming of Mahanagar, and a second disc containing Ray's 70-minute feature The Coward (1965), with Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee and Haradhan Bannerjee
Next time: The enigma of others: Kapurush (The Coward)