Pssst! I’m going to commit cinematic blasphemy, okay? Here it is: Satyajit Ray’s movies are worthy but dull. As one of the towering figures in Indian (and world) cinema, Ray is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa, Fellini, and Godard. His movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s were as much documents of a society in transition as they were stories of individuals undergoing specific life-altering events. But despite all this, or sometimes because of exactly this, his movies remain, for me, worthy, but dull.
Here’s the thing, though: I keep trying. With a figure like Ray, it’s not enough to shrug and dismiss him with a “Yeah, whatever.” The man’s reputation and considerable body of work demand at least the effort to take him seriously. So with that in mind, I sat down to watch the Criterion Collection’s newly released, two-disc version of his 1963 film, The Big City. This was a movie made some years after his acknowledged masterwork, the “Apu trilogy”. Those films were set in the rural countryside in the 1800s.
The Big City represented a new area of concern, the urban India of the post-Independence era. So I settled in to see what I could make of this. And I found it… worthy, but dull.
The plot is simple enough to summarize. Housewife Arati, played by the lovely Madhabi Mukherjee, struggles to make ends meet while living with her husband, in-laws and young son. Husband Subrata is the only breadwinner in the household, and he’s not much of a provider.
Arati gets it into her head to start working, a problematic idea for married women of the time, but she forges ahead anyway. Her in-laws disapprove, her son has a tantrum, the husband waffles between forbidding her and taking her money. Through it all, Arati perseveres, and even finds that she enjoys the work: going door-to-door selling knitting machines.
Her customers are other bored housewives like she once was, and her co-workers include women of similar circumstances. As we watch, Arati slowly gains an admirable degree of confidence and even—gasp!—independence. This being a Ray movie, there is nothing melodramatic or flashy about this shift; it’s gradual, nuanced and understated.
Okay, fine. The thing is, there’s just not a great deal more to this movie. A woman gets a job; she resists some of the disapproval from her family; and that’s about all, apart from a couple of subplots concerning the husband and father-in-law. It’s serious, it’s well over two hours long, it’s a bit tedious. It’s also, I am sure, tremendously true to life: I lived in Pakistan for ten years, and many women I knew were still in very similar situations. But verisimilitude doesn’t automatically equal a compelling story.
Performances here are generally very strong. Madhabi Mukherjee turns in a subtle performance as Arati, but her character is such an idealized portrait of Indian womanhood that it’s tough to take much interest in her. She is a doting wife and mother, a respectful daughter- and sister-in-law, she looks great, never loses her temper or expresses a desire for anything for herself. She is unselfish and self-sacrificing to a degree that would make Mother Theresa envious. Perhaps it’s Ray’s point that even such a “perfect” woman still faces unfair obstacles in striving to overcome societal strictures, but at times the movies feels akin to hagiography.
Far more interesting is the character of Arati’s husband, a weak man who struggles to be a patriarch but whose heart isn’t really in it. Subrata walks through much of the film with a bewildered expression on his face, as if not comprehending why his job is going so poorly, his friends aren’t much help, and his wife is getting these funny ideas of her own. His aging father, meanwhile, finds himself struggling with poverty and, as a retired schoolteacher, seeks out his former pupils for aid. This storyline makes for some of the most affecting scenes in the film, yet its relation to the central plot is tangential.
One gets the feeling that Ray was more interested in capturing a moment of societal shift than in delineating an individual woman’s story. Given the idealized nature of Arati’s character, the viewer has little sense of her as an individual. Her Anglo-Indian co-worker, Edith, has more personality (although Vicky Redwood is easily the weakest actress in the picture). Arati is meant to symbolize “women” rather than a woman. As such, the film comes off as something of a dissertation rather than a story.
Also surprising is the relative lack of visual flair, something for which the director is famous. Much of the film is set indoors, with static camera angles. There are brief moments of hand-held camera out in the city streets, but—surprising considering the title of the film—there is very little sense of Kolkata as an environment. Considering that this is the story of a woman who ventures forth into the big city, there is almost no sense of how the city affects her.
A few brief moments suggest some initial uncertainty, but this is quickly forgotten. Some scenes are cleverly set up, including one in which the husband eavesdrops on his wife’s conversation in a café, but such moments are few. In general, the action appears stagey and staid.
The Criterion Collection offers, as expected, an outstanding array of extra features. Foremost among them is a second disc containing Ray’s 70-minute 1965 film The Coward, which also stars Mukherjee, and concerns a screenwriter and a chance encounter with an old flame. Though typically low-key, the film makes an excellent companion piece to The Big City.
Also included is a 1974 video profile of Ray by documentarian B.D. Garga, which runs for 13 minutes and consists primarily of clips from various films, with a bit of overlaid narration. It’s not terribly insightful but it’s a useful primer for newcomers to the director.
Ray scholar Suranjan Ganguly is interviewed in “Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman”, while a more engaging interview with Mukherjee herself focuses on her perceptions of Ray’s early films and her experience of working with him. It’s a rare window into a bygone era of filmmaking, but typical of the kind of care Criterion routinely puts into its bonus features. A useful 34-page booklet rounds out the package, packed with essays, production information and photos.
Overall, then, The Big City will be of interest to film buffs as well as, perhaps, students of Indian cultural history. Newcomers to his work should probably stick with his lauded debut, Pather Panchali, and take it from there. (Criterion is rumored to be working on it, and the other films in the Apu trilogy; fingers crossed.) Anyone interested in Ray’s ouevre, though, could do a lot worse than this set, which is likely to remain the definitive edition of this film for a very long time to come.