'The Big City' Prompts a Bit of Cinematic Blasphemy

As one of the towering figures in Indian (and world) cinema, Satyajit Ray is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa, Fellini, and Godard.

The Big City

Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Madhabi Mukherjee, Anil Chatterjee, Haren Chatterjee, Vicky Redwood
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: not rated
Release date: 2013-08-20

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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