Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960) proceeds by a negative, showing by its absence the need for gender equality. Umaprasad cannot protect his wife while he is away at school; if only Doyamoyee might have been able to protect herself! Mahanagar (The Big City), on the other hand, handles its feminist material very differently—and in a contemporary setting. It is as light and easy as Devi is dark and trenchant. Mahanagar is direct and positive, arguing for the individual liberation, social enlightenment, and marital benefits that gender equality can bring. It again takes aim at the shibboleth of patriarchy—but delightfully. It’s a tonic.
Arati and Subrata Mazumdar are a couple living in Calcutta. Arati takes a job in the workday world. Initially, Subrata feels enormously threatened. In time, however, he discovers that he and Arati are indeed equals on the same side of life’s daily struggles. Arati’s liberation strengthens the marriage and, eventually, makes Subrata more comfortable in his own skin.
One of the things that contextualizes the couple is the city itself, the busyness and complexity of which seemingly help direct the psychologies that shape the Mazumdars’ marriage. Also, there is the lesser status of females that lowers expectations for them. “Is it worth it?” Subrata asks Bani, their young daughter, who is studying. “You’ll end up in the kitchen, like your mother.” But, of course, Arati gets out of the kitchen, as will Bani in due course—and more easily, because of her mother’s example.
Visually, this is not one of Ray’s more expressive films—and be prepared: the dialogues are profuse. Mahanagar is prose, not poetry. But the narrative engrosses, the style is unaffected, and the message is pure gold.
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