Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagar” (The Metropolis, 1963, based on a short story by Narendranath Mitra) is a fascinating and thoroughly original work of art. It is at once a beautifully realistic love story, a profound sociological study into men and women’s relationship, a portrayal of the world of work from the point of view of women, and an analysis of the clash of modernism and traditions in a middle-class urban family. I will first leave an IMDb contributor (sbansban) sum up the story, something he does with a very convincing personal touch:
“In an era when working women in Calcutta (and perhaps many other places in the world) sometimes invited snide implications of inadequate income against their husbands, a very naive and unsure Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee, already met in Charulata) grapples with her first job, but is also excited by it. Her in-laws (Haren Chatterjee and Sefalike Devi), living in the same, cramped house, however, look askance at their son Subrata (her husband, Anil Chatterjee) for letting her work, and try to scorn him by starting a silently emotional and undeclared "cold war". Though the husband attempts to obtain an additional part-time job, and convinces Arati to resign, he suddenly loses his main job and manages to contact his wife just in time to stop her from submitting the resignation letter. There follows the inevitable feeling of worthlessness and depression for him - a man living off his wife's income, but Subrata, the husband goes through it all with dignity despite the occasional sarcasm and testiness.
It is difficult to say who has performed the best - the husband, the wife, their children (among which a young Jaya Badhuri in her first role), the husband's parents or the boss at the office (Haradhan Bannerjee). The tenderness and sensitivity portrayed amidst all the tension brings out the eternal humanist in Ray. Even the smug, authoritarian boss, who is gracious to Arati, but is prejudiced against her colleague Edith (Vicky Redwood), warms up to Arati's recently unemployed husband, reveals a weakness for their common home town, and attempts to find him a job. Edith - who herself is struggling to make ends meet, quietly strikes a friendship with small gestures towards Arati, who later stands up for her friend against the boss with grave personal consequences. In spite of the movie having anything but a happy end, the unmistakable and wonderful optimism that somehow breaks through at the end is infectious.”
The film’s strength is that it creates dynamism and suspense, not out of artificially contrived obstacles or fixed roles, but by a slow and life-like portrayal of reality. The conflicts spring from intimate feelings and desires, rather than from conventional situations which everybody knows how to unravel. For example, the husband and wife, who find it hard to make ends meet, start thinking about the possibility for Arati to work, in spite of traditional views upheld by the family educator, the formidable and ageing father-in-law, who lives in the house, and appears as the guardian of the values he has taught all his life. Subrata, his son, also insists at first that he enjoys his wife at home, and she submits, even though she knows the burden this puts on his shoulders.
But financial difficulties continue, and one night the idea keeps Arati awake: she really must start looking for a job. She convinces her husband, who weighs the advantages and, even if reluctantly, agrees. They find a job for her. This triggers the “cold war” alluded to above, but also a revaluation of the relationship of husband and wife (see later). In turn, when by a twist of fortune Subrata loses his job, this promotes Arati as the family bread-winner, and the traditionalists in the household face a crisis of identity. The woman cannot become more important (and earn more) than the man: this modernist worldview topples the essential fabric of society. But the change has important intimate consequences: Subrata thinks he now faces a changed Arati; work has given her an importance, a purpose in life, and so a power which everybody around her notices, and unconsciously fears. And the moment when she realises the “new” woman she has become is also well delineated.
At the same time as Subrata is submerged by doubts and fears, Arati feels the feminine impulse to protect her unemployed husband, who has trouble abandoning his former worldview. Meeting a client’s husband in town one day, she enters a café with him, and lies to him about Subrata, telling him that he’s employed full time, that he’s set up a business of his own, etc. This being a movie, there is a coincidence: Subrata is present in the café, and overhears her, lying about him. And just before that, he’d seen her wearing sunglasses in the street, something traditional wives would never do, as it would be construed as bringing them dangerously close to free Westernized women. He’s also previously upbraided her for using lipstick. What is going to happen? Is the frustrated husband and unemployed bank clerk going to revert to an authoritarian and punitive attitude? Will he seize the occasion and shut her up for good? Not long before he lost his job, he had told her she was to resign, as he thought he had found an additional source of income, and as the situation at home was becoming too painful. So what is he going to do?
Before we look at his attitude, a few words about the role of money in Mahanagar. To be paid is to exist socially, says Ray. This social recognition lies at the heart of the story. Money transforms the person into an agent who can be reckoned with, it lends him or her the worth attached to it. If men have established themselves as money-earners, it is naturally to enjoy this domineering position. But what happens when the roles are overturned? If a woman starts working and earning money, the recognition and worth go to her. She no longer remains in the same dependency towards men; less dependency means a possibility of freedom and personality which is an open door to jealousy and suspicion. Women of course know or feel all this, and so when Arati, holding her first pay, looks at herself in the toilet mirror, she can see what money and her work has done to her: she looks at herself with the eyes of all the other people she knows who used to see her differently. She has crossed a line which has defined her as a new person. The power which comes from money reverberates the feminine power which she previously had, but was subjected to her husband’s authority and to society’s rules. The lovely slow smile that lights up her face reflects that feminine power and at the same time the pleasure that comes from its inner glow and confidence. Arati now knows she can work, and will work. She understands that her worth, which the cash of her first pay has given her, isn’t misplaced: it’s real, and what was false was the male-dominated society’s prejudices to stop women from enjoying it. A new feeling of sovereignty enters her soul, which deep down corresponds to what she knew even though it was smothered by traditions and habits: women are equal to men; they may be afraid to say or think so, but when they are placed in a situation that proves it, they know they were wrong to accept the subjection.
