Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thoughts Sparked by Mahanagar

Saw Mahanagar last night. What a terrific film!

With each Satyajit Ray film I watch I have this growing satisfaction that this is a filmmaker I 'get' - finally. So permit me a ramble before I get to the film

Film Medium

I have a distant relationship with the medium of film, which IMO is fraught with risks of miscommunication when attempting themes which are 'far out'. I expect a film to acknowledge a natural limitedness in scope and choose modest subjects becoming of it and execute them to perfection. Themes where at no time the viewer - that is me - is struggling to grapple with the 'core' - so to speak.

When my cynicism is pierced and I react 'exactly' as the work expects me to: joy, anxiety, ball-in-throat, emotions heightened with musical cues etc. I know I am so in. There is joy in the helpless realization about the emotional vulnerab
ility that the film has managed to wrangle out of me, by managing to tease out a degree of empathy with the situations of those who people the story. Yes I said story. Shoot me, you lovers of plotlessness.

Plot and Visuals

I do not understand plotless exercises. They seldom satisfy me. Esoteric attempts where one is perpetually conscious of the huge divergence in possible 'readings' of the work do not impress me. In fact they end up annoying me. I find them tedious and I am left in no frame of mind to appreciate the technical excellence or artistic achievements that the said work may allegedly be brimming with.

And then there are those films that take 'visual medium' far to seriously for their own good, making them visuals front and center. 'A film need not mean, it just needs to be' types. How would you 'explain' a sunrise etc. There again I respectfully doff my hat through which I talk and walk away.

I am not beyond liking these in small doses. But how can a film be all about 'being there', the angles, the beautiful badlands of Nebraska etc? A film cannot be about, say, flowers. To quote one of my favourite lines, from one of my all time favourite films - Adaptation- "To write about a flower, to dramatize a flower, I have to show the flower's arc"

And last, but never ever the least, are the 'moments' and 'mood' films. I care squat how difficult an achievement it is to establish and evoke the mood. Lighting, music etc. To me these are, NOT offerings themselves - be it in films or literature. If they do not to color a story - about which, by now you would understand, I have rigid archaic expectations - they leave me cold. It is the Grand Illusion for me, not The Rules of the Game.

I generally regard critics an unenviable lot. Imagine having to opine on everything, that too under a deadline and also bear the expectation of consistently maintaining the opinion forever.
But envy does creep in, when considering someone like Baradwaj Rangan - not just for his natural gifts as a writer, but also for a frame of mind that enables him to say:
Fuck plot. Give me moments, stray moments, and I’ll walk home a happy man.

And the less I say about plausibility, the premium I set on 'believable dialogue' the better. So, overall, my views are possibly fifty years old and incorrigibly mainstream. And, as in many other things, I am possibly going into the future kicking and screaming. I can at best, try to not
let my grumpiness show.

Now to Mahanagar

A wife of a conservative household takes up a job to make ends meet. The impact on the household, its people, the changes, her social experiences and their marriage is what the film is about. Each and every one captured on screen are fleshed out wonderfully, in all their complexities, that Ray earns our deep interest in the proceedings.


What is particularly amazing is the way in which the home is painted. The child collecting the ticket, the child's own concerns quite orthogonal to the domestic situation, and the goodness of the family that humours the child are brought out with incredible ease. One would think the constraints of joint family would have been brought out well in many Indian films. But I can't recall anything half as good.

For instance...
You have the husband and wife in physical proximity - not even a private display of affection. The adoloscent sister - played wonderfully by young Jaya Bhadhuri - enters the room, sees them and exits immediately closing the screen. Of course, in such a house one cannot be beyond earshot. We the audience see her shadow as she waits a moment in the adjoining room. The wife has now moved away.

And from their sounds it can be inferred that the husband and and wife are in two different parts of the room and now it is okay for the sister to enter. All this happens in a couple of seconds - quick cuts and beautiful storytelling.

How many movies have captured quirks such as a middle-class man using his matchstick for a toothpick, an old woman cleaning up strewn about remains after a meal - suggesting the power structure in the household, a child who has become too old to lift now and makes his mother grimace (below)?

Dialogues and Believability

Some lines are trite and convenient but made convincing by acting. The old father verbally records how, as a teacher, proud as he is about the station of his students, he can't help feel jealous. A straight, self-summarizing line. But progressively the movie shows him 'changing', crossing limits of decency and sinking to new lows. It is always the first transgression that is the problem. After that the line cross becomes the standards and dictates the progress. And anyone can see the old man is 'sinking' because of the smouldering anger that things are going beyond his control.

The long line where the wife decides to take up the job, is said in quasi-soliloquy, to a half-asleep husband. Thus, the situation is easily becomes a valid justification for an unrealistically perfect enunciation of a logical sequence of thoughts.

