Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Class Act

A person changes.  The effects are at first so subtle nobody notices them, although very quickly a threshold is crossed and we discover that a new kind of person has emerged out of the chrysalis of the old.  An increase in confidence, an assurance in one’s own opinions and an ability to articulate them are all signs that Arati is now a working woman.  She has the spirit of independence, which the household recognises before she does.  This is not what anyone expected.  The balance of power has shifted.  And it is too late to turn back. For once a culture goes it cannot be reclaimed; one change leads to a thousand changes, until nothing is left of the old ways except superannuated custom.

A sensitive husband of a high caste family is used to a domestic economy run by his wife.  Everything he wants is provided for him with skill and assured regularity; even her comforting smile is always there when he needs it.  Once home he no longer has to worry.  Nor does he have to think.  His house a place of comfort and solicitude.  It is the women do all the difficult things.  A beautiful wife is like a finely decorated sofa, practical and pretty, and always ready to take her husband’s weight.  Ummmm! zzzzzzzzz….  Within such a strict division of labour a man can express his identity, which is an essentially public one, without reserve or resistance.  His honour exists outside the home, and gives him a high status within it, even though he relinquishes all authority there; the wife the éminence grise of the family fireside.  Conflict occurs only when the husband can no longer satisfy its needs; the danger of old age, exemplified by Subrata’s father, who pollutes the atmosphere with his failure and his dissatisfaction.  

This division of labour is a fruitful one.  These two different spheres of activity generates two qualitatively different ways of looking at the world; a good in itself, and a precious safety valve in times of familial strife.  Husband and wife, because they are not competing on the same territory, can resolve the inevitable tensions of any marriage; providing both are reasonable people, and the family does not suffer a catastrophe.  Two worlds coexist inside this home.  They act like reinforced concrete, fusing different materials together to cement the relationship.  This is its strength.  The wife runs the home and lets her husband waffle on, knowing that here his talk is irrelevant nonsense.  His words have no effect at all!  He of course believes otherwise, and experiencing no resistance to his views he feels a power that he does not in fact possess.  It is the necessary illusion for a happy existence.

But life is changing in India, and the greatest effects are on the middle classes.  Priyagopal is a retired teacher.  His profession is a poorly paid one and he himself is now impoverished.  To survive he and his wife have come to live with their son.  It is an extra expense that Subrata can barely afford; the cumulative costs of the home, which includes the new consumer goods, his parents’ welfare, and his daughter’s education, are exceeding his income, and he has began to suffer the stress of an unsustainable lifestyle.  One day he makes an off-hand remark about how a friend’s wife has gone out to work.  It makes Arati think for herself. 

Whilst in bed Arati worries over the cares of her husband.  She believes that it is not fair that he should carry the whole burden of the family by himself: such a weight is too heavy for such a man.  And so Arati makes a decision.  She too will go out to work, even though she has received no higher education and has had no experience of paid employment.  

We are shown the immediate cause of the decision, but the wider socio-economic background remains hazy.  Is the household suffering because costs are going up, a middle class man no longer able to support an extended family on a single income?  Or are the older professions losing status and thus wealth?  Or is consumer pressure encouraging the middle classes to buy more things – Arati persuades her son to accept her decision by a promise of a new toy -, for which one salary is inadequate?  Is the changing social structure to blame?  Such changes putting more costs onto the family – their daughter is studying, even though her father (surely wrongly) believes that she will grow up to be a traditional housewife.  Or perhaps it is the city itself: Priyagopal has lost his spectacles while out on the streets, and then moans constantly that he cannot see - there is no money to buy a new set.

After some initial resistance, and her own change of mind, Arati decides to go out to work.  At first Subrata takes the whole thing light-heartedly; thus when they look at the job advertisements in the newspaper he treats it as a joke; a curiously indirect comment on his father’s obsession with the crosswords - there are prizes for successful entries - that his wife believes is ruining his eyes.  This changes when Arati does find a job; Subrata suddenly becoming tense, wary of telling his father whom he knows will disapprove.  A revolution has begun, producing all the painful choices that only a few could have foreseen; for it is not easy to imagine what actually happens when a fantasy becomes real.

