Director: Satyajit Ray
Writer: Satyajit Ray
Cinematographer: Subrata Mitra
By Jon Cvack
Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) is the wife of Aarti (Madhabi Mukherjee) and daughter in law to his father Priyogapai (Haren Chatterjee), two men with very traditional views on family. When Aarti loses his job, Subrata decides to enter into the work force in order to keep them afloat. Jealousies arise and Aarti begins to resent the decision, especially after she quickly moves up the company ladder.
As with Pather Panchali (1955), Ray has an uncanny ability to make the world feel a little bit smaller than before, demonstrating that problems of gender and envy are universal in scope. While there are many elements that separate India from America, Ray is able to blur the line with such ease that it’s as though you’re watching a film that could take place anywhere in the world. Men as breadwinners, skeptical of even the slightest threat to that role, is an issue that has and currently extends across all cultures. In fact, given the plethora of American movies that later dealt with this issue in the 1970s, you could even say that Mahanager was one of the most progressive films of the period.
Watching any of the films that deal with threatened men, we know that it’s not actually the woman’s success that hurts the man. It’s the feeling of impotence. Like any relationship, there is an underlying degree of competition, differing in significance, in which some people take it very much to heart and others don’t care all that much. Yet it’s when a person is completely incapable of removing their insecurities from the equation that the problems grow. It’s not about Aarti, it’s about the fact that he can’t find a job that would allow him to succeed and provide for his family. Subrata’s success is based on a willingness to accept what she can get and give it her all, enjoying the benefits of hard work. She enjoys each and every minute because compared to having to sit inside each and every day, cooking the same meals, doing the same chores, and serving the men in her life, it is a pleasure to utilize her intellect and skills and be properly rewarded.
Regardless, the ending reminds me of Mr. Mom (1983) in it’s return to traditional structures. There’s a capitulation to the husband who urges her to return home and Subrata quits the job because she doesn’t want to hurt him. Some would argue that it’s because the boss was misogynistic or bigoted. I would agree with this. It just seemed too easy and convenient. For a text that’s so realistic I couldn’t buy it. They are dirt poor, just beginning to get their stride, the boss was willing to bring the husband aboard, and yet she was willing to give it all up, facing poverty as a result, and the husband understood and agreed. Subrata might have made the ideal and respectable choice. In the real world, though, I imagine the celebration would be very short. Such an abrupt decision when there’s a hungry child and dying grandfather was extremely selfish for what could have been resolved with twice the take home pay and provide a better life for all.
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