Mahanager (1963)

27 10 2008

More of the same from Satyajit Ray, though generally speaking, I’m less enthusiastic about this film than I am about Nayak. Of course, Pather Panchali still remains my favorite by a large margin, but I am beginning to get a better grip on his overall “style” which is initially a tad too simplistic. No doubt, the poetic sensory images from Pather Panchali aren’t nearly as prominent here, but that hardly makes the film a failure. In fact, Ray’s interest at this point seem to lay less in the formal and more in the personal. This does have the advantage of being perhaps the most intimate of the Ray films I’ve seen, and probably the one where the characters’ relationships are best established. Then again, they may just be a lot more interesting.

This could probably be categorized as a message film, as Ray seems to be touching upon a variety of closely related topics, all of which deal with India’s cultural progression. The main narrative point comes when the mother of the house, Arati, is forced to take a job to make ends meet. At first, this plan seems to be free of problems as Arati’s husband Subraya quickly finds her job, but Ray slowly begins to reveal how much importance the rest of family places on values. The grandparents of the house aren’t just upset by this move, they are flat-out disgusted.

This sounds almost humorous, and I admit, I actually got a chuckle out of it, but it does play in to a prominent issue addressed by many other “art” directors in the time period. Most notably, Yasujiro Ozu, who seems to be somewhat of an influence here. Ray sticks to his own aesthetics, of course, but the fact that the main conflicts come from class and family issues seems to be a gentle nod to Ozu. Also like Ozu, Ray is not preaching one way or another, but merely depicting the fact-of-the-matterness of the situation. Husband and wife both working to make ends meet is common in modern, especially American, society, but it must have been a pretty progressive statement here.

I’d hate to draw a comparison point between Ray and another Japanese director, but I can’t help but see a depiction of an “alternative version” of marriage owning something to Mikio Naruse’s Repast, which provides a much more distanced couple dealing with their issues in more drastic measures. Naruse’s film still irks people today, but Ray’s comes off as being a really well-made feminist statement. Again, he’s not preachy with these statements, but his mere observations are enough. His heroine is trapped into her family expectations: they expect her to be a housewife and while she does not want to disrespect or tear her family further apart, she also wants to maintain her independence. On paper, this all sounds a little hokey, but I honestly doubt Ray had such philosophy in his head, which is of course what makes it all work.

I feel I must stress that Ray does not use his characters as pawns to carry out these messages, or examples. They really are their own perceptively drawn-out person. It can’t be too exciting to praise film on the mere promise that it will be present full and complex characters, but there is something incredibly intriguing about seeing them interact. This is more of an actors’ film than it is a directors’. This is perfectly fine, though, as these are characters that I can’t help be eager to examine. Ray takes his time in his depictions, but that is why they are so rewarding.

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