We never get lost in the size of Kolkata, the setting of Satyajit Ray’s The Big City. It’s the native home of the director, and what we do see of it is open yet intimate, depicted with amusement, warmth, and an unassuming familiarity. The title seems like a misnomer at first, seeing as most of the story occurs in closed quarters, like the bedroom shared by Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) and Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) in the home where they live with Subrata’s parents, Priyagopal (Haren Chatterjee) and Sarojini (Sefalika Devi). The film centers on Arati’s decision to take a job as a salesperson for a knitting machine company in the heart of the bustling metropolis, but Ray’s elegant melodrama remains largely made up of everyday conversations between close friends and family.
The film’s title has more to do with temptation, the endless possibilities that the big city represents, choices that Arita’s husband isn’t completely comfortable with her having. That’s not even mentioning the added bonus of the local, decidedly old-fashioned shame given to a man who needs financial help from his wife, an attitude exemplified by Priyagopal. Subrata works as a bank clerk, but his son’s tuition is two months overdue and simple niceties—new glasses, crossword puzzles, tobacco, toys, etc.—are becoming disparagingly rare. So Arati answers an ad and goes to work selling Autoknit machines to rich housewives, under a seemingly kindhearted and progressive boss, Mr. Mukherjee (Haradhan Bannerjee).
Ray, as always, locates and follows the pulse of working-class life with a wholly respectful and unsentimental eye for details and a canny ear for family talk. The stale, conservative mood that Arati faces at home is tied directly to matters of mortality, as Priyagopal projects his feelings of growing obsolescence onto his hesitantly progressive son, but Ray depicts matters of social import in terms of pragmatism. Arati is modernizing out of necessity, to give her family some fiscal breathing room rather than make a statement, and takes to it well, alongside her younger, thoroughly hip Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith (Vicky Redwood). Rather than preach an agenda, Ray allows the sweep of the story and the directness of the drama to speak for itself.
One could label Ray a neorealist, but it’s important to note how the director never allows the plainspoken tone of his film to soften his style or fetishize dullness in the name of art or honesty. He sets up the home as being run on its own sort of class system and moves through the rooms with a lithe exactness, and when Arati’s role in the family becomes equal to Subrata’s station, we follow Priyagopal’s desperate search for stabilization and pride in his former students. The way the filmmaker is able to fluidly expand from an intimate matter of family finances to matters of workplace politics, social value, and misguided nationalism is never less than fascinatingly detailed.
Early on, Subrata jokingly compares his income and savings to that of Lady Mountbatten’s, but the clearest expression of India’s lingering post-partition hangover involves Mr. Mukherjee. He’s warm to Arita, even when she demands a hefty raise, but he’s also unmistakably condescending to her, an attitude that he slyly exudes when he asks Arita to take over collective bargaining duties from Edith. In fact, the climactic fight isn’t between Arita and the men of her family, but with Mr. Mukherjee when he terminates Edith to secretly make way for Subrata’s place in the company. Though the traditionalism of Britain’s colonialist rule has largely deteriorated in The Big City, Mr. Mukherjee represents the knotty uncertainty that’s left in its wake, a frantic and angry need to hold onto social, cultural, and traditional dominance after a lifetime of being subservient in one’s own country.
In other words, Mr. Mukherjee isn’t ready to share liberation, at least not fully, and thus he favors the mostly conservative Arita and Subrata over the independently minded, unmarried Edith, whose father was Anglo. Ray isn’t bothered by tradition until it becomes the basis for prejudice, and he mirrors this simple belief in both tone and narrative. Mr. Mukherjee, Subrata, or Priyagopal are never depicted as mere bigoted simpletons, but rather men desperately grappling with the vastness of true independence. The actions and thoughts Arati indulges in The Big City are only the beginning of liberation, her first bold steps toward the great promise inferred in the title of Ray’s unassuming near-masterpiece.
Criterion does an exemplary job here in terms of definition and balance between the image’s blacks, whites, and grays. The sequence in which Priyagopal visits his former student, an optometrist, and begins crying in the dark proves especially impressive in terms of color definition. Clarity and depth are outstanding, particularly the level of detail and fluidity seen in Subrata and Arati’s home. The print has been cleaned up, but not to the point that it looks unnatural or heavily manipulated. Nice grain level as well. The mono soundtrack has clear limitations in terms of immersive sound and impact, but it proves more than serviceable overall. Dialogue is clean and crisp out front, balanced nicely with sound effects and director Satyajit Ray’s own lovely score.
The prize here is The Coward, a lean 1965 feature by Ray that never saw stateside release and was originally half of a Ray double feature with The Holy Man. Centered on a scriptwriter who unexpectedly finds himself in the hospitality of his lost love and her schlubby hubby, The Coward may be the only narrative where Ray’s main character is involved directly in filmmaking, and by extension, it feels like one of the director’s most personal features. He touches on how filmmaking serves as both an expression of and defense against memory, while also considering similar concepts of social and liberation that The Big City deals with. Speaking of which: The package also includes two interesting video interviews considering the film, one with Madhabi Mukherjee and one with Ray scholar Suranjan Ganguly. A short doc on Ray and a booklet, which includes an interview with Ray and an essay by Andrew Robinson, are also included. Some more attention paid to the production and the place of The Big City in Ray’s oeuvre would have been appreciated, but otherwise, this is a very generous helping of extras.
Satyajit Ray’s ravishing modern fable of (male-centric) tradition in peril receives a typically beautiful Blu-ray premiere from Criterion, bundled with Ray’s barely distributed The Coward and other worthwhile extras.