Judge Bill Gibron enjoyed this look at women's liberation circa 1963 in India.
Satyajit Ray's ERA
When someone says, "Indian Cinema" to you, the first though that comes to mind is Bollywood, correct? It's a natural reaction, one that's been ingrained in us since the globalization of cinema in the mid-'80s. Appreciation has to start somewhere, and if you believe the pundits who positioned our understanding of film in said era, China was all about John Woo slo-mo shoot outs and the French still loved their farce and frequently depressing dramas. The Japanese were obsessed with female ghosts with long black hair and creaky voices while the Italians specialized in either splatter or overt sentiment. From South America to the Eastern Bloc, Australia and parts unknown, everyone was pigeonholed, placed surreptitiously into categories that never told the entire story.
So it's not shocking to hear people question the output of auteur Satyajit Ray. Instead of going for excess and melodrama, this Indian master concentrated on the everyday life of his country, mimicking the neo-realists of '40s and '50s. He also pushed boundaries when it came to subject matter, with a film like The Big City, the latest from the Criterion Collection being no exception. Focusing on a housewife coming into her own in Calcutta, it represented the next step in a creative legacy that would last another two decades. It's also a huge departure from what we consider Indian cinema to be today.
Facts of the Case
The Mazumdar Family is having a hard time of it. Father Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) works in a bank, but doesn't earn a lot of money. He spends night tutoring and his days worrying if he will have enough money for the next day's household accounts. His long suffering wife Aarti (Madhabi Mukherjee) wants to help, but she has her hands full keeping the various members of the Mazumdar clan content, including her husband's aging parents (Haren Chatterjee, Sefalika Devi), their eldest daughter Bani (Jaya Bhaduri) and their young son Pintu (Prosenjit Sarkar). After much convincing, Subrata agrees to let her try and find a job. Eventually, Aarti is employed as a door-to-door saleswoman for 100 rupees a month. At first, she faces obvious discrimination among those potential customers who believe a woman's place is permanently in the home. But with the help of an English-speaking, Anglo-Indian named Edith (Vicky Redwood), Aarti becomes more confident, leaving her conservative relatives confused over their place in her new, modern life.
Considering its subtle attacks on the Indian patriarchy and its focus on a married woman coming into her own, The Big City was/is considered controversial. It was post-Apu Ray at his most overtly political. While many of his films used the situation in the country as a means of making valid social commentary points, The Big City actually came out and challenged established morays. This is a film where a young wife, more than happy to care for her family and deal with her dithering in-laws, finally succumbs to the massive financial pressures in her life and takes a job. The freedom that accompanies this decision, as well as the lessons learned from her more "liberated" friend Edith, function in two ways. First, it argues for a sense of gender equality that many in the nation were not prepared for and it functioned a bit as a cautionary example of how letting women loose would reap unwanted rewards. In essence, Ray was walking a fine line between championing Aarti and condemning her. At home, she had a duty and was functional if unfulfilled. Out in the world, she gets a bit lost but ends up discovering herself and what she really wants.
It's akin to when Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas shared a romantic moment in Philadelphia. Though Ray always wanted to undermine the standard value systems he saw around him (he was heavily influenced by the anti-Colonial movement which lead to India's release from British rule) he had to tread carefully. His career prospects would and could have ended up as dire as Subrata's. The Big City also argues for an emasculated man incapable of taking charge of his accepted responsibilities. Throughout the opening, Ray stages moments where Subrata whines about his lot in life, similar to the whining done by his father over his lack of eyeglasses, and we see how the generations reflect each other. While Aarti and her mother-in-law cook the food and care for the kids, their men are moping about like defeated dogs licking their various wounds. Ray explores all this in carefully crafted observances, each moment made even more meaning by how they all add up in the end. We can clearly understand Aarti's motives. If the men are failing to fulfill their duty, someone has to.
The title provides an equally bifurcated meaning to the film. Specifically, Ray focuses on Calcutta as both an oasis of opportunity and a wedge driven into the heart of the Mazumdar family. It's the old "how you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris" kind of predicament with the metropolis' actual status as a place where Aarti can find herself. She is very dedicated to her husband and kids, but eventually loses a bit of that thanks to the need to earn money. In fact, Ray seems to suggest that when roles are rewritten to deal with specific problems in a relationship, the new configuration will never be as neat and tidy as the previous. Maybe Subrata and Aarti will fall into a similar rut, but throughout The Big City, Ray suggests there is no turning back. Husband has lit a fire under his formerly oppressed wife and once she's gotten out from under the yoke of his gender and the overall financial crunch, it's the very essence of liberation. Madhabi Mukherjee, who would go on to major fame in her country's film industry, has a look and demeanor that suggests she would never be under a man's thumb for very long. Her performance, as well as the wonderful work from the rest of the cast, confirm The Big City as one of Ray's best. While he's making an obvious point, he is doing so in a way so subtle, so suggestive, that it practically begs for interpretation and discussion.
Kudos to Criterion for bringing that artist's work back from the brink. Apparently, many of Ray's movies were becoming lost in the drive toward more and more mainstream Bollywood ballyhoo. Here, the new transfer and HD treatment is startling. The black and white, 1.33:1 1080p is amazing. The contrasts are not overly sharp (this is more gray on gray than stark monochrome) and the clarity is exceptional. This is one of the best transfers available from the company. As for the audio, the PCM Mono 1.0 is very good, capturing both the intimate conversations and the ambience of the city with distortion-free balance. But it's the added content where things really get interesting. Mukherjee is on hand for an informative sit down. She discusses working with Ray, the films she made with him, and the lasting impact the director had on her career. Similarly, scholar Suranjan Gangily discusses the auteur's impact on how women were depicted in Indian cinema, while a 1974 documentary overview show Ray at work. There's also a 32 page booklet as well as a short (one hour) film by the director entitled The Coward. The story centers on a screenwriter who accidentally meets up with a past love and tries to rekindle their romance. It's very good as well.
For many film fans, Satyait Ray is a name known, but not fully understood. We hear about The Apu Trilogy, the important part he played in making Indian cinema more realistic and sophisticated and yet, when asked what their favorite film of his is, many can't name more than the already discussed and dissected. Unlike Fellini or Godard who seem to warrant constant reevaluation (the latter is still making movies, which definitely helps), Ray remains an elusive, enigmatic part of modern foreign film. His work falls so far outside what we normally consider to be part of the country's culture that it seems to arrive from another planet, without much connection to contemporary India. Still, something like The Big City explains away his vitality. It's an incredible film, created by an incredible talent.
Not guilty. Great.
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