Mahanagar and Abataranika: Adapting story to film

One question I ask myself whenever I watch a Satyajit Ray film is “How does he manage to capture real life with such accuracy?” There’s a perfect example for this in Mahanagar.

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The scene is Arati sitting at a table to sign a form for her first job application. This is a critical moment in the film, which is about how life in a middle-class home changes after the wife decides to work as a saleswoman. She’s nervous, which is shown by the way she holds the pen. It isn’t something that she holds every other day. She’s shy when she senses her husband Subrata looking over her shoulder and asks him to look away. She wants to get it right — she asks her husband whether he uses J or Z in the English spelling of their family name Mazumdar. And then comes the masterstroke!

Instead of simply replying, “Use Z”, the husband adds “Z as in the first alphabet of zoo”. He says it casually but their child who’s sitting on the bed and doing some drawing immediately raises his head on hearing the word “Zoo”. He asks instantly, “Who’s going to the zoo?” At this point, Ray could have ended this scene with the husband and wife simply smiling at the innocence of the child’s question. But no. He’s a master. Subrata walks up to his son, holds him in both hands and tells him that all of them will soon go to the zoo.

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Subrata, the husband, is in a jovial mood, excited about the future, excited that their economic problems would soon be over. And it’s this excitement that comes across when he tells his son that they’ll soon be going to the zoo. From the simple act of signing a job application, within the span of a few seconds, Ray conveys to us the impact that this will have on the family. This is why Ray is a master.

And this is why Mahanagar is one of my favourite Satyajit Ray films. I recently read the original short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra and thought of analysing some key differences between the story and the film. (The scene that I described above isn’t part of the original story and is clearly an addition made by Ray himself.)

Adding more depth to characters

Ray paints Subrata’s father Priyagopal with a lot more sympathy in the film. In the short story, the father is simply an old man clinging on to a patriarchal value system. But in the film, we’re shown how he has become a nondescript man, after retiring as a teacher, while his students have turned out to be illustrious. Ray indirectly hints at why the old man isn’t vociferous in his opposition to his daughter-in-law going to work. He expresses his disapproval by not taking the medicines she offers him. That’s all he can do because, in his very own opinion, he’s nothing more than a failure while his students have surpassed him.

There’s also a scene in which the niece offers to quit studying and take up a job, when she realises the family’s economic condition isn’t good. This isn’t in the short story. Once again, this is Ray picking up the outline drawn by the author and adding in more strokes and shades that suit his liking.

Optimistic Ending

This is probably why people call Ray a humanist. The short story ended a bit abruptly. Arati comes home and tells her family members that she quit the job. Everyone rebukes her. And when she looks at her husband hopefully, he too expresses a derogatory opinion about Anglo-Indian women. And it ends with Arati breaking down.

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There’s more hope in the movie’s climax. Subrata reassures Arati that they’ll manage to figure a way out. There’s even a ladder in the background, which to me felt like a symbol of the couple being at a moment in their lives when they get to decide if they wish to climb it or not. And the movie ends with the couple walking out into the streets and mingling with the crowd. It felt like “Mahanagar” is the teeming city filled with several such couples who’re fighting it out for their survival. And “Mahanagar” is a city that houses them, their stories and their dreams.

However, Ray admitted in one of his interviews that he intended the climax as neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The final shot of the film is that of a street lamp with one bulb lit and the other not working, symbolising that their decision may or may not work out. I failed to notice this during my viewing though.

Knowing what to leave out

I believe a faithful adaptation is one that captures the soul of the original work and can choose to leave out any details that don’t add to it. I can see that Ray is a master at this. In the short story, Arati comes home and announces that she quit the job. So everyone at home get to know it at the same time. And then each person proceeds to pass comments. But in the movie, Ray makes this a private moment between husband and wife. It’s their struggle after all. What ultimately matters is whether the two of them are okay with the decision she made and are up for supporting each other through the struggle.

