Women’s Labor Power and their ‘Double Burden’ Through the Lens of Satyajt Ray’s ‘Mahanagar’

Proceedings of The World Conference on Gender Equality

Year: 2023



Women’s Labor Power and their ‘Double Burden’ Through the Lens of Satyajt Ray’s ‘Mahanagar’

Deeghi Basu




Women’s labor force participation, especially in context of the Indian socio-economic backdrop, has been a contemporary issue of immense significance and debate. The issue has been explored through a variety of lenses and catered to the Indian audience through popular forms of South-Asian media, and by reputed scholars of Economics through academia.
A typical day in the life of a middle class Indian woman constitutes of her fulfilling a set of household chores – preparing food, cleaning, caring for and tending to the needs of the elderly and the young in the family, etc. These chores that women perform remain largely unrecognized by the society, both socially and economically because that is the norm – “A huge part of female wiring is tilted in the direction of the necessity of self sacrifice for infant care. One of the consequences of this is that agreeable people don’t earn as much,” (New Economic Thinking, 2021, 2:11). Societies have banked upon such gender constructions to create the gender division of labor, and women as a result are burdened with the entirety of care activities.  The ‘double burden’ point of view zeroes in on situations where women are compelled to work outside to add financially to the income of the family, as well as perform household duties – an amalgamation of paid and unpaid work. The economic and the socio-cultural repercussions of such a situation in an average urban Indian household that precedes and follows this outcome, has been portrayed in one of Satyajit Ray’s in one of his many memorable films, ‘Mahanagar’ (1963), translated as ‘The Big City’. This postcolonial, iconoclast film demonstrates that at its core, patriarchal systems are designed to exert control over women’s labor power, mobility, decision-making power and social interaction. It has truly been this way over the fabric of time, space and systems – this concept being entirely different from that propagated by Marx and Engels, “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production,” (Marx & Engels, 1848).
What are the norms in the Indian society that normalize distinct prototypes of the homemaking woman and the working woman? What are the traditions, beliefs, and reactions in a ‘modhyobitto, bhodro’ Indian family that confirm the identity of a woman who plays both the roles as a complex, problematic and unnatural one? These are questions raised and somewhat answered as well in Ray’s ‘Mahanagar’, which I plan to explore by exemplifying with scene breakdowns from the film itself. The story set in the city of Calcutta, revolves largely around a woman who unsettles her conservative family when she secures employment as a saleswoman due to financial constraints the same family is facing. The woman, Arati Mazumdar, is the ‘ideal’ ghomta-clad, obedient and respectful Indian housewife who genuinely believes her place lies in the household and not in the labor market. She decides to work as a last resort, to help her husband (a pseudo-progressive man) out with the tumultuous financial circumstances of the family, partially due to his insistence and partially because she believes she almost sits idle at home and shoves all monetary responsibilities on her husband. Arati actively engages in invisibilising her own work as a homemaker. Even when she goes to work, she is morally tortured with the crisis of having ignored her responsibilities as a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law – “There is a peculiar nature of carework which makes women vulnerable to their own exploitation,” (New Economic Thinking, 2021, 4:51). Arati and her husband’s actions however, are often contrary to their own beliefs, and the same goes for the elders of the family – which is very evident as the film gradually unfolds. Ray views this situation not only through a feminist lens, but through the lens of an economic reality – a moment in history where the economic and the cinematic intersect.
Not unlike most of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, this is also a film that is keen on the contemporary economic circumstances that lead to monumental social ones and every scene is a subtle metaphor that depicts such interplays between the two worlds. It’s almost as if Ray had intended to acknowledge through his cinema, the agony of the ‘double burden’ of the urban working-homemaking woman by commodifying her and her family’s internal struggles and the conflicts she faces both indoors and outdoors.
The paper explores the various impacts of the fundamental relational inequalities associated with orthodox gender roles, as exhibited in the film ‘Mahanagar’.

keywords: double burden, Satyajit Ray, urban, middle-class, gender, socio-cultural