The whole suggestion of the housewife seeking a job is fantastically dialogued. The husband comments half-jokingly about the pointlessness of his sister studying. He mentions his friend's wife working. But refuses to answer straight when his wife presses him on the question of whether he wants her to work. He even mentions the English quotation "a woman's place is her home" - but quite crucially - in a faux tone. What he intends is captured only in the weakness of his resistance to the idea, rather than in a direct suggestion from him. Or, to take an uncharitable point of view, the man does not want to take responsibility for the decision, but is content with appearing to be democratic in allowing the idea to pass. How much better can a marriage be captured?


There is something to be said about the allure of B&W camerawork. But such ambitious topics ought to be entrusted with someone more knowledgeable about the intricacies. I'll just leave you with some captivating frames and some lighting that I found impressive.

The musty gloom of the evening, punctuated by the sparks at each c
rossing of the tramway forms the entire opening sequence (first pic in the post above). Apart from the inherent loveliness, it feeds the appetite of those like
me with a dangerous proclivity for seeing symbols everywhere.

Here camera ascends the stairs, camera approaches new houses she hesitantly enters as a salesgirl (heck this is the man who made the camera hop in tune with a dance step in Charulatha. In a c
ouple of frames you have a small source of light/ reflection elevating it wonderfully.

One where the old father visits an opthamologist - a former student of his - and bares his vulnerabilities. Another is where the wife - just before entering the house after a day of work - checks to see ifshe has erased her lipstick. That she has begun to use lipstick is itself conveyed to us in this shot where she is checking that it is not there!

The recorded background running when people are driving - is something seen in many old films. Ray throws in a right-angle turn, grunts of horn, an arm hanging out of the window

And all this is to say nothing of the sounds, the radio of some neighbour, the background sounds of household chores, the distant sound of a boss yelling behind a closing door, the temple bells of an evening and so on.

Women working

The central problem about women going out, stripped off all the euphemism, is about providing an opportunity for them to be viewed as sex objects and their being provided a chance to decide on such affairs outside the confines of the home.

In Ghare Bhaire - a film that deserves an even longer ramble than this - has Ray/Tagore confronting the problem quite directly. The inability of the woman coming out, to deal w
ith the complexities of the outside world, her emotional vacillation are presented beautifully but the question of sexual vulnerability is never deflected. In fact there is a lingering sense of doom, a certain inevitability that is evoked extremely well in the film. In Pratidwandi, the sexuality of the working sister is pretty much front and center. In fact Ray achieves an aesthetic high in translating into film some extremely tricky nuances of the novel there.

Here too, the 'attractiveness' of his wife is the point of contention, inevitable insecurity. And it is not as if they enter into it with no awareness about the issue, the advertisement for the job specifically calls for 'smart and attractive' women for the sales girl position.

As the couple read the ad, those specific words, Ray captures in a frame, the adoloscent sister - in the background but listening with rapt attention. After all, isn't it her world that they are talking about.

And Ray is in perfect control throughout. With a film demanding us to understand what is running in the minds of various actors, we seem to have no problem at all given the impressive performances all around, right from Madhabi Mukherjee who plays the lead role of Arati Mazumdar, including those appearing for just a scene - like the man who plays Arati's friend's husband and jokes about the knitting machine she is trying to sell him: "knitting machine, washing machine...will they not let women do any work?"

He even teases you. The tension about the boss driving home is already built-up in the audience. He already has you anticipation a domestic disappointment, if not a showdown. He has a car honk and it is a wrong 'un. But it is the most appropriate wrong 'un ever. Because it brings a thread, you the viewer were not thinking about at that moment - but it is quite unforgivable that, that is not your central concern at that moment.

This is storytelling excellence. And a movie, will always be to me, a story well told.

Courtesy: Huge thanks to the soul who has uploaded the movie on youtube.


  1. Brilliant post dagalti. Methinks you would make an excellent reviewer of films :)

    Your point about the plot is quite ironical, since it is by reading your blog and Compli's blog that I understood the little nuances in each scene better. I used to be all about the plot too, but no longer :) And I completely agree that a movie is a story well told.

    But the thing about a movie is that you are showing so many things at once - the lighting, the ambience, the background score. It allows you to set the mood and sneak in easter eggs into the movie quite brilliantly, without affecting the normal crowd who do not want to care about such things. Whereas in the book, it becomes tedious when the author is over descriptive.

  2. Thank You Vijay.
    There is a huge difference between being able to wax eloquent about what you like and being able to objectively and fairly assess merits of a wide variety works. I am not quite equal to the latter.

    Regarding plot, I am not at all saying it is everything. Just that I do not consider it dispensible.

  3. I'll watch this movie today. I am not sure whether I would "get" him, though! It could be another jeyamohan writing or Salvador Dali painting..another one showing my limits of comprehension! :)

  4. VandhiyathEvan, do post about the movie after you have watched it.

    I think your apprehension about Ray is misplaced. I have seen a handful of his films and I find him quite accessible. His appeal does not stem from esoteric content but in presenting 'regular' content in a beautifully sculpted manner, thereby enhancing the impact.

