A young girl named Bani (Jaya Bhaduri) diligently studies for her exams. Her father, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) asks, “Is it worth it? You’ll end up in the kitchen, like your mother.” The words are intended to be a playful tease, but they speak volumes about the role of women in society. It is the early 1960s, and the concept of dual-income families is still alien to most households, even in the big city of Calcutta. But Subrata’s income as a bank accountant is not enough to support his extended family. His father (Haren Chatterjee), no longer able to earn a living as a teacher, spends his days working on crossword puzzles, hoping to win the prize money awarded for its successful completion. He needs a new pair of eyeglasses, and keeps reminding Subrata to call on an old pupil who is now a successful optometrist in the hopes of obtaining his services for free.
Upon hearing that a friend’s wife is working as a teacher, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) becomes convinced that she, too, should get a job, and secretly interviews with an affable, but savvy businessman, Mr. Mukherjee (Haradhan Banerjee) to sell knitting machines door-to-door. The idea of Arati going to work is met with disapproval and silent opposition by Subrata’s parents, but the couple believe that buying a new pair of eyeglasses will help thaw his stubborn father’s imposed ‘cold war’. Arati proves to be a conscientious, hard working employee, and Mr. Mukherjee finds great potential in her, believing that she is destined for management. Meanwhile, Subrati’s hypocritical father pays a visit to his former pupil, denigrating his son’s financial situation, and is offered a new pair of eyeglasses as a token of his gratitude. When Arati receives her first salary, Subrati’s father refuses her present, preferring to beg favors from former pupils rather than accept his daughter-in-law’s financial assistance. As Arati begins to succeed in her profession, Subrata becomes increasingly threatened by his wife’s financial independence, and asks her to leave her promising career.
Mahanagar is a deceptively lyrical, yet profoundly insightful examination of modern society: the obsolescence of cultural tradition, the financial instability of an emerging economy, the changing role of women. Using narrative perspective and graceful close-ups, Satyajit Ray portrays the gradual, often turbulent path taken by women on the road to independence and personal identity. Note the scene where Arati’s physical posture shifts as she sees her salary reflected in the mirror, in essence, an external reflection of her increasing self-confidence. In the beginning of their employment, the assertive Anglo-Indian, Edith (Vicky Redwood) is elected to speak for the meeker sales staff composed of Indian women. In the end, it is Arati who becomes Edith’s headstrong advocate. An early episode, showing Subrata and Arati having breakfast together, best captures the essence of social liberation in Mahanagar. Both parents eat their meals hurriedly before leaving for work. Neither one serves the other. They are seen as equals. It is a universal portrait of a contemporary family.
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