I re-watched Ray’s heartwarming Mahanagar couple of days back on youtube. It brought fresh revelations about a time in my city (I am from Kolkata) when the once great colonial metropolis was gradually turning into “a heap of broken images”. Kolkata was Calcutta then, and not burdened with the “city of joy” tag. A year into millennium, in 2001, its name changed to Kolkata. Ten years before, in 1992, Hollywood’s City of Joy (from the novel of same name by Dominique Lapierre) had given the city its today’s ubiquitously used byname.
City of Joy was about rickshaw-pullers in the metropolis.
Few days following the release of City of Joy in April, 1992 Ray passed away after battling serious heart complications. And twenty four days before his death, Ray had received the Oscar for lifetime achievement.
I was eight years old in 1992. I became aware of Ray the day he passed away. Newspapers carried first page news about – what I would come to mourn later – a terrible loss. Since then, as I grew up, Ray’s movies have always reminded me of the sad day when I had realized Ray, who was no more, belonged to my city.
In Mahanagar, Ray’s first movie set in Calcutta, the city is tender, cruel, denying and comforting in turns. The movie had its share of accolades. It won awards in Berlin Film Festival. Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati, the wise housewife in the movie, was widely praised for her role. It marked the beginning of Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan’s on-screen career.
No, Mahanagar is not just about a woman’s emancipation.
It is Ray’s meditation on a family – as intimate as he could get.
Much as I would want to, Ray’s Mahangar is not part of his Calcutta trilogy (three movies set in the 1970s). It predates the political violence of the 1970s, and preserves the innocence of Bengali homes not being invaded by an army of enemies.
Arati is a traditional housewife, but she needs to work to ease up family finances. That is the conflict. She is a housewife in a joint family where elderly parents-in-law lament the invading modernity that can force housewives out of their homes. Her husband Subrata, an honest and sensitive man harrowed by financial burden, works in a private bank that might fail. When it fails, customers attack him, robbing him of his dignity, ruining his peace.
Arati has a son who would sulk when she goes out to work.
No, Mahanagar is not just about a woman’s emancipation. It is Ray’s meditation on a family – as intimate as he could get. Mahanagar is about characters in a big city. It is about characters within characters. Bani, Subarata’s sister can shake patterns of ink from fountain pens on the floor. Subrata can play a prank on Bani. Arati can be softly angry with her husband. Subrata’s father can ask his former students to help. The students can scold Subrata for neglecting his father. His father-in-law can reproach him for being inattentive to sinister developments in his office. Arati’s boss is racist, but tender towards her and her husband. Arati’s Anglo-Indian colleague Edith is arrogant but righteous. When Edith is fired by her boss, Arati fights her inhibitions and confronts her boss.
When Bengalis watch this movie, they know how creepily confidential the film’s eye is. The gestures and the silence, the said and the unsaid, the motherhood and the fatherhood are immersed in their unusual quotidian expressions. The camera sees it all. It selectively eavesdrops. Here Bani can draw the curtain when Subrata and Arati get intimate momentarily.
Talk of stereotypes in movies? Show me a stereotype in Mahanagar, and I will argue you out of it. They are all like you and me – impulsive and momentarily calm. Suspended in Sisyphusian grandeur, like the ramshackle tram of the opening scene, they are infinitesimally tragic.
In Mahanagar they are so close, so exquisitely portrayed that you can hear them breathe on your shoulders.
Picture Courtesy: BFI
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