Written by Rachael Johnson.
For most lovers, and scholars of ‘World Cinema’, the great Indian director Satyajit Ray will be forever identified with the Apu Trilogy. Chronically the coming of age of a young Bengali boy in the early part of the last century, the critically-acclaimed Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) still feature in highly regarded Greatest Films of All Time lists. While they remain prized, influential films, 2013 has given us the opportunity to look at other great works by Ray. Re-released by the British Film Institute to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Mahanagar (The Big City) is one that particularly caught my eye. It proved a pretty special discovery.
Set in 1950s Kolkata, The Big City is an intimate, insightful examination of the role of women in post-Independence India. The heroine of the tale is Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee), a lovely, kind-hearted housewife who lives with her bank clerk husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), and their small son Pintu. They share their modest, lower middle-class home with Subrata’s elderly parents and teenage sister. As he is finding it hard to make ends meet, it is decided that Arati should also help support the family. She procures a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. Initially fearful of stepping out into the city streets, Arati soon adapts to the world of work. Gaining confidence and customers, she displays a considerable talent for the business. She meets people outside her family for the first time and strikes up a friendship with a stylish Anglo-Indian colleague called Edith (Vicki Redwood) who introduces her to lipstick.
But all is not well at home. Horrified by the very idea of his daughter-in-law working, Subrata’s deeply conservative father, Priyagopal (Haren Chatterjee), cold-shoulders the couple. The retired school teacher is particularly ashamed of his son. He believes that he has failed as a husband and that a woman who works suffers great hardship. Interestingly, he feels no shame in asking his former pupils for financial help. Subrata embodies urban post-colonial India and comes across as a quite genial and relatively modern husband. There are nicely-observed scenes at the beginning of the film where he shows engaging support for his wife who is naturally nervous at entering the workforce for the first time. He defends their decision to his father. ‘Change comes because it’s necessary,’ he says. However, Subrata too becomes increasingly threatened by Arati’s new role. She is forced to mollify his masculinist sense of worth. ‘I’m still the same. Just a housewife,’ she says. But he still tells her to quit her job. It is a cruel demand as it shows that Subrata does not care about Arati’s personal happiness and sense of self-worth. It also demonstrates a lack of logic and imagination. The request is all the more discouraging because he is a customarily gentle, likeable man. The Big City is not a polemic and Ray does not express an openly judgmental attitude towards his male characters. The film does, however, indicate that their narrow-mindedness is irrational and self-defeating. The director shows, through the illustration of a potentially disastrous life-changing event, that such reactionary, patriarchal attitudes are dangerous to the survival of both men and women. Unchanging concepts of gender serve neither the family nor community. Ray is, therefore, interested, in both the consequences of women’s participation in the workforce for both the individual and her society.
Ray wonderfully shows what work and economic independence mean for Arati personally. His portrayal of her struggle and advancement is both tender and progressive. Ray’s heroine is both good at her job and fulfilled by her work. It energizes her. ‘I work all day, and yet I don’t feel tired,’ she tells Subrata. There are many beautifully-observed moments in the movie but one scene in particular captures Arati’s own feelings towards her emerging role and independence. When she receives her first pay packet at work, she goes into the bathroom and opens the envelope to examine the pristine notes. In front of the mirror, she holds them to her chest and then smells them. She is pensive, a little bemused, and simply, understandably, proud of her success. At home, she tells her husband, ‘If you saw me at work, you wouldn’t recognize me.’ She is, of course, deeply hurt when Subrata asks her to give up her job. Ray addresses social change in humorous ways too. In one amusing scene, a stunned Subrata, having tea in a café, watches Arati, in black shades, cross the busy street outside. She runs into the husband of a friend and accompanies him into the café. It is an entirely innocent meeting but Subrata listens to their conversation behind a newspaper. Arati has two selves for two worlds. At home, she hides the lipstick she wears in the big city. These tensions are handled with delicacy and wit. Thanks to the well-drawn characterization and Mukherjee’s fully-realized performance, Arati’s growth always strikes the viewer as believable. Her spark is actually evident from the very beginning of the story when she wakes Subrata up in the middle of night to tell him, ‘I’m going to work.’
Arati is, in fact, a great screen heroine. She is elegant, giving, gritty and spirited. Committed to supporting others, she has a strong personal and public moral code. She cares for both her loved ones and her fellow female co-workers. She buys presents for every member of the family when she gets her first salary and, although he has hurt her, she does not hesitate to praise her failing husband when she is with others. At work, Arati is not frightened of asking her boss for a raise and she learns to bargain with her colleagues for extra commission pay. When Edith’s virtue is slighted at work (the boss believes Anglo-Indians to be inherently promiscuous), she speaks out against the injustice and makes an extraordinarily risky yet heroic move. It is important to note that Arati is not regressively presented as a maternal martyr but as a dynamic, engaged worker and citizen. Her husband respects her decision and praises her for standing up against injustice. Manifesting a generosity of spirit, The Big City also shows that people can change. It promises that both Arati and her husband will join forces and work to support their family. Even her father-in-law asks her to forgive his behavior.
While it is a tale filmed in black and white, and rooted in particular time and place, The Big City has immeasurable universal appeal and contemporary significance. Although it is not without melodramatic elements, it tells a very human story with both wit and kindness. It has a progressive sensibility and great heart. A sensitive study of a woman’s personal awakening and growth, it also understands that the personal is deeply political. The Big City has a wonderful heroine and a memorable central performance. Mukherjee’s turn as the strong, gracious Arati is quite mesmerizing. Newly restored, it is, in addition, gorgeous to look at. Now part of the Criterion Collection, The Big City is not difficult to track down. It is a beautiful film and I cannot recommend it highly enough.