In our part of the world, a daughter or daughter-in-law is considered a form of goddess Lakshmi in many households. But the irony is that mainstream culture has never encouraged this very goddess of wealth and prosperity to contribute to the family income. There is no denying that modern society has become progressive and the representation of women in the workforce continues to see a surge every year. Yet there exist conservative and patriarchal families (even in metropolitan cities) that aren't comfortable with the idea of "Ghar ki Lakshmi" stepping out of the house for work. This year's brilliant Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen encapsulated this repressive ideology as the daughter-in-law is denied 'permission' by her father-in-law to take a job outside. He tries to console her by saying that the domestic work of housewives is far superior to the jobs of IAS officers and political leaders.
In Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar (1963), the female protagonist Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) finds herself in a similar predicament. When she contemplates taking up a job to meet the increasing financial pressure on their family, her husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) quotes an old proverb: A woman's place is in the home. Even on convincing her husband, she is unable to gain the approval of her orthodox father-in-law Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee) who becomes distraught at the idea of his daughter-in-law having to support the household. The hypocrisy here is that Priyogopal, who is a retired schoolteacher, doesn't mind visiting his former male pupils (now prospering in their chosen professions) to seek "guru-dakshina". But when Arati starts working and earning, he refuses to take money from her.
Set in Calcutta during the mid-1950s, Mahanagar explores the evolving independence of middle-class women of the city through the character of Arati. Initially, when Arati starts working as a door-to-door saleswoman, she is hesitant and nervous, but soon she begins to prosper in her field and gradually starts to enjoy her newfound financial and psychological independence. Her grudgingly supportive husband, Subrata, starts to feel insecure and asks Arati to quit her job after he tentatively secures another part-time job. Before Arati can quit, Subrata loses his full-time job when the bank he was working for shuts down in the last of the Calcutta bank crashes. Subrata has no choice but to let Arati continue to work.
At work, Arati befriends an Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith (Vicky Redwood), who helps all female employees get commission on their sales by successfully demanding it from their boss, Himangshu (Haradhan Bandopadhyay). Meanwhile, Subrata, who spends his days idly at home, is consumed by suspicion and insecurity on learning that Arati's boss is highly impressed with her work. Subrata finally decides to meet Himangshu to ease some of his suspicions and finds that Himangshu is an affable and friendly person who, like him, hails from Pabna District.
In Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray also highlights the malice of bigotry prevalent in society. Himangshu, who instantly takes a liking to Subrata and promises to find him a job somewhere as he hails from the same district, harbours a prejudice against Anglo-Indians. Hence, when Edith returns to work after a long illness, Himangshu doubts she was actually sick and fires her, citing her frivolous lifestyle. This is when we witness a transformation in Arati as she stands up against the injustice meted out to Edith. Despite being the sole breadwinner of the family, the previously timid Arati abandons her inhibitions and confronts Himangshu over his unjust firing of Edith. She hands in her resignation letter when he refuses to apologise to Edith.
The climactic scene of the film is uplifting and poetically beautiful. It marks a positive change in the attitudes of Arati and her husband, whom she encounters below her office. Frightened that he would get angry at her for quitting the job, Arati breathes a sigh of relief when Subrata says that he admires her courage for doing the morally right thing without worrying about her job. Instead of being tense, both husband and wife become hopeful that they will soon find some work in the big city of Calcutta. In the final frame, Ray establishes that there is light at the end of the tunnel by zooming in on a street light.