    JM's stories are invariably accessible, if anything many accuse him of overexposition. But that partly contributes to the appeal and the overall impact, which comes out beautifully in stories such as this one

    Dali sollunga, adhu vERa vishayam :-)

  5. Finally, I saw the film yesterday and loved it. I realized only later that the young girl was Jaya Bhadhuri. She was awesome. I loved that scene where she enters, finds the couple having their private time, goes out and enters after waiting for them to be at arm's length. I also liked the way Madhabi and Jaya would say "yes" by tilting their head. Aarti sometimes was too good to be true. Whether it's throwing the lipstick away as soon as her husband remarks about it or defending her husband to her friend's husband or standing up for Edith or the way she handles her in-laws. Satyajith Ray leaves you with the longing - "I should get a wife like that"! By the way, I read your review only now. Excellent one! I didnt understand this though - // He has a car honk and it is a wrong 'un. But it is the most appropriate wrong 'un ever. Because it brings a thread, you the viewer were not thinking about at that moment - but it is quite unforgivable that, that is not your central concern at that moment.

  6. Glad you liked it.

    The boss is dropping her home and the tension is built up in the expectation by the husband and M-i-L ('she has never been this late', 'did she inform' etc.) A car honks and we expect it is the boss (with whom they have been cross-cutting in that scene. We expect a showdown - even if not impolite, something mildly unpleasant.

    But it turns out it is the F-i-L. The old man fell down in the previous scene. But we the audience completely forgot about him in this scene. Till he came, our concerns too were about the car, the social mores and the potential misunderstandings. How small of us to have such misplaced concerns!

    Many people have used this type of googly. Most famously the 'wrong door' in Silence of the Lambs. But even in this unexpected turn Ray manages achieve something more.

  7. Read the first line of your review, saw the film and came back. The film gives me hope. You have caught it so well in your prism. But my two pence :) Beautifully narrated tale. Arati's boss was a very interesting character. He comes across as a prejudiced man. But before the end, he chats with Arati's husband and promises a job that you are left ambivalent when Arati speaks her mind. But the husband confesses that he wouldn't have her guts and they look at the Big City and go along with hope. You can be a coward if you wanted to (or did not want to). But hey, you can be brave, walk out with you head held high. And in the grander scheme of things, it is not going to cost you much.

  8. //that you are left ambivalent when Arati speaks her mind.//

    Would we take a stand? Never.
    The husband presumably came to argue, how easily he is put at ease. How unquestioning he is of his prejudice.

    Much like the father who has slowly abandoned dignity and begging his students, the son's values too seem to be dictated by his position.

    And what a master Ray is to convey all this so damn well.

  9. Incidentally happened to see Adaptation today. Just came back here because I had a thought about Rangan's statement wrt Adaptation. And I see that you have written about it here (didn't pay attention the first time). Kaufman's biggest win is he, in the film, pretty much like Rangan, asks us to fuck the plot and go for the mood and ends up giving us a fucking plot with mood. Ace.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I re-read this today and watched the film again.


    For me, as someone pointed out here, Mr. Himanshu's character was most interesting. Yes, maybe he comes out as a prejudiced man at the end, but aren't we all a little to impatient to treat a subject without any objectivization for our own (or sometimes, others) convenience? What does one do in a big city at the other side of the table?

    The fact that he (the boss) and the husband were from the same city equates (is similar) to him having a little too much knowledge about Anglo-Indians in general (context-in Kaidhigal dhaane nambellam?). This is how opportunities are born, with compromises, not out of thin air. Someone has to judge and somehow I see Himanshu more human because of this - note that he tells he is busy irritatingly as he is cutting a call during the climax confrontation- he is clearly not enjoying this.

    Yes, indeed, Arati would've done different (not so irritated maybe, but more beautifully perplexed as seen in many shots) if she was on the other side of the table. Or would she? (If she is so efficient, would she have secretly raised the salary of an employee by Rs.50 that too, in discretion?)

    //being provided a chance to decide on such affairs outside the confines of the home//- This is so key.

    The husband supportive of Arati's decision in the end sold out so easily! I kept wondering why, why and why. In fact, the ambivalence of the husband's thoughts are only in silence with cigarette smoke, but works out in such great balance. In the end, I justified it with the romance (oh what romance with the eyes) between the husband and the wife in so many small shots. They chirp like two little birds.

    Simply beautiful.

    1. //This is how opportunities are born, with compromises, not out of thin air.//
      இதை ஆட்டோ பின்னாடியே எழுதி வைக்கலாம் போல இருக்கே.

      //(oh what romance with the eyes)//
      Oh it's brilliant.
      And what a moment. He is doubly humbled. First because he is ashamed of the indignation, which was fuelled by his insecurity. And then he sunk further by capitulating and letting the indignation disappear by selling out. How tall his wife stood compared to him. It is only now that he feels they can take on the city.