The Big City (Mahanagar) [Blu-Ray]
Director : Satyajit Ray
Screenplay : Satyajit Ray (based on a story by Narendranath Mitra)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Anil Chatterjee (Subrata Mazumdar), Madhabi Mukherjee (Arati Mazumder), Jaya Bhaduri (Bani), Haren Chatterjee (Priyogopal, Subrata’s father), Sefalika Devi (Sarojini, Subrata’s Mother), Prasenjit Sarkar (Pintu), Haradhan Bannerjee (Himangshu Mukherjee), Vicky Redwood (Edith)
The Big City (Mahanagar), Indian auteur Satyajit Ray’s tenth feature, was his first to be set in an urban milieu in the then-present day. All of his previous films had been set in rural areas, often in Bengali, and/or took place in the recent past, usually the late 19th or early 20th century. The Big City, on the other hand, is set in Kolkata/Calcutta, at the time India’s most populous city, in the mid-1950s, and it deals directly with pertinent social issues of the time, particularly the role of women in a traditional society that is rapidly modernizing. The idea of married women going to work marked a significant rupture in orthodox Indian society at the time, something of which Ray was acutely aware, having grown up with a widowed mother who had no choice but to return to work to support her family.
The film’s protagonists are a young, lower-middle-class married couple, Subrata and Arati Mazumder (Anil Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee). Subrata has a respectable office job working at a bank, but it does not bring in enough money each month to fully support them, their five-year-old son Pintu (Prasenjit Sarkar), and the extended family who lives with them, including Subrata’s father and mother (Haren Chatterjee and Sefalika Devi) and his teenage sister Bani (Jaya Bhaduri). They live in a cramped, dim apartment and often struggle to make ends meet from month to month, which is why Arati suggests that perhaps she should take a job, as well. Subrata is reluctant at first, but once he realizes what a second paycheck would do for them, he is able to set aside his traditional beliefs about women’s primary responsibility being in the home and help Arati find a job. On the other hand, Subrata’s father, Priyogopal, a retired schoolteacher in failing health who represents the older generation, is staunchly opposed and refuses to accept the idea of his daughter-in-law going to work every day, rather than staying home and looking after the domestic responsibilities.
Arati finds a job doing door-to-door sales for a company that manufactures knitting machines, which underscores the changing face of domesticity in the modern world as household labor is increasingly automated. Her boss, Himangshu Mukherjee (Haradhan Bannerjee), is impressed with her effort and dedication, although she and the other women with whom she works have to constantly advocate for fair pay, including a share of the sales commissions. Arati befriends Edith (Vicky Redwood), an Anglo-Indian who speaks mostly English and introduces her to lipstick, a symbol of modern femininity that is forbidden in Arati’s more traditional worldview. Because Edith is Anglo-Indian and therefore a living embodiment of British colonialism, Mukherjee is prejudiced against her, complaining to Arati when Edith is chosen by the other saleswomen to ask for better pay. Mukherjee is a complicated figure, both sympathetic as an understanding boss and detestable as a man of unquestioned bigotry (a social issue that was, incidentally, rarely raised in Indian cinema at the time, making this a particularly daring film). He is quite generous with Arati, giving her an early raise when Subrata’s bank unexpectedly folds, leaving him without employment, yet his ethnic bias against Edith leads him to act unfairly.
As with most of Ray’s other films, The Big City is a complex, but ultimately generous depiction of humanity trying to navigate the uncertainties of a changing world. Each of the characters embodies both values and flaws, and Ray (who based his screenplay on several stories by Bengali writer and poet Narendranath Mitra) treats both sides with understanding and humanity. Arati, for example, is in many ways the film’s most noble character. She is kind, self-sacrificing, dutiful, and honest; yet, she is also impulsive, driven by her emotions to make rash decisions that, while morally right, potentially endanger her family’s stability. Similarly, Subrata is a good husband and father, although he is hindered at times by his insecure masculinity, as he feels threatened by Arati’s professional success (especially after he loses his job) and clearly worries that she will leave him for someone else.
Ray builds the narrative with a steady assuredness, drawing us into the characters and their intermingled hopes and fears about economic security and the changing face of gender roles. Because we like them as people, we hope for the best for them, even though Ray dangles the constantly possibility of everything falling apart at the seams, which it very nearly does at the end. Yet, Ray finds a way to focus our attention on the silver lining, ending the film on a note of hope even though Subrata and Arati are essentially walking off into an unseen future, swallowed up by a crowd on the big city street that is meant to symbolize all the grand possibilities of modern life, but just as easily could represent the suffocation of individuality amid the masses.
|The Big City Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The Big City is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||Hindi/English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 20, 2013|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|I was duly impressed by the visual presentation of The Big City. Criterion’s high-definition image derives from a digital master produced from a restoration undertake by RDB Entertainments. The transfer was made from both the original 35mm negative and a 35mm print at Pixion in Chennai, India (due to serious warping in those elements, a few sections were also transferred from an original 35mm safety fine-grain print held by the Academy Film Archive). I was expecting the film to look more worn and grainy, but I was pleasantly surprised with how sharp and clean the image was. Contrast and detail were great (in one scene you can make out the finest nuances of a mesh curtain behind which we see Arati sitting), and there was a nice, subtle interplay of grain to maintain a filmlike appearance. Wear and tear were virtually nonexistent. The lossless monaural soundtrack was transferred and restored from the original sound negative and sounds quite good, with minimal artifacts and no aural hiss.|
|Criterion’s edition of The Big City includes two new video interviews, one with actress Madhabi Mukherjee, who discusses at length her experiences working with Ray on several films, and one with Ray scholar Suranjan Ganguly, who discusses the depiction of modern women in The Big City and two of Ray’s other films. Criterion has also included The Coward (Kapurush), a short feature by Ray from 1965 that also addresses modern female identity and stars Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee, as well as Satyajit Ray (1974), a 13-minute television documentary by B.D. Garga. The insert booklet features a particularly illuminating essay by scholar Chandak Sengoopta (who is currently working on a comprehensive biography of Ray) and a 1980s interview with Ray by biographer Andrew Robinson about The Big City and The Coward.|
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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