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Film

The Unintended Emancipation of Women in Satyajit Ray's Two Iconic Films

'Charulata' and 'Mahanagar' – Satyajit Ray’s much-applauded classics – although set in different times and socio-economic contexts, have the parallel theme of the awakening of its female lead and its impact on marriage.

In her claustrophobic apartment, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) of Mahanagar (1963), a denizen of the 1960s metropolitan Calcutta, and Charu (also Mukherjee) of Charulata (1964), in her opulent mansion in British Calcutta, inhabit different planets. The space where their worlds collide is in the unintended emancipation the women experience and the turmoil it creates in their marriage.

The forces acting on them and driving their destinies are different: financial need and market economics in Mahanagar; creative outpouring ignited by passion in Charulata. Whereas Arati’s marriage is threatened by her professional success; Charu’s is by her forbidden love. The times too contribute to their tryst: Arati is in a Calcutta where a working woman is not always a symbol of emancipation but an economic necessity. Charu, in Renaissance Bengal, is in a period conducive to her creative awakening.

Charulata, also known as “The Lonely Wife” is adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s novella The Broken Nest (1901). Mahanagar is loosely based on Descent (1949), a short story by Narendranath Mitra.

Mahanagar’s opening shot, a screeching tram, sets the tone of the film – how ruthless a big city can be to its inhabitants. Though Charulata is caressingly shot – waltzing beams and ornate interiors – Charu’s restlessness is established in the start: She’s shown flitting across shutters following a random stranger on the street through her binoculars.

In Mahanagar, Arati has to step out to let in the physical (bustling traffic, jostling crowds) and emotional (husband’s jealousy, ethical dilemmas) chaos. But for Charu, the storm literally blows into her house together with the figurative cause – the man.

Arati, the lower middle-class wife of Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), a bank clerk, lives with her small son, parents-in-law and sister-in-law in a dingy area of Calcutta. The preoccupation of this family is making ends meet – from evening chai to prescription glasses. Seeing her husband slogging away, Arati expresses her wish to take up a job (taking cue from him about a working couple). Though Subrata lectures her on how a wife’s place is at home, overnight he turns pragmatic. Next morning he scans the newspapers, finds a suitable ad, prepares an application and guides Arati to the interview. And to her new destiny.

In Charu’s case too, it is her husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) who is responsible for initiating her on the path to creativity and unwittingly discovering her latent passions. He asks his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), who’s a regular house guest, to encourage Charu to write as he senses his wife’s talent. Bhupati possibly acts out of guilt for the time he spends with his political newspaper and neglecting his young wife.

Charu falls in love with Amal: an emotional awakening that ignites her creativity. She writes for Amal’s admiration and attention – sharing her published essay with only him. Though Amal has let slip that it was Bhupati who wanted Charu to write. She still doesn’t share her success with her husband; who is hurt to learn about it from his friends. Charu sees writing as a special bond between herself and Amal. But Amal rejects this intimacy by disregarding a promise made to Charu about not publishing an essay written in the notebook she had gifted him.

Also read: Fifty Years of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’

In Mahanagar, Arati’s husband is jealous of her economic success and wants her to resign. But when his bank closes down, he has no choice but to let her continue working. Arati with her empathy and nuanced intelligence is successful at her sales job. Her boss and self-appointed mentor Mukherjee (Haradhan Banerjee) recognises her as an asset to his business. Arati performs because she wants to liberate her family from economic humdrum and help her husband. With her first salary, she gets gifts for everyone. (Unlike Charu, who sees her article as an ode to one person).

Amal takes on the role of a mentor to oblige his benefactor-cousin and enjoys it because his protégé is artistic and attractive. Though he is flirtatious (like in the piano sequence), he’s careful to include Charu’s sister-in-law in their conversations. But when Amal realises that Charu is developing serious feelings for him, he is uncomfortable.

Subrato of Mahanagar is jealous of his wife’s boss and drops in at her office to sense him out. But goes back reassured and with the possibility of work. Bhupati, on the other hand, has a trusting nature: As he tells Amal when he has been swindled by his brother-in-law that life is devoid of meaning if you cannot trust people. So he is oblivious of his wife’s growing romantic attachment to Amal.

Where finding love makes Charu introspect on what she has lost, Arati’s empowerment as the sole bread-winner brings out her altruistic side. She cares for her few-months-old Anglo-Indian friend and stands up for her. In a dramatic confrontation, Arati surprises her boss by taking an inflexible ideological stand on her friend’s behalf. The confrontation scene is compact and even stifling, in the way the camera moves from Arati to Mukherjee – both passionately rooted in their point of view.

As far as marriage goes, the couple in Mahanagar reforge their bond eventually. Earlier, we have glimpsed the couple discussing their problems at night; suggesting an innate intimacy. There is a child, old parents and a sister who are a mutual responsibility. Towards the end, the old in-laws (initially bitter about her job) embrace their daughter-in-law’s new found role.

In Charulata, the marriage is not glued with the social bond of any progeny. We know that not being a mother rankles Charu (she abruptly turns away when a mother and child pop up on her binocular’s horizon). Charu’s family comprises an assortment of visiting relatives: her brother and his wife, and a cousin-in-law. This tenuous household is shattered when her brother defrauds and decamps, destroying the newspaper. Amol leaves too; not wishing to hurt Bhupati by his presence.

Also read: What Satyajit Ray Left Us is an Inheritance of Endless Possibilities

When Bhupati finally realises that his wife is in love with Amal, he is shaken. But an uneasy truce is suggested in the end by a frozen frame of their hands almost meeting. Perhaps the couple – as discussed on a holiday – will start a newspaper together that would have arts (Charu’s contribution) and politics to rebuild their broken nest. The proposed publication could be the child they never had.

Towards the end in Mahanagar, Arati races down the steps after resigning from her job, symbolising her descent. So far we have only seen her take the elevator up. When she realises what she has done, she slows down. In her emotional distress, she meets her husband downstairs (who has come to meet the boss in the hope of job leads). Arati is afraid of her husband’s response. But surprisingly, he is supportive of her decision and proud too. He tells her, jobs make people cowards but she had the temerity to stand by her convictions.

The movie ends with an unequivocal reconciliation. Arati looks around her and says optimistically that a big city births opportunities; to find one job should not be impossible. And her husband’s rejoinder is why not two jobs. This clinches both the idealism of the Nehruvian era and a man’s acceptance of his wife as an economic partner.

We don’t know where destiny will take the two women. But it is enough to know that Arati found her ideological voice and financial independence. And Charu was brave enough to love and write her heart out.

Rehmat Merchant is an independent journalist, language coach and bookseller.