Celebrating the genius of Satyajit Ray through one film

By Mayank Chhaya

Mayank Chayya

To watch any Satyajit Ray movie is to watch his meticulous attention to detail. To watch his 1963 classic Mahanagar on his 102nd birth anniversary today is no different.

There is a way to describe my engagement with Ray films. Both in my mother tongue Gujarati and the language I naturally slip into, Hindi, there is an expression for my condition. मुझे सत्यजीत रे की लत पड़ी है. एक तरह से बीमारी है जिसका सिर्फ एक ही इलाज है. उनकी फ़िल्में देखना. (I am addicted to Satyajit Ray. The only cure to that addiction is to watch his films.)

I will come to the visual brilliance of Ray’s film in a bit but a few observations first about small meticulous detailing of the surroundings. In the case of Mahanagar, it is a near claustrophobic home of the Mozumdar family. Apart from the six human members of the household, there are things everywhere, in every corner, on top and under everything. One such thing I noticed immediately was a pesticide pump, a bug sprayer, a Flit gun if you will, of the 1950s and 60s and even 70s that most Indian households. There were all sorts of bugs to battle. Our family had it too and I still have the smell of the pesticide fresh in my nostrils after so many decades.

I kept catching the Flit gun on top of an almirah in many scenes and thinking about the unspoken rule of dramas that if a prop keeps being visible, there has to come a time when it is used as part of the narrative. I mean as home stuff goes there is so much in the Mozumdar household but for some reason the Flit gun kept nagging me. Sure enough, about 28 minutes into the film Sefalika Devi playing Sarojini starts sprayed it around the area where her husband Priyogopal, Haren Chatterjee, sits almost all day. I felt strangely relieved that the pump was indeed used.

Mahanagar is a masterclass in many things that most Ray films are—camera movement, lighting, framing, editing, shots, production design and of course performances. Speaking of performances, it is amazing how uniformly outstanding each one of them is, including by the 15-year-old Jaya Bhaduri making her debut. She turns in an outstanding performance as Bani, the protagonist Subrata, Anil Chatterjee’s, sister. There is such effortlessness in these performances that barely a few moments into it and you forget you are watching fictional characters.

In this particular case, I would attribute it to Haren Chatterjee, Priyogopal the conservative family patriarch, simply because the film almost opens with him. Every character in the film, even those with barely discernable presence, look credible. I have been to Kolkata only once, in the 1990s, and during that brief visit I could not but help notice that so many real people there looked like they may have walked straight out of a Ray film. In other words, Ray superbly reflected what he saw around him and then gave them a cinematic edge.

Mahanagar’s story is about a lower middle-class family in the 1950s, where the breadwinner, Subrata, makes just slightly less money than what is needed to maintain lower middle-class dignities. They are not exactly hand to mouth, but their hands are often to their mouths metaphorically. The family patriarch Priyogopal, and his wife Sarojini, portrayed superbly by Haren Chatterjee and Sefalika Devi respectively, loom large over the family without really looming large. The daughter-in-law, Aarti, the ever-fetching Madhabi Mukherjee, is painfully aware of the family’s finances because it is her husband Subrata, Anil Chaterjee, who earns the money. Anil has a teenage sister, Bani and a son, Pintu, Prasanjit Sarkar.

It is not a poor family but one which is constantly haunted by the prospects of penury. Being conservative there are taboos, one of which is that the daughter-in-law cannot/must not work but Aarti has a different idea. As it often happens in Ray films, the intimations of conflict are subtle early on but not the kind where it acquires the dimension of a visible upheaval. There are clear hints that penury is at hand. Soon enough Aarti begins to broach the possibilities of her doing “chakri” or a job. There is quietly humorous scene where in the middle of their sleep she wakes up and insistently talks about chakri. “Tumi chao na ami chakri kari. Boloto…ki,” she importunes. (Don’t you want me to work? Tell me. What?)