Priyagopal is angry.  He believes it is a slight on the family: “we were far poorer than you but the women never had to work”.  Unable to exert his authority he goes into self-exile within the home; refusing to speak to his Subrata, and cutting himself off from the rest of the family.  Poor and pathetic, and addicted to crossword puzzles, Priyagopal goes into a sad decline.  After first asking his wife for money to enter a competition, he then loses all dignity, visiting his old students begging for help.  His behaviour degenerates, until he ends up libelling his son, whom he accuses of mistreating him. He has suffered a complete mental breakdown.  It is the collapse of an old order, which has lost all its power - it is the opticians, lawyers and doctors who are in demand and therefore successful, not the teachers (the Brahmins?) who taught them.  Weak and ineffectual he has become dependent on the new generation whose mores he condemns and whose beliefs and ways of life he refuses to understand or accept.  He is out of date.  And he knows it.  When the collapse finally occurs, a clever scene that mingles the psychological with the social - Priyagopal has a heart attack and the doctor who brings him back home abuses Subrata for what he thinks is his heartless behaviour -,  he recognises the shameful things he has done and confesses his degradation and guilt.  His son loves him, and so they are reconciled. The bonds of kinship still hold. 

His wife is more amenable.  After an initial reserve she is brought around when Arati buys her some chewing tobacco.  Although Sarojini is not as shallow as this act suggests: she is far more aware than her husband of the strain their presence is putting on the family, and she is more open to the changes that must take place if Subrata is to accommodate them in his house.  She also benefits in other ways from Arati’s employment; once more she is needed; and busy again her importance in the household increases.  With her daughter-in-law out to work her dignity has returned.  Change is hard to resist, and its effects are complex and unpredictable, though this doesn't stop people’s first reactions being crass and conservative.  The very indeterminacy of the future is a threat that frightens most of us.  Much better to stick to the safety of the known, however poor that may be.  It is only the maladjusted or the exceptional who welcome a revolution…

When Arati leaves the house we are reminded of a similar scene in Home and the World when Bimala crosses the threshold between the inner and outer apartments to meet her husband’s old friend Sandip, the charismatic nationalist leader.  Both scenes have an epic quality, recording moments that are monumental in their significance, though here the transgression is subtler and quieter, as befits a lower middle class family who are following a fashion not creating one.  When Subrata leaves her at the entrance to the office building a long shot frames Arati in the doorway.  This is the last time he will see his “old” wife.  At this moment Arati looks extraordinarily beautiful and fragile; she is like a delicate portrait painted by a master.  Thus on the verge of “losing” his wife Subrata sees her in the full freshness of first love.  It is a sentiment that is very strong in this director – the same theme of loss enhancing love occurs in all three stories of the Three Daughters, as well as in Home and the World.  His characters have to leave the past behind.  But oh how wonderful that past looks! on the threshold of departure.

At first it seems Arati will be too timid to do the job, which appears hard, demeaning and unrewarding: she sells knitting machines from door to door.  Appearance belies actuality.  Arati has a (quiet) presence which charms others; on her very first day she persuades a wealthy woman to buy a machine; while she quickly makes friends with the other employees, nearly all of whom are women.

Here is the secret of the film: the unobtrusively complex character of Arati.  As well as being beautiful she is amazingly versatile, but in a subtle and almost invisible way.  Her charm, her ability to improvise, her quiet intelligence, together with her innocence, combine to seduce others, who find her both attractive and believable.  All these characteristics are brought out in a performance that is extraordinary for its range and subtlety.  To give one example… Although remaining essentially the same person we watch Arati develop into a different kind of woman; confident and insouciant in the house – where she expects Subrata to do things for her –, sharp and flamboyant in public; this persona brilliantly realised in a café scene where she bewitches an old friend by flirting with him: applying her makeup and tossing her head about she says quite nonchalantly that she works only for fun, as her husband earns lots of money. This is the one time in the film that Arati looks like a completely different character.  A stupefied Subrata watches this astonishing performance from only a few tables away; his face mirrored in the glassed column, which heightens the artificiality of the occasion.