The story also mentions about multiple job applications that the couple fill up together. And finally, Arati gets the one as a sales girl. But in the movie, Ray eliminates them and retains just this one. This is the only job she applied to and she got it. The story also portrays the couple as having 2 kids and 3 siblings. So it’s quite a crowded household in the original story. But Ray, retains only 1 kid and 1 sibling. He compensates for the crowded effect by keeping the interior shots tight. We can feel that the family doesn’t have enough means to support their needs from the way the interior of the house looks. The sound of radio seeping in from their neighbour’s house also indicates that they live in a cramped apartment with not much separation between houses. And to check their son’s fever they borrow a thermometer from their neighbour. Such little details suffice to inform us of their state of affairs.

Oh and one more thing! The short story follows the usual flashback technique. The story opens with Arati announcing that she quit her job. Then, it goes into flashback mode, explaining why she took the job and all that happened, and then returns to present to wrap it up. It would have been tempting to take this approach in the film too. After all, opening with an intriguing shot and then cutting to a flashback to narrate the entire story and then coming back to the present at a time when the audience almost forgets that the film started with a flashback is a common technique even today. But, Ray shakes his head in gentle disapproval and steers clear of this approach. Simplicity is his forte. He sticks to a simple, linear narrative and brushes aside any kind of gimmicks and that makes the film more impactful.

Where the movie adds to the story

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In the short story, the husband Subrata hears from an acquaintance that his wife was spotted with a man in a restaurant. In the story, this acts as a point that pushes him to ask his wife to resign. But in the movie, Ray does something more with this. He makes the husband witness this first hand. Subrata is sitting with troubled thoughts, smoking a cigarette in a restaurant, when his wife and another man walk in. Ray makes this the scene in which the husband realizes that his wife doesn’t wish to put him down in front of others. Arati talks highly of him in front of the other man, without being aware that he’s sitting right behind them overhearing their conversation.

In the movie, the closure of the bank and the loss of Subrata’s job is more sudden. He goes to work as usual and is stunned to see an angry mob outside his office. In the short story, there are some hints given to him beforehand and so the closure doesn’t come as quite a shock.

Although Pather Panchali is the best when it comes to Ray’s portrayal of children, in all of his movies children always feel real. In the story, there’s hardly much detail about the children in the house, but in the movie Ray gives the son some moments too. Take this scene for instance. A letter has arrived confirming Arati’s job appointment. The shot is meant to show Subrata absorbing what has happened and mentally preparing himself to face his parents. But, Ray infuses life into this shot and makes it more real by having Subrata’s son pick up the letter from him. Just watch what that boy does with the letter and tell me if it doesn’t feel real!

Where the short story wins

While Mahanagar is a splendid film, I feel Abataranika is a really well-written short story too. It’s filled with lots of details about middle-class life that can only be created by a writer who’s an astute observer of everyday life. Once Arati gets her first salary, there’s very good detailing on what exactly she buys for each person in the house. Through these gifts we not only get to know Arati’s sense of responsibility, but it also adds shades to each character and what kind of things delight them.

There’s one other terrific moment in the story. Somehow Ray chose to leave this out of the film. This is the scene in which Subrata visits Arati’s office and talks to her boss. In the story, during this scene, Arati walks in and is embarrassed that her husband is present there. And then, in front of Subrata, the boss asks Arati some questions about work. And the story details how there’s an undefinable something that Subrata feels at that moment. Here’s the exact passage from the story for you to read.

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It’s terrific! An acute observation of how male psychology works. Of how Subrata’s ego is hurt simply by the tone in which Arati’s boss talks to her. It’s a compassionate portrayal of delicate human emotions.

The short story also details how Subrata initially loves the fact that he and his wife go to work together in the morning. He feels the days of romance immediately following his marriage are back. He likes it when their hands rustle against each other when they board the bus together. This little joy of a working couple commuting to work together is yet another acute observation by Narendranath.

I loved the moment when Subrata’s father-in-law comes home after hearing of the sudden closure of the bank. It’s a tragicomic moment. He isn’t just coming there to express his sorrow at the sad turn of events, but also to find out what will happen to the money that he’d deposited in the bank on Subrata’s insistence. These kind of details when captured on paper are what make the characters human and relatable.

