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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

The woman in the city: Watching Ray’s Mahanagar in 2013

A still from Mahanagar

he tired bank clerk arrives home from work and a few minutes pass before his wife brings him his tea. "Earning member ke erokom bhabe neglect korchho... (You're neglecting the earning member this way..." he grumbles, deadpan. He's not angry, but he's not entirely joking. What could I do, she replies, we'd run out of tea leaves, I had to go borrow some. And in that quiet exchange, Satyajit Ray has introduced his theme with ineffable economy: the man's claim to superior status is as breadwinner. But it is the 1950s, and the lower middle class in Calcutta is beginning to find that a single person's earnings are no longer enough to run a household. The father-in-law needs a new pair of glasses, the child's school fees haven't been paid, the mother-in-law wants zarda.

But a double income would mean the gharer bou going out to work. And once she steps outside, once she earns her own money, who knows what might happen then? It is those inherently radical possibilities that Mahanagar (The Big City) sets out to capture. At the centre of the film is Arati (the marvelous Madhabi Mukherjee), the housewife bustling about her home, urging tonics upon her father-in-law, putting a sweater on her little son, comforting her teenaged sister-in-law (Jaya Bhaduri in an endearing debut). When Subrata (Anil Chatterjee, also superb) can't get a second part-time job, he indirectly floats the idea of his wife working. But having planted the seed, Subrata is ambivalent about what fruit it might bear. When a nervous Arati asks him point-blank whether he really wants her to get a chakri (job), he first sings "Mane chaakar raakho ji" at her, then says fondly, "I might have, if you were less attractive. Having a woman like you around will distract your colleagues." It is easy sexist banter in a pre-feminist world, delivered with proprietorial husbandly affection. When he goes on to laughingly claim that he's "fearfully conservative, just like his father", and thinks that "gharer bou should stay in the ghar and not bicharan (wander)", we don't quite know whether to take him seriously. Neither does Arati. Nor, perhaps, does Subrata himself. That layering is what makes Ray's staging so masterful – gentle humour takes any edge off the moment, and yet Subrata's anxieties are revealed, coded as comedy.

rati gets a job selling a new knitting machine, and her natural forthrightness and efficiency soon begin to earn praise from her astute though possibly dodgy boss. The film swiftly inverts the earlier dynamic – Arati's diffidence gives way to confidence, while Subrata's sudden unemployment turns him into an increasingly insecure, jealous wreck. Mahanagar works beautifully in a symbolic register, using objects to signal relationships, lifestyles, ways of belonging. On her first day at work, for instance, Arati's outspoken new Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith, asks her if Subrata is her boyfriend. Arati is bemused; her English is not quite up to a quick retort. Then, with a flutter of relief, she points to the bindi on her forehead. At which the laughing Edith says, "Oh, husband", then points to the ring on her own finger, saying, "Do you know what this means?"

If the bindi signals wifely status, the ghomta flags her daughter-in-law role: she never appears in front of her in-laws without her sari pallu drawn over her head. But even though these traditional symbols of womanhood are unlikely to have been a personal choice, Arati seems to own them, rather than they her. When outside the house, for example, she never covers her head. She does not – yet – want to shed the sari itself, or the bindi. But she is happy to add new accoutrements to her persona: a purse, sunglasses - objects that represent her newly-independent status. Ray does wonderful things, for instance, with lipstick. When Edith first puts it on her, Arati demurs. You have red on your forehead and in your parting, then why not your lips, Edith asks. Arati accepts, and then rather likes the look of it. She begins to wear it regularly, but after reaching the office: knowing instinctively that it will not meet with approval at home. Then one day, Subrata finds it in her bag. He says nothing until she is preparing to leave, then lets loose a single, well-aimed taunt: "Thhonte rong maakhbe na? (Won't you paint your lips?)" The arrow finds its mark; a stung Arati tosses the offending object out the window.

It is a painful moment, the lipstick an almost predictable conduit for the husband's disapproval of his wife's newly fashionable — read Westernised — ways. But Ray has provided another layer. Much earlier, before Arati's job interview, Subrata warns her not to show up at office having eaten paan. "Why?" she says archly. "Are red lips bad?" The associations here are hard to miss. The courtesan, antithesis of domesticated femininity, was renowned for paan-stained lips. Earlier, Edith has made the link between red lips and "that old Indian book about sex".

And in that oblique, unspoken way, Ray has upturned all our easy cliches about the traditional Indian woman and the "firingi". Symbols of marital domesticity, that might have been used to separate 'us' from 'them', are used to forge a connection instead. So, too, the symbols of sexual agency, of shringar. It is not Westernisation, Ray seems to be saying, that is transforming us. Arati's lack of English does not affect her self-confidence.

Mahanagar released in September 1963, a full 50 years ago – but we have by no means moved on. You have only to watch English-Vinglish to see that we may even have reversed the flow.

 
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