India is changing.  At work Arati befriends Edith Simmons, an Anglo-Indian who becomes the leader of these young female employees - she is the only one with experience of work, and so knows about the conditions and wages of similar businesses.  Demanding justice she upsets the boss, whom she forces to pay higher bonuses.  It is an episode that reveals a latent prejudice.  Mr Mukherjee asks Arati why a group of Bengali women allowed an Anglo-Indian to be their spokesperson.  He then goes to say that if she, Mrs Mazumdar, had asked him it would have been much more pleasant, and he would not have refused her request.  It is an obvious ploy, and we don’t believe Arati is taken in by it.  Nevertheless, the owner, himself a Bengali, has spoken a truth - he has recognised the special qualities of an employee whom he will later employ as a supervisor.  Anglo-India may begin with all the advantages, but it is Bengali talent and Bengali prejudice that will dominate contemporary Calcutta.

Edith is more modern and confident than Arati.  She wears European dresses and is not afraid to speak her mind.  But these are weaknesses in independence India.  Her position in the firm is vulnerable, and when she falls ill the boss sacks her, leading to a climacteric scene where Arati comes to the aid of her now distraught friend. 

Arati Mazumdar is a deceptively strong person.  She is much stronger than her husband, whose employment has weakened his moral character.  Struggling to support his family his relief is palpable when Arati offers to find a job; thus the comic scene with the newspaper ads.  Inevitably his attitude changes when Arati becomes a success.  Gradually he takes against the idea, unable to cope with her independent spirit which makes her less yielding than before.  Arati has changed.  Subrata cannot say exactly what these changes are, and in truth they are not easy to articulate, though we are aware of the newly confident and self-possessed atmosphere that surrounds his wife.  It is this aura that diminishes him.  He becomes sad, which he blames on his father’s intransigence – he hasn’t spoken to his son for months.  But this is not correct.  Subrata cannot accept the diminution of his role.  He feels the loss of his own sense of effortless power; Arati no longer the obedient servant who fulfils all his wishes; so that the old formula of desires equal words equal commands no longer applies in this house.  Home is now another kind of office; a place of self-restraint and compromise; and…work!  The old freedoms, together with the old unconsciousness, has gone.  Subrata would never say this, he is too kind and sensitive, and too weak, to speak such incisive thoughts.  Instead he feels it.  Though Arati is not altogether truthful either.  She started work to make them solvent; and this is the reason she now gives for staying at the firm.  Not true!  She should say that her life has been transformed; that she actually likes her job, and she enjoys the new range of experiences and the feelings that they produce.  She should tell Subrata that she doesn’t want to give them up, because they mean too much to her.  But the changes have been too significant for such potent words to be spoken. Under pressure from her husband Arati agrees to resign.  The old ways can still stifle the modern spirit.

There is a run on the bank where Subrata works.  It closes and he becomes unemployed.  Arati cannot now resign, as the entire household depends on her salary.  A revolution has occurred!  We see its signs in the interactions between wife and husband: in one scene Arati unconsciously asks Subrata to get something while she prepares to go out - it is exactly what he did when the film began.  The roles have reversed!  Though not completely… Subrata retains a man’s mentality: depressed at his inability to find a job he slips into mental decline.  It is easier for women to accept this new dispensation; the men are less plastic and more conservative; inclined to complain they do not try out new things. Subrata should work around the house, study, or find a different kind of employment.  Instead, he becomes a hopeless case.

Satyajit Ray finds in a stick of lipstick a symbol for these changes.  A gift from Edith, Arati uses it clandestinely, rubbing it off before she returns home; a wonderful image and metaphor for those invisible changes that are occurring inside her.  Later, when Subrata loses his job and sits on the bed moping, she asks him to fetch something from her handbag; he finds the lipstick, and there is an angry scene, which culminates in her throwing it out of the window.  A blip.  We know she will continue to use it; her makeup part of her public persona that she uses to beguile the customers. 

