My BL Ink column this month:
How Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) reworked Narendranath Mitra’s original Bangla short story in a manner both fine-grained and sweeping
There’s a crucial scene in Satyajit Ray’s sublime film Mahanagar (1963), in which the Bengali, middle-class, sari-clad heroine Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) is urged by her Anglo-Indian skirt-wearing colleague Edith Simmons to try on some lipstick. The two are in the women’s restroom, where they have just conducted a funny little exchange with their salaries — five of Arati’s crisp new notes for the same number of Edith’s crumpled, dirty ones. Clearly touched by Arati’s unhesitating sweet response to her somewhat childish desire, Edith offers her the lipstick. It’s new, she says, I haven’t used it (as if it matches the fresh-minted-ness of Arati’s notes).
Arati, who has until then been speaking Bangla to Edith’s English, now switches awkwardly to Hindi, shaking her head in embarrassment. “Woh le ke hum kya karega (What will I do with it)?” “Use it, stupid!” exclaims Edith, who has suddenly gone from being childish to the more experienced one. “What’s wrong with using a little lipstick? You put red here, red here, why not here?” continues Edith, pointing first to Arati’s hair parting, then her forehead, then her lips. Arati agrees: silently, but with dancing eyes and an impish smile, locking the door from inside.
That vision of Madhabi’s face, eyes lifted nervously upwards as Edith carefully applies the colour to her lips — became one of Mahanagar’s iconic stills, originally as a lobby card [above] and then as a poster. By 2013, when a restored print was released on the film’s 50th anniversary, Edith had been neatly cropped out, making Arati seem like she’s putting the lipstick on herself. Also, the original black and white is thrown into relief by making the lipstick (and Arati’s lips) scarlet.
But that’s another story. The point of my long rendition is simpler: that this scene between Edith and Arati, which became one of the film’s most well-known — and produced perhaps the most vivid visual encapsulation of Mahanagar’s themes — did not exist in the original story.
Narendranath Mitra’s story Abotaronika, which Ray adapted, was first published in Anandabazar Patrika’s Puja edition of 1949. It appeared in English in 2014, as ‘The Prologue’, in 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. Abotaronika does contain an Anglo-Indian officemate called Edith, but she is ‘Mrs. Simmons’, and introduced with a great deal more presumption and malice than in the film: she is “probably a couple of years older” than Arati, but “the way she dressed and made up her face made her look much younger,” Mitra writes. “Edith generously applied lipstick, Edith painted her nails, Edith wore beautiful skirts.”
This authorial judgement is quickly followed, in Mitra’s story, by a warning from Arati’s husband, Subrata: “Be careful! Don’t mingle with such girls.” Arati’s clarification is immediate. She doesn’t “mingle with her”, she says. In fact, she tries “to keep our conversations to a courteous minimum”, even while insisting that Edith must deal with Arati’s half-baked English because “[a]ll these years, we have tried to speak in your accent and tolerated your broken Bengali.”
Ray does away with the mutual suspicion. The cinematic Arati never justifies her friendliness with Edith. She understands her English, but responds comfortably in Bangla. While keeping some things intact — such as Edith’s spiritedness in pushing her Bengali colleagues to demand their commissions — Ray makes Edith unmarried and younger than Arati. Despite linguistic, religious and ethnic differences, the film suggests, Arati empathises with Edith. Not out of some grand principled embrace of otherness, but simply, with Ray-style humanism, as another woman striving to earn an honest living and fulfil similar dreams — Edith in the film is saving up money to be able to marry her boyfriend.
Class, also expressed in the ramshackleness of both their homes, thus seems to be part of what brings them together. In place of the office peon in the story, in the film it is Arati who visits Edith’s house. This allows Ray to have Arati witness Edith’s domestic circumstances, and be able to vouch for her illness. Arati’s climactic quarrel with her boss Mr Mukherjee — over his unfair treatment of Edith — thus becomes more believable.
There are other transformations I haven’t touched upon, such as Ray’s elaboration of Subrata’s father, a patriarch, into a weak-willed, embarrassing old man. The retired schoolmaster starts visiting his former students, begging for monetary help. This arc completes the family’s financial humiliation. In another instance of Ray’s tweaking, the East Bengal connection between Subrata and Mukherjee is deepened by the particularity of place: “Pabna”. But the gulf between them is also strengthened — by Mukherjee’s explicit references to his well-connectedness, and by a sequence where he drops Arati home in his car, while describing his wife’s “mania” about germs, and his “guilt” about pedestrians.
Mitra’s original narrative contained all the film’s eventual conflicts. I don’t mean only the ones you first notice — between Arati and Subrata, and Arati and Subrata’s parents — but also between Mukherjee and Edith, and Mukherjee and Arati. None of these conflicts are softened in the film, and yet Mahanagar is much more optimistic.
Abotaronika ended with Subrata offering only a nasty crack at his wife’s impulsive decision to resign over Edith being fired. “The actual culprit would have started office by now, with a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She’s not a sentimental Bengali woman after all.” Mahanagar’s Subrata does not cast aspersions on the Anglo-Indian character. In fact, he tells Arati she has stood up for injustice in a way he couldn’t have done. Arati vocally seeks support from her husband, and he, chastened by her open-faced honesty, actually responds. The niggling prejudice and cynicism of Mitra’s world becomes, in Ray’s, a cultural self-confidence (Arati’s Bangla) that rejects the parochial (Mukherjee) while embracing a new, just, egalitarian future (where husband and wife will both have jobs).
Like an old coat, Ray had made the story his own, ironing out some creases and refitting some badly-worn bits. He had made it new.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 26 Sep 2015.