[Film Review] The Big City (1963)

The Big City poster

English Title: The Big City
Original title: Mahanagar
Year: 1963
Country: India
Language: Bengali, English
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Satyajit Ray
based on a story by Narendranath Mitra
Music: Satyajit Ray
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Madhabi Mukherjee
Anil Chatterjee
Jaya Bhaduri
Haren Chatterjee
Haradhan Bannerjee
Vicky Redwood
Prasenjit Sarkar
Sefalika Devi
Rating: 8.7/10

The Big City 1963

My introductory piece of Satyajit Ray’s canon, it is first and foremost an ineffable experience, a common-or-garden story of a young Bengali housewife takes on a job as a door-to-door salesgirl to support her family in Calcutta in the 50s, under Ray’s astute concoction, it throbs with human tenderness, realistic cognizance of its society and glinting performances.

Arati (Mukjerjee) and Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) are a young couple has a toddler son Pintu (Sarkar), they live under the same roof with Subrata’s parents, his teenage sister Bani (Bhaduri), and Subrata is the only breadwinner of the household, he takes extra work as a private tutor, in addition to his post as a bank clerk. Still, they can barely make ends meet, so Arati, decides to looking for a job with the hesitant acquiescence of Subrata. In the traditional and patriarchal universe, no husband is willing to let his beautiful wife dabble into a business world unless it is absolutely necessary, certainly Subrata’s parents are strongly against the idea, but under the circumstances, it seems to be the only makeshift plan.

Never been worked before, Arati is thrust into an eye-opening, horizon-widening new universe, although his boss Himangshu (Bannerjee) is a smooth-talking businessman, Arati discreetly brings about decorum in her daily canvassing work (her targets are mainly upper-middle class housewives), and makes a good fist of it. Also she strikes a rapport with fellow salesgirls, especially the Anglo-Indian Edith (Redwood), whose modern life-style rubs off on her, things such as lipsticks and sunglasses are duly entering Arati’s quotidian life.

At home, the domestic tension has never truly dissipated, Subrata’s ailing father (Haren Chatterjee) protests with silence treatment, as a former teacher who now has no income, he even abases himself to cadge for largess from his well-to-do former pupils (doctors and lawyers of sort), which is bartered with his own dignity, a scathing commotion of pathos is achieved without ever sensationalizing the subject matter in question.

Things aggravate in a dramatic slope when Subrata loses his job on the same day when Arati is supposedly to hand in her resignation out of her own will, on the grounds that Subrata will procure a sideline from his friend. All out of a sudden, Arati inadvertently becomes the only source of income for the family, she makes no dithering to demand an immediate raise from Himangshu, an out-of-left-field bid one might not expect from her reserved nature. Her subtle transformation from a compliant housewife to a gradually emancipated woman who can competently take on a more independent role in the society is the main arc of this patiently and non-intrusively limned narrative, a rare fruition considering the movie’s time and place, taking the paragraph where Arati has to keep up appearances by inventing a tall tale (with Subrata’s presence which is unbeknownst to her) in front of a potential buyer, it potently testifies that the film safeguards a cool-headed spin not to bring its heroine to perfection, she lies out of vanity (or to save her and her husband’s faces), it is foibles like this make her a fleshed-out persona making progress in the real world borne out of a plain fiction, Ray is a crack storyteller, who is incredibly well-versed in human nature and refuses to go on board with stilted emotional manipulation in his pinpoint methodology.

Also Ray adroitly projects his dissent concerning the social maladies onto his prudently shaped characters, the non-existent pensions for the elderly, the fraudulent nature of banking business and the injustice prevails in workplace (the case of built-in racism here). In the final battle, Arati has to fight for her sense of justice in an impulsive way, and she is ever so vulnerable and doubtful after that, then, propelled by a promised job opportunity, Subrata, who, although has been constantly fretted by a mixed bag of frustration, anxiety, jealousy and low self-esteem, which in the lesser hands, would in no time unleash himself into a hysterical breakdown, pouring scorn on those nearby, however, arrives when he is most needed and sensibly does the right thing and sends an auspicious message in the end. Once the dissection is done, we still need hope to carry on against the unfavourable situation, to right the wrong, to live and hold our heads high, thanks to Ray’s profound accomplishment as a cinematic raconteur, his unostentatious aesthetic codes and a perspicacious cast headlined by Mukherjee, whose unfeigned impersonation is exceedingly heartfelt, THE BIG CITY is simply a marvel to behold, to cherish and to ruminate.

Oscar 1963  The Big City


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