Subrata simply doesn’t have the quality of his wife.  At work he is lax and complaisant.  This causes his relatives to lose money - as a departmental manager he should have known that the bank was in crisis and alerted them before it crashed.  His argument, that he asked his superior who told him that everything was ok, shows a lack of curiosity and subservience to corrupt authority that forfeits all respect.  Subrata is a good and kind man; but he is also weak and un-dynamic, two qualities that will not serve him well in a city the size of Calcutta.  He is a victim of the metropolis, even though when we first see him - sitting on a tramcar returning home from work - he looks like the archetypical big city man.

Arati is something new.  She is a modern woman. Someone who can adapt to the old world and the new, and who is indispensable to both – both her family and her boss come to utterly rely upon her.  Arati has a self-contained, somewhat reserved, character which hides enormous strength, and which wins her the respect of everyone she meets; few can resist her charms or her beauty or her efficiency – she is the best salesgirl in the team.  She is also unpredictable.  Even before she goes out to work she is independent enough to have her own values and sentiments; thus she has the imagination to conceive of working outside the home; a radical break from this family’s tradition.  But there is more to it than that…  

When the bank collapses Arati rushes into Mr Mukherjee’s office and asks for a pay rise.  He reluctantly agrees, although it appears that he is misleading her – he was about to promote Arati to supervisor, which would have meant a wage increase anyway.  Nevertheless, he agrees to her request with a good heart – he likes and needs her, after all -, and then goes on to say: “Mrs Mazumdar, you are an impulsive woman”.  It is precisely this quality that gives Arati her freedom.  What matters to her is her feelings for her family and for her friends; these sentiments arising out of her socialisation within old India, where personal relationships are more important than the abstract relations governing institutions and companies; of these latter she remains completely unaware.  This freedom is to have momentous effects.

Mr Mukherjee, himself a complex and likeable character whose hidden depths are suggested but not explored – taking Arati home in his car he says he likes to pick up strangers just to give them a ride -, suddenly sacks Edith.  Arati runs into his office and tells him he is not being fair, and that he must change his mind and apologise for his actions!  Under the force of her indignation, and the force of her sense of justice, Mukherjee seems to momentarily fall apart; reminding us of her son Pintu when he first complained about his mother going to work.  But this is going too far!  Mukherjee will not give in, and tells Arati that she has no right to act in this way.  This cannot stop her!  She resigns, unaware that he had earlier that day agreed find Subrata a job (they come from the same region in Bengal).

She rushes out of the office, and meets Subrata on the stairs.  She is distraught.  Her greatest worry is her husband’s reaction – at first sight he seems angry at the news.  “No”, he says, “I am not shocked,” and then he reflects how work makes us all weak.  For him a job does inculcate a sense of subservience, because he is afraid of the consequences of losing it. He is scared to live without paid employment.  Lacking his wife’s impulsive nature he cannot share her freedom.  Though he does admire her courage.  And he loves her dearly.  The couple are quickly reconciled, and we see them walking through the streets together, a light bulb hanging above them.  

We know they will survive, even thrive in this uncertain world.  Although we wonder about Arati’s daughter.  Through her formal education she will acquire her father’s ways of thinking, which include his fear of losing a job; this fear greater than his feelings for other people; such feelings the source of Arati’s liberty; a liberty she exercises when she first enters public life.

Satyajit Ray has captured a moment in time, a moment when a woman, existing within the interstices of the old and the new, has found a freedom whose source is the quality of her own soul, which has been nurtured in her private life, itself the product of the culture into which she was born.  And Ray has captured this moment in images that are both beautiful and complex.  We have spent the last few hours watching freedom emerge.  It has been rich and glorious!  Unfortunately, such moments do not last for long.

(Review of MahanagarThe Big City)

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