Calcutta in the early 1960's. Bhambal supports his wife Arati, his parents, and two children. Money is tight, so Arati goes to work. She's successful and enjoys it, but this untraditional step throws the household into chaos: her in-laws initiate a "cold war" of silence and approbation. When Bhambal loses his job, her working is essential; he loses self respect, and the gulf between them widens. Arati questions whether to keep her daughter in school. At work, her friendship with Edith, a Euro-Indian who smokes, swears, and uses lipstick, brings Arati close to impertinence with her genial boss. Her job is imperiled, she acts impulsively, and who will understand her actions? Written by
Arati is a young middle-class housewife. The household includes Arati, her husband Subrata, who works as a bank clerk, their children and his elderly parents. Subrata is unable to support the entire family with his salary, and after a great deal of indecision, the couple decide that Arati must find a job. And she does so, much to the displeasure of his parents, who react with shame and anger when they find out that their daughter in-law has turned from a housewife into a working woman against tradition.
The story follows Arati's acclimation with her job as a sales woman, her growing independence, and her new relationships with people from different social and financial classes, one example being a young Anglo-Indian colleague named Edith whom she befriends. The real conflict, however, does not happen when Arati's in-laws start a silent "cold war", but when her husband himself loses his own job and Arati becomes the sole breadwinner of the family. Subrata loses self-respect and is filled with negative feelings of inferiority and shame.
This is the story of Satyajit Ray's extraordinary classic 'Mahanagar', a poignant, quiet and moving picture which depicts a whole world of conflicts resulting from modernisation and changing social and generational norms. Ray's portrayal of the urban India, its lifestyle and people, is brilliantly done. Everything about the film is, as expected, very authentic, very real and very easily identifiable with Ray's style of film-making. He makes the proceedings and the characters very interesting and very easy to relate to.
The film deals with the struggle of middle-class families to survive in the big city through their everyday hardships, but in the process, shows the gender role conflicts and criticises the hypocrisy of traditional conservativeness. One such instance is shown when Arati's father-in-law, a retired teacher who had complained that he was in need of a new pair of spectacles, now prefers going and begging from his former student rather than accepting money from his working daughter-in-law who 'breaks tradition'.
The relationships in Mahanagar are perfectly portrayed, whether it's Arati's relationship with her husband, with her kid, with her in-laws, with her employer. But the best thing about it is the portrayal of Arati's acquaintance with her new self. Her job provides her with confidence and self-belief as she grows increasingly independent, both socially and economically. Mainly due to her friendship with the Anglo-Indian Edith, who she would later stand up for, Arati learns to use lipsticks, wear dark fashionable glasses, speak more assertively and stand up against injustice, while still maintaining her individuality as a simple, unselfish woman.
Madhabi Mukherjee is astonishing as Arati. She is a natural beauty, and acts with grace and dignity. She convincingly transforms from a simple housewife into a modern and smart woman of substance, always letting the viewer sense her struggle, confusion and pain. Anil Chatterjee is great as the slightly embittered yet loving husband. Jaya Bhaduri is completely lovable and charming in her debut role. Prasenjit Sarkar is cute as a button as Pintu. Vicky Redwood is quite nice though her line delivery is often weak. Haradhan Bannerjee is very sympathetic as Arati's boss though his character is slightly prejudiced.
Mahanagar is another example of Ray's indelible craftsmanship, of his superb storytelling and his exceptional ability to tell a universal story which is both moving and educative in a simple yet very effective way. The film's pace may be a bit slow, but it is steady enough, and the picture remains thoroughly and consistently engaging and captivating. The ending is bittersweet - sad yet optimistic, satisfying and inspiring. Mahanagar is overall a beautiful social drama; a classic and fascinating piece which is highly recommended.
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