The short story never reveals the real reason why Arati refuses to give up her job. Everyone at home keeps asking her to quit. Her husband even threatens her of divorce. But, she holds on to her job. I thought it was great that the author didn’t choose to explain why. Did the job give her an identity? Does she know deep within her heart that the family can’t survive without her job? Has she grown to like the independence at work? We can only guess.

The other thing the short story is beautifully silent about is why exactly Arati quits her job. She’s angered by her boss Mr.Mukherjee’s judgment of Edith’s character. Mr.Mukherjee feels all Anglo-Indian women have loose morals and make out with boyfriends during weekends. But, as expressed by Mr.Mukherjee, Arati isn’t quite related to Edith. So why is she angry over Mr.Mukherjee’s judgment? The answer is obvious to us but it’s good that the story doesn’t explicitly spell it out. Arati feels that the judgment passed on Edith is indirectly a judgment passed on her as well. She’s been facing subtle accusations at home ever since she took up the job and her outburst in Mr.Mukherjee’s office is also personal, springing from within her, letting loose all her pent-up emotions.

Observations by Ben Nyce

Ben Nyce has written an excellent book of essays on each film by Satyajit Ray — I was reading the one on Mahanagar and he made two beautiful observations.

One was how Ray’s Mahanagar is a film about the city, despite being composed predominantly of interior shots. The film doesn’t show you much of Calcutta’s exteriors and focuses on the insides of the people’s lives. By focusing on the inside, the film acts as a commentary on the city as a whole. It teaches me that making a film with a city as a backdrop, doesn’t mean you simply show wide angle shots of its landmarks and historical locations. You could place your camera inside a car, when a boss is dropping her employee from work and have him talk casually about how his wife is obsessed with germs and asks him to clean the car whenever he gives a lift to someone from the streets. This tight interior shot and the words expressed by characters within it act as a mirror for us to see the city and its inequalities reflected in it.

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The other splendid observation Ben Nyce made was how the transformation of Subrata’s dad towards the end in a way reflects the transformation of Subrata as well. Subrata’s dad acts as a kind of mouthpiece for Subrata by expressing his apology for the wrongs he did. This is followed by one of the best shots in the movie. The shot of Arati sleeping and the camera moving towards Subrata who’s smoking a cigarette and the light casts his shadow on the mosquito net and we see visually the conflict within him. Is Subrata letting go of the shadow of his past — the questions that haunted him — and considering to start life anew with his wife? Or when he’s reflecting how his wife never spoke ill of him, as compared to his father who went around chiding his son, is his shadow trying to pull him back? Or is this a moment of quiet self-introspection and self-loathing when Subrata is looking back on his life and feeling ashamed of his inability to run the household? After all, his shadow appears to be hanging its head in shame.

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The Opening Shot

I felt I’ll end this piece with the opening shot of the film 🙂 I love what Ray does with opening credits. In Charulata, the opening credits appear over a shot of Charulata stitching her husband’s initials on a handkerchief, which later becomes a pivotal object in the film’s final resolution. In Jai Baba Felunath, the opening credits appear over an illustrated map of Kashi, the setting of the mystery, and these posters are later revealed to be stuck on the wall of the kid’s room. Likewise in ‘Mahanagar’ the opening shot is extremely relevant to the theme of the film. It’s a close-up of the sparks that fly when a tram travels through the city.

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It’s a succinct visual summary of what the movie is all about. The tram is an essential mode of transport to work and when it moves it’s inevitable that sparks will fly. Likewise as a society, when we move forward, when changes happen, when we make compromises for a better livelihood, there are bound to be sparks in personal relationships. And where do the sparks occur? At the intersection of wires. At the intersection of opinions, beliefs and prejudices that each one of us hold. And it’s all about how we handle these sparks at the crossroads and keep them under control so that we can reach the destination we intend in the ‘Mahanagar’ of life.

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P.S: Speaking of intersections, crossroads and conflicts in the urban landscape, look at this poster designed by Ray for the film 🙂

P.P.S: I got to read Narendranath Mitra’s original story thanks to the Kindle version of this book — I highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in reading the original stories of some of Ray’s finest films.

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