A Non-Functional Man (okejo manush)- The Situation of Teachers in Bengal in the 1960s as seen in Satyajit Ray's 'Mahanagar' (1963)

'Mahanagar' (1963) directed by the pioneering filmmaker Satyajit Ray expertly portrays various aspects of the fast-changing Kolkata society in the 1960s. The film follows a typical middle-class family struggling to survive and adapt to the challenges the changing realities and values of the city was throwing their way. The Majumdars were indeed a family unit and therefore shared many challenges. However,  each family member was an individual on his/her own facing his/her own personal battles. The commonality and typicality of this situation is hammered home by the director by not revealing any of the characters' full names. They are all Mr. Majumdars, Mrs. Majumdars and Ms. Majumdars, going through struggles that the viewers can themselves relate to and be a part of. 

In this scenario the audience is introduced to Mr. Majumdar (Senior),  a retired teacher who, for lack of finances of his own, has to resort to living with his son. This puts a huge burden on Mr. Majumdar's (Junior) family as his meagre salary as a bank employee can hardly make ends meet. The old Mr. Majumdar,  even though he spent a lifetime working as a teacher, does not have enough savings to afford spectacles of his own and, worse yet, lottery tickets, for which he has to secretly approach his wife. He even admits that as a teacher, he was bound to lead a life of poverty. Children who are nurtured carefully and arduously by sincere and loving teachers go on to become judges,  magistrates, doctors and so on, leading an elite lifestyle and serving the society. Yet teachers who accomplish the most important social duty of building the foundation of the next generation are given insultingly low salaries and hence are forced to lead a life close to abject poverty. Some of the students whose foundation they build, without which they could not achieve anything in life,  become wealthy and respected, while the architects of these success stories remain in the background, suffering utter neglect. Mr. Majumdar spells this out by saying that the fact that his students live a far superior lifestyle in terms of wealth than his own makes him feel proud as well as a bit jealous and he thinks that some kind of injustice has taken place. Being alienated more and more by the actions of his son and daughter-in-law,  Mr. Majumdar faces the tough choice of asking his past students for material and financial help. This confronts him with the dilemma between the demeaning task of asking for help and the traditional right of the Indian teacher over his student (guru-dakshina). He tries to keep his conscience clean by believing that he is opting for the latter. This in some cases works out well for him (for example,  with his student Pranab who is now an eye doctor) but in others causes him covert humiliation by his students (example: his past student Anupam the barrister). This situation also brings in front of the audience the duality of the teacher's situation. In terms of traditional Indian society,  the teacher or the 'guru' is one of the most respected members of the society. The legacy of this tradition persisted in colonial and even post-colonial India where western systems of education were in place as well as some western ideas of education as a commodity. However,  the pathetic salaries teachers receive exhibit the caveat in this scenario, with the teacher, supposedly one of society's most esteemed members, earning barely enough to scrape by. This puts into question the true value Indian society puts on teachers. If they are as important members of the society as doctors and lawyers,  what is the logic behind paying them salaries almost equivalent to that of a wage labourer? To this, the film as well as the society in general has no answer. Meanwhile, teachers are treated in a dual manner: an upper layer of esteem (exhibited by Pranab) covering the nasty underbelly of humiliation, ridicule and disdain (exhibited by Anupam). The 'gareeb mastermashai' (poor teacher),  continues to accept his suffering,  as Mr. Majumdar has to in the end. 


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Arka Chakraborty

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I'm a History student! I like ruminating about the past, expressing my thoughts through the ink and, nowadays, through the virtual space. My blogs involve mostly history and literature with a view of making it exciting for the reader. Hope to see you at my blogs!