Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Satyajit Ray's "Mahanagar"

Growing up in Calcutta, I first discovered the Indian director Satyajit Ray's films on television. His Apu trilogy from the 1950's is the stuff of legend there, and is easily among the greatest Indian movies ever made. In a country that has always been beset by enormous economic, social, and political (not to mention colonial) problems, Ray is one of the few Indian figures in the arts who has a towering international reputation. And when you hear Indians (especially Bengalis) speak of Ray, you can always detect a certain pride in their voice.

Andrew Sarris once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that even the lesser films of great directors are often far more interesting and worthwhile than the best films of merely competent, efficient, "non-auteur" directors who don't have a personal style or touch. Mahanagar ["The Big City"] (1963) feels a bit lesser than some of Ray's other works not because it is a mediocre film (far from it) but because he has made so many extraordinary films.

Mahanagar was Ray's first movie set in modern-day Calcutta. In it, a lower-middle-class family finds itself financially strapped and the young, intelligent wife (played by Bengali screen icon Madhabi Mukherjee, best known for her role in Ray's famous Charulata) decides with her husband's assent that she needs to get a job to help support the family. It turns out to be a decision that rocks the household to its foundations, destabilizing generations of carefully cultivated "tradition".

The plot and narrative arc may appear utterly familiar, but they are simply the broad brush strokes of this movie, a mere structuring device to convey its real strength, which is its incredible wealth of carefully observed daily detail.

The men of the family (the husband and father-in-law) may appear monstrously male chauvinist to Western eyes but Ray treats them with a remarkable, profound sympathy. Like Jean Renoir, he was quite incapable of creating "villainous" characters. His all-encompassing humanism wouldn't allow it.

Ray's visual conception is so economical that a mirror and lipstick become objects with a huge emotional resonance. The family lives in a small apartment and Ray makes the most of this cramped space. Through his use of close-ups, he turns claustrophobia into intimacy as the camera captures, at close range, the subtle interactions of this typical Bengali family. Thus, like every great artist, he takes constraints and, working within them, turns them to his advantage.