The movie explores the eternal theme of natural and artificial attractiveness: at the beginning of the film, Arati is described by her husband as too seductive to work, she would slow down the business if she were out there with men! But when she does start working, it‘s almost the opposite that happens; her colleague Edith gives her some rouge, telling her “it’s good for business”…Yes, but also good for vanity and flirting, probably thinks a frustrated husband who sees her succeed in a society from which he has been expelled. And even if Arati first balks before these additions to her feminine charms, she adopts them quickly enough, and risks estranging herself from her husband. She knows the risks, too, and carefully wipes her lipstick before getting back home. So the film carefully shows her moving away towards a freer and more independent womanhood, and at the same time calculating how far she mustn’t go, if she doesn’t want to shock her family too much. For example she lets herself accompanied home by her boss, and Ray makes it clear that the husband’s mind, who has noticed it in spite of her care, is being eaten by jealousy and shame.
Please stop interpreting everything wrongly!
What saves them is their love, and perhaps even more, their common loss. Indeed the end brings them together instead of separating them. Because Arati’s honesty and sense of justice has thought of nothing else but her friend’s defence, (Edith is laid off by the coulour-prejudiced boss) and forgotten she was thus losing her family’s income, she loses everything: she doesn’t obtain the girl’s reinstatement, and she’s now jobless! But the miracle happens when Subrata recognises her and sides with her. Why? Because she has accepted to lose everything, appearances, vanity, power, they are now at the same level, and this reunites them and cements their couple. They lift both their eyes towards the “Big city”, and know that the two of them are strong enough to challenge its unforgiving rules, and win.
One question though: why hadn’t Arati’s wonderful declaration of permanence ("I am still your wife, I haven't changed") and continuing love not convinced her husband (see top picture)? Why hasn’t it been sufficient to pour her beauty into his eyes, and in doing so allude almost indecently to their intimate love-making? Wouldn’t any man’s self-respect come back when his wife admits loving him that clearly? Well, first, I believe that such a feminine show of radiant conquering seduction is dangerous for any man. It contains a power that can upset men who aren’t ready for it, especially in societies where tradition gives man a leading role. But not only. By nature men feel they should be the stronger. And when events upturn this distribution of roles, when a woman has understood her power so well that she is ready to use it for plans she has decided to fulfil without asking for permission, men reel. This can be the tragedy of beauty, by the way: beauty can easily be misunderstood by men as a female-organised weapon of domination, whereas this only happens in some cases when women cynically use their beauty for selfish purposes. But most of the time, they half-forget it, and interact with people as if there wasn’t any beauty to be reckoned with. But for men, this beauty is there before their eyes, a domineering presence which disturbs them, and, if it is too strong, can alienate their owners from normal relationship with the other sex. Women who are too beautiful are thus sometimes avoided and considered unfaithful, etc. And it is no surprise that relatively plainer women are luckier in their relationships than girls who are more striking.
What kind of work do you really do?
There’s another reason why Subrata didn’t accept his lovely wife’s declaration of love. The masculine acknowledgement of feminine passion, sexual in particular, is possible only when the man has already enough self-respect to fall back on. Because a man doesn’t like to be completely dependent on a woman for his self-respect. There is something in men which needs personal and independently acquired confidence in himself before he can accept the woman’s. This is probably linked with his relationship with his mother, to whom he unconsciously owes everything: being a man (and not a boy) means not owing everything to a woman, and on the contrary giving the woman what it has cost him to become a man. Women who understand this will keep their mates; those who don’t, and become their man’s surrogate mothers, are at risk of losing him. It’s Satyajit Ray’s great art to have staged a situation where exterior events have enabled the couple in the film to recognise the other’s mutual need, before suspicion and jealousy had transformed the relationship into one where the subconscious representations would have taken over, thus destroying the couple. Because without Arati’s professional downfall, her trajectory was a tangent away from his life, at least in Subrata’s mind.
One last word concerning the actors, and Ray’s technique; it’s difficult not to give Mahanagar the highest value. Certain commentators consider the film to be his best! It’s true the film’s slow and masterful unfolding, the actors’ skills, the constant intermingling of private and public interests, all contribute to create a fascinating experience. I prefer other films by Ray, nevertheless, and most of all, I don’t want to have seen his best, and tell myself it’s all downhill now!!
Your spontaneity could harm you one day...