Mahanagar is based on Abataranika, a short story by Narendranath Mitra. Abataranika was first published in the Pooja issue of Anandabazaar Patrika in 1956.
i The same year, the story found its place in a collection of short stories called Chadai-Utrai. Ray had read the story when he was making Aparajito. But Ray also derived source material from another short story by the same author entitled Aakinchan to flesh out the character of Arati’s father-in-law Priyogopal, the retired schoolmaster in Mahanagar. In Ekhhon (1981) recalling his source for the film, Ray writes, “I wished to tinge the character of Arati’s father-in-law with a more sentimental touch. In order to do this, I drew from another character from another Mitra short story. In this sense, Mahanagar is a blend of two short stories by the same author.”
iiThe interiors of the Majumdar household underscore the emotional underpinnings in the relationships among the members of the family. The clutter within the flat shows large pieces of furniture, prints on the walls; the sister-in-law drawing the tape that hangs the mosquito net; a slightly disturbed Subrata smoking inside the mosquito net; the sister-in-law proudly scribbling Dada-Boudi in chalk on the kitchen floor as they lunch before stepping out; the sister-in-law standing shyly to show off the new sari Arati has bought for her with her salary; these are small glimpses that enrich the context of the story. Through close-ups, Ray turns claustrophobia into intimacy as the camera captures, at close range, the subtle interactions of this typical Bengali family.
In Mahanagar, Subrata takes the primary decisions – that Arati will take up a job; that she will have to quit the same job though her job brings economic security to the family because it becomes a cause of acute discomfort for him; that her wearing lipstick is not right; then, when his bank fails suddenly the day Arati is to hand in her resignation, he decides that she should not hand it in right now. He even writes out both the decisive letters – the letter of application and the letter of resignation and asks Arati only to sign at the bottom. Arati knows how to read and write English. But the conditioning to be subjected to the husband’s commands and directives without question is so deeply rooted that it does not even occur to her to do these simple things herself. Yet, at the end of it all, though her husband expressly tells her not to hand in her resignation, she decides otherwise not in defiance of her husband’s command, but for another more individual and personal reason. But her decision is undercut when she walks out into the Calcutta evening hand-in-hand with husband Subrata, both without jobs, but content that the breach between them has healed.
Though the job brings out qualities within Arati that remained untapped when she was house-bound, it does not offer her the freedom one would expect it to. It is the husband who accepts that the wife must take up a job to supplement the meagre finances of the family. Till the point when Arati is stopped by her husband to hand in the letter of resignation because he has suddenly become jobless, Arati is just a puppet in the hands of a seemingly democratic and ‘understanding’ husband who is actually as tradition-bound as the father he is ideologically distanced from. But with time, and with the vested responsibility of being the sole breadwinner, Arati unwittingly comes into her own, and ceases to be a puppet with the choice she makes following Edith’s unfair dismissal.
Subrata changes too, as he discovers the happy expression on his wife’s face when she comes home from work while he is forced to stay back at home. He sits smoking on his bed, reeling in the frustration of having to watch his wife take on the breadwinning role with contentment writ across her face. Where does the money for his cigarettes come from? The answer is implicit in the change in the economic status of husband and wife within the family. From being a happily married man openly in love with his pretty wife, Subrata turns into an unhappy man who stoops to eavesdropping into a conversation between his wife and the husband of a friend of hers, in a roadside tea-shop. Instead of approaching her up front, he hides behind the newspaper he is reading, peeping out to see them walk out, talking cheerfully.
Mahanagar introduces the Indian audience to a woman who is awakened to the possibility of determining the course of her own life. Arati proves that a woman has vast resources of inner strength she herself is unaware of. She draws upon these when the time is right, when she discovers that patriarchy, which defines a society dominated by men, has failed to solve emerging socio-economic problems that have a bearing on the family to begin with, then on the economy and on the culture.
i Saha, Manabendranath: Sahityo O Chollochitra – Satyajit Ray-er Cholochitra, Prabha Prakashani, 2002, p.64.
ii Ray, Satyajit: Introduction to the screenplay of Mahanagar Ekkhon, 1981.