Eventually, she does get a job as a door-to-door saleswoman and in the process upends her family’s entrenched ideas about the role of the daughter-in-law. Priyogopol looks distraught when Subrata first breaks the news to him. Although Subrata is supportive of Aarti’s ambitions but just about. One can sense that the veneer of his acceptance is rather thin and can rupture any time and it does as Aarti makes rapid progress as a top performer at her job. She begins to discover a new sense of independence and confidence. As if to illustrate that Ray introduces a colleague called Edith, an Anglo-Indian played by Ricky Redwood. I presume her anglicized background and Aarti’s growing friendship with her are supposed to suggest her rebellious independence from the oppressively humdrum atmosphere at home.

An increasingly insecure Subrata asks her to quit her job but before that can happen, he loses his, making life in the Mozumdar household even more upended. I am not going to tell you the whole story other than saying that in a wonderfully nuanced way Ray captures the lower middle-class angst of an India barely a few years from her own independence. At the risk of overreading it, Aarti’s independence is as hobbled as India’s at that point.

There is a scene where Aarti is leaving home on the first day of her work. In the foreground of the elevated verandah cum kitchen cum dining room you see her mother-in-law picking up a dirty platter as well as gathering scraps of rice and other food from the floor. In that one powerful scene Ray creates a terrific contrast between the lives of the two women—one on the verge of a new independence and the other still trapped in oppressive domesticity.

I chose just one film to mark this master’s 102nd birth anniversary today because it has all the trimmings of his genius. Mahanagar was Ray’s first film shot entirely and based in Kolkata, a city that was his muse. Although much of the film unfolds early on within the cloistered apartment of the Mozumdars or offices, you do get a feel for the urban setting quite clearly.

That brings me to the movie’s cinematography by Ray’s trusted and longtime collaborator, the legendary Subrata Mitra. Above all else, I am a visual person. I noticed the visible first in any movie and then the auditory next. Mitra, who shot many of Ray’s masterpieces including his first Pather Panchali, does an astonishing job of producing a visual feast in a cramped apartment cluttered with household goods. Of course, he ought to have done it under Ray’s expert eye but still to be able to offer so many vantage points on any scene in such a narrow place speak to his mastery over the craft as well as his intuitive understanding of Ray’s awe-inspiring sense of cinema.

I am naturally short of verbal flourishes to capture the movie’s visual brilliance. All that I can say is Ray and Mitra together create such visual orderliness even out of ordinary everyday objects in a lower middle class dwelling in an Indian city just after her chaotic independence. There is not a frame out of place or a shot unnecessary. A cinematic economy is imposed without losing any of Ray’s well-known cinematic resplendence.

In a career spanning nearly four and half decades Ray made 36 films. As his official website points out, Ray also wrote screenplays of all his films, operated the camera and composed music for most of the films and many of his films are based on his own stories.

Born on May 2, 1921, in what is described as an “intellectual and affluent family’ where his grandfather Upendrakishore Ray and father Sukumar Ray were both distinguished artists, writers, painters, illustrators and musicians. Not that artistry can be inherited by Satyajit Ray surpassed the two and did much more himself in terms of the sheer diversity of his skills.

It has been three decades, Ray’s death on April 23, 1992. There had not been before him and there has not been since an artist of his diverse genius in India. Quite apart from being one of the world’s all-time great filmmakers, Ray was an accomplished editor, typographer, illustrator, music composer, costume designer, and writer. In short, he did not need anyone.

To my reckoning he was the only Indian filmmaker with pure cinematic sensibilities in terms of his shot movements and frames. There have been some others, but they do not rise to his league. If you are an admirer of Satyajit Ray, and there are pretty good chances that some of you are, may be not to the extent of it becoming an ailment as it has in my case, I suggest you watch the two-minute trailer of the absolutely enchanting Apu trilogy. There is more cinematic accomplishment in those two minutes than what most filmmakers would accumulate in a lifetime.

This might be controversial to say but there is just no filmmaker in India who has achieved even five percent of Ray’s visual brilliance. that I referred to. It is on YouTube. You can find it with Apu Trilogy trailer in the search. Even if you don’t watch an entire film by Ray today, I suggest you watch the two-minute trailer. If nothing else, those two minutes will showcase for you some captivating images from this absolute master of cinema and strains of a famous score by another master, Pandit Ravi Shankar for Pather Panchali.


Related posts