Re-released for its fiftieth anniversary, Satyajit Ray’s The Big City tells the tale of a family struggling to adjust to great social change, in a time when the notion of a woman’s place was suddenly debatable. Ray’s deeply sensitive portrayal of his subject is as relevant today as it was upon its original release.
Set in 1950’s Calcutta, The Big City centres on Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) and her husband Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), as the power balance in their marriage starts to shift in response to great social pressures. In a city in financial crisis, the Mazumdar family find that Subrata’s bank clerk wage is increasingly falling short of what is required to support himself, his wife and their extended family, generations of which live under one roof. However, when Arati decides to contribute herself, and takes a job as a door-to-door sales girl, Subrata finds himself at odds with his wife’s newfound independence. His parents are also positively horrified at the news of their daughter-in-law’s profession, believing, as tradition dictates, that the wife’s place is at home, in the kitchen.
In this way, Ray addresses changing gender dynamics, and highlights generational differences, serving to illustrate this time of great social shift in contemporary Calcutta. Added to this multi-layered societal portrait is Arati’s new colleague, and friend, Edith Simmons, a thoroughly modern Anglo-Asian facing her own struggles as one of a racially marginalised group, still without place in 1950’s India. Edith’s attractive forthrightness persuades Arati to drop some of her traditional humility in favour of the dark glasses and red lipsticks of the new Indian woman.
The gently comedic interactions between Arati and Edith are only part of the humour that is continuously woven between the narrative lines of fear and self-doubt that underline the story. Much fun is had with the various characters met in Arati’s door-to-door house calls. The same goes for the gently teasing way in which we view Arati’s grieving in-laws, so utterly distraught at Arati’s new success, although their upset is simultaneously treated with understanding in Ray’s profoundly cognizant script.
The insight and intelligence with which each character is treated is supported by entirely fulfilling performances from the whole cast, although the stand out performance comes, without doubt, from Mukherjee as Arati. Mukherjee’s astonishingly communicative facial expressions display the inner thoughts and emotions of Arati’s complex and joyously likeable character. Mukherjee’s portrayal is naturalistic to the point of seeming effortless.
Though overall realist in style, and better for it, there are scenes of almost lyrical beauty. Subrata stares through a translucent curtain, half shadowed, confusing his sense of tradition for pride, and a single tear falls from his father’s eye in the perfect circle of an opticians lens as the senior man begs shamelessly for money from his former students. Such moments, beautifully restored in this new edition, further prove Ray’s mastery of direction. With an overwhelming impression of hope above all, The Big City is timeless.