After seeing Satyajit Ray’s The Big City, Roger Ebert remarked that he had trouble approaching Ray’s films as ‘foreign’: “they are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.” I agree. The film feels both of its time and very contemporary: probably most people living in cities in the non- or recently industrialised world are no more than a generation away from village life (and this includes European countries such as Spain, Romania and many more) and the problems around re-definitions of inside/outside, the family, work and gender roles are not too different than those Ray’s film so delicately and beautifully dramatises.
In The Big City, Subrat Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), an accountant who works in a new bank, and his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) live in a cramped apartment in Calcutta. They’re supporting his father (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher who needs glasses they can’t afford, his mother (Sefalika Devi) who’s got an expensive tobacco habit, his sister (Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager but still going to a fee-paying school, and their young son Pingu (Pressenjit Sarkar). They can’t make ends meet. The husband drops hints that maybe the wife can get a job. The wife takes the hint but then it is the husband who becomes reluctant to venture any further as a wife working away from home would shame him in front of his parents and friends. However, they see no other solution.
Ray works within the realm of the little hurts, slights, and barriers in life that must be overcome. There are no heroes or villains. The family benefits from Arita going to work but each is nonetheless, and in different ways, resentful that she’s taken a job. The father who loves his son prefers to bad mouth him in the course of begging for new glasses from former students rather than accept them lovingly from his working daughter-in-law. The older generation is shocked and unaccepting of this modern world in which women are allowed to work. Yet it might be shocking to us that they initially see begging, however delicately and elegantly voiced, preferable to work.
This illustration of middle-class poverty nonetheless focuses on a family who’s got a servant whom they have trouble paying; there are other people who are much worse off then they. You get a real sense of modernity arriving in the city, people who’ve just come from a village and who’ve still got a rural, almost tribal identity but in a changing world. Unusually, Anglo-Indians are depicted as the disenfranchised minority, on the face of it privileged, but de-facto structurally oppressed, their privilege being tied to the world order of a different generation and one that no longer exists. Chandak Sengoopta in ‘The Big City: A Woman’s Place’, an essay offered as part of The Criterion Collection website, offers a marvellous socio-historical context for the film’s drama.
The character of Arita is the film’s focal point; it is through her that we see Modernity structurally transforming the family and a whole way of life. Initially, the film’s focus is on the husband’s worries, and we see her encased inside the tiny apartment unable to meet the various demands the members of her family make on her. Then we see her fear of the city; how she needs her husband’s support to go outside and into the world. Then her awe and wonder at the richer homes, other ways of life. Soon she’s standing up for herself, walking purposefully through the streets, arranging contracts, wearing sunglasses and even putting on lipstick and meeting men.
The lipstick is crucial. And the lipstick is inextricably linked to her new ability to be with men who are not her husband. Arita is no flâneuse; she’s a career woman now with places to go and people to see; and all these wonderings around the city, all this career success, particularly in the light of her husband’s travails but of the culture as a whole, make her husband, and most likely the film’s initial audience, question her virtue. Part of the beauty of the film is that it makes us understand why her society and her husband might put her morality in question (what else is the husband to think when he finds a lipstick in her purse or sees her with other men?) whilst simultaneously leaving us with no doubt as to Arita’s goodness.
Madhabi Mukherjee who plays Arita seems simultaneously ordinary and a great beauty. Her features are just as delicate as her way of conveying the character’s emotions. She evokes a centered serenity even in her greatest moments of distress, even in her final confrontation with her boss. Her Arita has a calm humbleness, useful when she has to deal with each new difficulty and one which also comes across as tactful and polite: Arita does her best to prevent others from feeling threatened or ill at ease at the sense of empowerment she now clearly feels. Like so many women in the history of cinema, walking the streets offers Arita money and freedom, although Arita walks in daylight, to an office job, selling knitting machines instead of herself and is at all times respectable.
The Big City is also fascinating in relation to film form. There are some extraordinary shots: one of the husband shown through a sheet where the light makes his disembodied profile seem a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split figure; the other of the wife looking through a glass and trying on lipstick, a modern identity, and showing us being in the process of becoming (the mirror shot is later rhymed with one showing us looking at herself with the money she’s earned from her job, the lipstick and the money crucially interlinked). What we see and how we see it seems extraordinarily modern and imaginative. The film is shot in long-takes sometimes helped along by a rather stilted though no less efficient zoom lens. Each shot is composed sparsely, minimally, there is very little too distract the eye from within the frame, but these sparse compositions create maximum effect.
The pace is languid, audiences might feel a bit too much so. But it all builds into a marvellous, multi-layered, depiction of a society in transition, and the uncomfortable choices a loving family have to make to get by. The film reminds us that drama need not involve superheroes, or natural disasters or fatal afflictions; that good and loving people trying to get by in the world in the best way they can is, when shown with such skill and delicacy, sufficient to create something beautiful and moving. It’s a great film.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre but also available as a great Criterion DVD