Released in 1963, Mahanagar (The Big City) is a tale of the age-old conflict between tradition and modernity. It is also the first film where Ray sought to explore contemporary Calcutta (the film is set in the mid-1950s), bringing to life the claustrophobic lives of the lower middle-class. Based on a short story by Bengali writer, Narendranath Mitra, Mahanagar is the tale of an archetypal middle-class Bengali family – the Mazumdars – Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), a bank employee with a modest income, who lives in a cramped quarter with his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), his four-year old son, Pintu, his parents, and his teenage sister, Bani (Jaya Bhaduri). The film traces the shifting dynamics and conflicts within the family as Arati evolves from the quintessential traditional housewife to a career woman, later emerging as the family’s sole breadwinner.
Though Ray himself was not too familiar with the milieu, Mitra’s detailed and nuanced description in his short story, Abataranika, and the painstaking research by art director, Bansi Chandragupta, brought to life the ambience of lower middle-class Bengali life. The cramped living quarters – ‘a dingy first floor affair with three small rooms, a small courtyard and a makeshift kitchen’ – underlined the claustrophobic lives of its inhabitants. In a letter to Marie Seton, Ray described the sets as ‘the smallest rooms ever built!’ The rooms had four walls (a novelty at that time in Bengali film industry), none of which were removable on wheels. The lack of space and mobility is evident in the film – there are hardly any long shots. The feeling of cramped and somewhat forced intimacy is supplemented with radio music and other sounds from the neighborhood. In most Bengali middle-class homes in the 1950s, the radio occupied a position of ubiquitous permanency, functioning on the notion that “radios were invented to be played from the moment they start relaying to the time the station goes off the air.” (Robinson) In his shooting notebook, Ray had listed all the songs and programs the family would be listening, ‘and when the radio stops, the ensuing silence, which is soothing, gives way to very intimate scenes between the couple.’ (Ray in Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye)
But Mahanagar is more than simply an exploration of middle-class lives; it is a scathing commentary on the social mores and conventions prevalent in 1950s Bengali society. For Andrew Robinson, Ray’s biographer, the film is a portrayal of a “hypocritical, herd-like tendency…one of the pernicious facts of Bengali life” – “Each is playing a role, concerned about what ‘they’ – Bengalis in general – will think. The effect is to paralyze their own independence of mind.” (Robinson, The Inner Eye) It was Ray’s attempt to expose in the film this herd-like tendency, the Bengali’s deferential attitude to societal norms and expectations.
Mahanagar is as much about the Bengali middle-class as it is about its protagonist, Arati. Robinson describes Arati as “the family’s anchor” – “One would perhaps describe her putative western counterpart as ‘bustling around’, but in Arati’s actions there is no display, no ego; she is the family’s anchor, not its figurehead.” (Andrew Robinson, The Inner Eye) Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati, could relate to her so well that she almost didn’t feel she was acting – ‘The character was so real. I seemed to know her. She was like someone I had seen.’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye) Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati, was not Ray’s discovery, but her best work has undoubtedly been in his films. Ray first noticed her in Mrinal Sen’s Baisey Sravan (The Wedding Day), and decided to cast her on the basis of that performance; he had been looking for the right actress for Arati’s role since 1956. The actress, who later became a popular star in mainstream commercial Bengali cinema, is primarily remembered for her Ray films – the middle-class Bengali woman in Mahanagar, the lonely hausfrau in Charulata (The Lonely Wife), and the jilted fiancé in Kapurush (The Coward).
The role of Arati’s husband, the mild-mannered and affectionate Subrata, was played by Anil Chatterjee, who had earlier appeared in the Ray films, Postmaster (1961) and Kanchenjunga (1962). For the role of Subrata’s father, a cantankerous retired schoolmaster, he approached Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali theatre (and Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee’s mentor) but Bhaduri turned him down with the words, ‘In films the actor doesn’t act – only the director does. What’s the point of taking me?’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye) Mahanagar was also the debut vehicle of Jaya Bhaduri, who later became a critically acclaimed actress in middlebrow Hindi films and married Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
What makes Mahanagar truly timeless, and not merely a look at 1950s Calcutta is the real tension that plagues Arati – whether she should try to please everyone or just please herself – an issue that is perennial and relevant for the Indian woman even today. As Robinson emphasizes, “For the Indian woman the conflict can be particularly acute, because those close to her expect more than is expected of women in the West. As Arati’s husband tells her, with an affectionate but not ironic smile, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ Expressed in English as it is in the film, the proverb gives the western viewer a small jolt, but it is an authentic sample of a Victorian value system that still roosts in more orthodox circles in Bengal.” Interestingly, Ray initially wanted the English title of the film to be A Woman’s Place instead of The Big City, but the idea did not catch on.
As with his other literary adaptations, Ray made a significant change in the cinematic version – unlike Mitra’s short story where the daughter-in-law is berated by her in-laws for resigning from her job, in Mahanagar Ray employs a ‘semi-optimistic’ ending. Arati expresses the hope, ‘What a big city! Full of jobs. There must be something somewhere for one of us’, and both husband and wife walk off into the evening crowd of Dalhousie Square (Calcutta’s bustling office district), with a more serene and mature version of the theme music in the background. As Ray describes, ‘They’re optimistic because they’ve come together emotionally, after a long period of separation that’s psychological. It’s the kind of optimism where they know it will be very difficult to find jobs, but at least for the time being they are again husband and wife.’ (Robinson, The Inner Eye)