4 October 2008

MAHANGAR / THE BIG CITY (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1963, India) - And yet another masterpiece

On the cover to the Vol. 1 box set of the new Satyajit Ray DVD collection is a prior warning about the state of the transfer, but Artificial Eye and everyone involved in the production and release of this DVD really have acquitted themselves commendably, demonstrating how digital restoration is becoming an increasingly important act of cinematic preservation that any film maker had they been alive today would have surely endorsed with great fervour. 'Mahangar', 'Charaluta' and 'Nayak' may at first seem unrelated but look closely and the feminist vein becomes revealingly transparent in how Ray repeatedly placed the female character at the centre of an episodic narrative. Focusing on the emergence of an educated, progressive Indian middle class that is eager to do away with the backward looking traditions of an older generation out of step with the exponential rate of change, the story traces the emotional journey of Arati, a housewife who is forced to take on a part time job as a sales girl, and the many social challenges she must face as she becomes financially independent.

Though much of Ray’s approach to cinema stems from the traditions of Italian neo realism, his distinctly understated and sparse visual style shares parallels with the work of another influential world cinema director; Robert Bresson, also making his ascendancy in film at the time. Ray’s observational approach, more or less rendered the camera invisible, and blurred the barriers between fiction and documentary, so much that everything that unfolds and appears within the frame seems effortless and not forced in anyway. An expert at directing his actors, Mahangar features a strong set of performances from the cast including Madhabi Mukherjee, in what would be her first of many collaborations with Ray. Unlike genre films that require a leap of faith and the suspension of disbelief, watching any Ray film demands no such commitment as we rarely question the authenticity and conviction of his actors and the situations that they find themselves in.

Such desire for understated realism can still be found in the films of Ken Loach, but Mahangar is a film that defies the cynicism that we traditionally associate with notions of realism, and repeatedly, like the neo realist masters in Italy, Ray never damned humanism, always directing blame at tradition, and acting as a courageous voice for the inequalities and injustices suffered by those in the minority, especially women. The recurring thematic motif of hypocrisy and how it preoccupies the patriarchal domain of contemporary Bengali society manifests itself most clearly in the character of Arati’s softly spoken, benevolent husband who likes to see himself as somewhat of a progressive, liberal. However, once Arati begins showing signs of economic prosperity and independence, his initial feelings of personal liberation soon transforms into a form of self imposed humiliation, especially after he loses his job at the bank and begins to act feverishly paranoid about what his wife gets up to at work.

Many great films have been made about the affects of the city upon the individual, and though Ray embraces the acceptance of women in the workplace as a step forward, he is fiercely critical about the overwhelming nature of a city that enriches, consumes and destroys those who cannot make the compromises in exchange for social and economic mobility. By the end of the film, both Arati and her husband are shown to be unemployed, and Ray chooses to finish here, purely to demonstrate how happiness can come out of the most despairing of moments; Arati’s feeling of happiness is both truthful and strangely uplifting.

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