Sunday, 17 August 2014

Only One Lepidopterist Here

Penelope Houston was a great critic.  We imagine her in a long skirt and a tightly fitted blouse, whose pearl buttons go all the way up to the neck; which she covers with a ruffle of fine lace.  In her hands she has a long pole with an enormous net which she swishes over a meadow of wild flowers; the tall unruly grass undulating around her hips. The net goes down.  It rises up again.  And her face smiles out in exultation….

Let us look at her in action, as she uses her words to capture the essence of a masterpiece. 

Ray has an unmatched feeling for the moments when a situation catches people unawares and minds perceptibly expand or contract when confronted with some infinitesimal stress.  Mahanagar is particularly rich in these glimpses into minds at sea.  (BFI Notes.)

In the last scene of this film we see how, under the pressure of salaried employment, a couple disintegrates into two isolated individuals; both are alone and both are self-absorbed; Arati mistakenly thinking her husband is angry with her; Subrata soliloquising to himself about the meaning of work - it makes us weak, he says.  Here are “two minds [that really are completely] at sea”.  But then husband and wife reconcile, and walk together through the streets of Calcutta into an unknown future.  The old world, with its well-established certainties based on custom and habit, has collapsed, and the big city has been invaded by odd stories whose endings no one can confidently predict.  The only certainty is love, which provides the emotional resources these characters need to navigate the psychological states Penelope Houston describes in her insightful sentences.  This film about a place whose foundations are suffering an earthquake.

As we watch the sky-blue figure stroll away to the far side of the field we hear a bunch of drunken Fabians clambering over the wall…

Too many critics are enthralled by Ray’s “universality”; a tepid term that hides the highly specific problems that his films address.  Thus it is no surprise that Tom Milne compares Mahanagar to Chekhov, and describes it is “an enchanting film”.  He thereby overlooks the seriousness of Ray, while downplaying that sense of desperation which pervades the stories of the Russian master; whose major work shows characters adrift in environments that overwhelm their inadequate natures.  Chekhov's late oeuvre: Sakhalin transferred to the hinterlands of Moscow, where everyone lives inside their own prison cell.

For David Wilson the film is: 

…a microcosm of India today, the 20th century inexorably imposing itself on a way of life still steeped in the taboos of tradition.  (BFI Notes)

Acquarello shares a similar view:

Mahanagar is deceptively lyrical, yet profoundly insightful examination of modern society: the obsolescence of cultural tradition, the financial instability of an emerging economy, the changing role of women.  (BFI Notes)

These are critics blinded by the newness of the new.  For sure, modern India is transforming the middle classes; thus a respectable woman is able to break the taboo on paid employment.  For sure the old people are no longer the source of wisdom and authority, and have become a burden to their families.  And for sure there is a new equality between the husband and wife, symbolised by their eating together.  Yes, for sure.  But yet…

There is Arati’s rebellion against her employer - she resigns rather than let him treat a friend unjustly.  This is the most “humanistic” act in the entire film.  And yet… the cause of this action is not some “universal” ethic but a house-wifely feeling, which comes directly out of the family home, where sentiment dominates.  Arati, precisely because she is a traditional wife, feels before she thinks;1 these feelings the source of her moral strength.  

Much of the old India - its civility, its intellectual culture, its sense of justice - still remains; even in 1963, the year this work was released.  It hasn't given up!  Although the old traditions are under pressure, and must adapt to the modern world if they are to survive. Still, they might have a future… There is hope in this film.

Interestingly, Amartya Sen calls this movie tragic; the collapse of the father’s authority, together with the family’s fall into unemployment, has a greater resonance for an Indian than for those critics who know only of the prosperity and youthful exuberance produced by Western capitalism.   

Nor can Sen regard with insouciance the “obsolescence of [a] cultural tradition”; the source of much of the humanity in this film - Satyajit Ray, we should not need to be reminded, is a Bengali artist not a Calcutta businessman.  What these critics fail to see (but is very clear to a local) is the threat that the West poses to a civilisation that has great strengths, in addition to its terrible weaknesses.  The danger of progress is that an entire culture will disappear with it.  The architects come.  The builders soon follow them.  They level an ancient compound of decaying temples; whose rubble is used as hardcore for an eight-lane motorway…

All this talk of humanism and universality hides such an uncomfortable truth.  Ray was an Indian confronted with a dilemma - the old (East) or the new (West)?  He couldn’t decide.  This indecision, we could argue, the fuel that powered the engine that drove the machine that manufactured his many masterpieces.   

Where are you Penelope?  Come back!  We need you!

(Review: Mahanagar)

1.  In describing the differences between traditional modes of behaviour and the rational mentality of modern capitalism Max Weber writes:
“The type of backward traditional form of labour is today very often exemplified by women workers, especially unmarried ones.  An almost universal complaint of employers of girls, for instance German girls, is that they are almost entirely unable and unwilling to give up methods of work inherited or once learned in favour of more efficient ones, to adapt themselves to new methods, to learn and to concentrate their intelligence, or even to use it at all.  Explanations of the possibility of making work easier, above all more profitable to themselves, generally encounter a complete lack of understanding.  Increases of piece-rates are without avail against the stone wall of habit.”  (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism)
Habit here means custom, which in the case of these German girls is closely tied to the feelings - the domestic household an essentially conservative and emotional place.  

A thought experiment: imagine a woman calculating the most efficient ways of bringing up her daughters and the most rational method of making her husband love her…  Feelings are being replaced by thoughts of a very peculiar quality, and her life becomes... something like a contract? where emotions become a danger to the smooth running of the family; no longer are they the glue that binds it together. Now apply the experiment to modern life, where both men and women are expected to be rational humans at work and emotional animals in the house.  Extend it to its utmost tension….  Is such schizophrenia, demanded for every individual, possible in the long run?  Emily Witt describes one extreme result: emotionally isolated individuals rationally calculating the amount of emotional stimulus they need to maintain their psychic states.  Modern business has infiltrated not only the mind but the feelings too.  Even one’s own being has become a corporation.*

Of course these old-fashioned girls may be highly calculating when it comes to money (Weber’s point about traditional societies - they tend to be more avaricious than modern ones); thus they may well seek the most wealthy suitor for their children.  However, this is a qualitatively different activity to their actual emotional relationships with them.

What happens in Mahanagar is that Arati brings these (wild) feelings into the office, a place from which they are generally expunged.  She thus exposes the sterile nature of the modern world; whose indifference is its greatest tragedy.

*(Emily Witt’s piece seems to me at least a wonderful illustration of my argument in Freedom Against Freedom that a new type of person was created in the 1960s.  The characters she describes at the Burning Man festival are the apotheosis of the counter-culture radicals of that by now mythic decade.   Rex Warner's The Aerodrome provides an early example of these tendencies, and shows very clearly the connection between abstract reason and affect-less sensuality - the former produces the latter. Weber, writing about the “iron cage” of rationality, predicted it all.
For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved.”)

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