Satyajit Ray Elizabeth Sussex - Essay

Elizabeth Sussex

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Satyajit Ray made Mahanagar … in Calcutta in 1963. It came to the London Film Festival in 1964, and we remembered it as lightweight Ray with an especially rich quota of humour. That is how it still seems, with the humour marvellously perceptive about the little things that are really the big things of life.

This conflict within the family between tradition and progress, between the old culture and the new enlightenment, that runs through all Ray's films, is after all a feature of the human condition not just in India but everywhere, and not just in our time but always. The need to overthrow things that conceivably still matter to us, and to taste the kind of knowledge that can sever us regretfully from our roots, recurs with each generation. What is so exciting about Ray's approach to this is that he actually shows us the ambivalence of people's attitudes. Mahanagar is about a young housewife … who goes out to work for the first time, and we can see on her face the mixture of nostalgia and anticipation, fear and courage, that this occasions. When a film can get as far inside people as this, there is no possibility of its losing anything with the passage of time.

This is not to deny the importance of the precise placing in space and time. For Ray, I think, the limitations imposed by his Bengali family settings provide the disciplined framework which, in one form or another, every artist needs. (p. 157)

The ending of the film is manipulated in a manner not characteristic of Ray, as if it had been clapped on in haste, but to complain of this is to judge him by the standards that he has set himself. On a less ideal plane, it is a flaw that we might almost overlook. (p. 158)

Elizabeth Sussex, "'Mahanagar'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1968 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 37, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 157-58.