The Big City: A Woman’s Place

On Film / Essays — Aug 19, 2013

The Big City (1963) was Satyajit Ray’s first attempt to depict the realities of contemporary life in his home city, Kolkata. His tenth feature film, it actually came close to being his second, which would have provided a stark contrast with the rural, early twentieth-century setting of his remarkable debut, Pather panchali (1955). Difficulties of casting and finance, however, delayed it until he had made the others—the majority of them set in the past (including Aparajito, The Music Room, and The World of Apu) or in rural or suburban milieus (Three Daughters, The Expedition), suggesting to many critics that Ray was reluctant to confront topical, urban issues. Had The Big City (Mahanagar) followed Pather panchali, its meticulously detailed portrayal of lower-middle-class urban life would have forestalled such criticism. But there was much more to the film than mere contemporaneity. It was a major work incorporating Ray’s long-standing interest in women’s lives, while foreshadowing the grand themes of his later films on contemporary Kolkata: the impact of work—and its absence—on people, the agony and ecstasy of metropolitan life, and the place of individual morality in modern capitalist society.

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Like many of Ray’s greatest films, The Big City is ultimately a study of individuals negotiating social change, in this case the major shift that occurred in Bengal in the 1950s when increasing numbers of middle-class housewives began to take up jobs. Based on “Abataranika” (Descent, 1949) and, to a lesser extent, “Akinchan” (Desire, 1954), two short stories by Narendranath Mitra (1916–75), it tells the tale of the bank clerk Subrata Mazumdar, his wife, Arati, and their five-year-old son, Pintu, who live in a tiny, dank apartment in Kolkata with Subrata’s fourteen-year-old sister, Bani; his father, Priyagopal, a retired schoolteacher; and his mother, Sarojini. The old prejudice against women working outside the home is starting to crumble but is still powerful, in the city and their household. When Arati proposes to take a job, Subrata reminds his wife—in English and only half in jest—that “a woman’s place is in the home,” but sheer economic necessity compels him to back her.

Subrata’s father, immured in tradition, is appalled, but being retired and economically dependent, he lacks the authority to countermand his daughter-in-law’s choice. Indeed, there is no place in the new world for the elderly, used-up Priyagopal, who turns to his former students for financial and other kinds of support. One of them sneers that the man who once quoted Samuel Smiles—the British author of Self-Help (1859) and other best-selling guides to worldly success for ambitious Victorians—has now been reduced to beggary. This kind of elderly male character, unable to understand the changing world around him but portrayed with profound sympathy and understanding, would recur in Ray’s later work—The Middleman (1975), Pikoo (1980)—but never with such poignancy.

The Big City was also pioneering in its treatment of race and racial discrimination, themes rarely featured in Indian films and almost never, according to critic Dipendu Chakrabarty, in association with gender issues. One of Arati’s colleagues, Edith, belongs to the Anglo-Indian community, which originated from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liaisons between British colonials and Indian women. Denied equality by the British and not accepted by Indians, they occupied a liminal position in society and were generally regarded as immoral, dishonest, and culturally degenerate. Arati, transcending these racial stereotypes, draws close to Edith on an individual level and does not hesitate to resign when her boss (who has always been nice to Arati) impugns Edith’s moral character and dismisses her. This leads to a crisis for Arati’s family, as Subrata has just lost his own job. But in the end, he agrees that she has done the right thing, and they face the future together as equals.

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Ray’s style in The Big City, remarked critic Eric Rhode in 1976, recalls the realism of nineteenth-century European novelists. Characters are “both individuals and social types”; the city’s economic and class structure is more important to the narrative than its scenic qualities; and even “the most trivial of objects are made dynamically essential to the plot.” The title sequence, for instance, establishes the metropolitan locale by focusing exclusively on the bobbing progress of the pole connecting a tramcar to the overhead electric cable. The crisp banknotes in Arati’s first pay packet symbolize her integration into modern capitalism, while a lipstick, a present from Edith that she uses at work but must conceal at home (because Bengalis of that time considered it immoral to paint one’s lips), establishes the vast cultural distance between the two worlds of (traditional) housewife and (modern) worker that Arati has to negotiate every day.

The social and racial diversity of midcentury Kolkata is also deftly established. The cramped apartment where Arati lives with her family (Ray described Bansi Chandragupta’s magnificent set as “the smallest rooms ever built”), the prosperous neighborhoods where Arati visits her customers (where an occasional British resident is still to be found), the elegant office of a successful student of Priyagopal’s, the cavernous apartment where Edith lives with her mother (as lower-middle-class as Arati’s own but decorated with pictures of Hollywood stars, not calendars with pictures of Hindu gods)—all of them build up a panoramic, near-ethnographic portrait of metropolitan life. Sounds, too, are used to great effect. It is a newscast, audible from a neighbor’s apartment, that locates the narrative in May 1954, and assorted radio broadcasts are used throughout the film to establish the urban soundscape of the time.

The social typage attempted in The Big City is helped greatly by the cast. Anil Chatterjee as Subrata is the genteel but economically challenged Bengali clerk par excellence, while the singer and amateur actor Haren Chatterjee embodies the rigidity and emotional vulnerability of Priyagopal to perfection. Jaya Bhaduri, who later became a popular Bollywood heroine, began her career here, with an endearing depiction of Subrata’s teenage sister, and Vicky Redwood, actually a Bengali woman appearing under an appropriate-sounding pseudonym, reproduces the characteristic appearance, mannerisms, and accents of Kolkata’s Anglo-Indians with uncanny verisimilitude. But it is Madhabi Mukherjee who is the true revelation. Bringing Arati to life with an extraordinary combination of intelligence, moral strength, and emotional sensitivity, she walks away with the film and, after her outstanding performance in the title role of Ray’s Charulata (1964), was enshrined for all time as the quintessential “Ray woman.”

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The Big City
’s approach to female emancipation and capitalist modernity united Ray with his ancestors. From the nineteenth century on, the Rays and their collateral connections had participated in countless progressive initiatives, many of them under the auspices of the Brahmo Samaj, a primarily religious movement seeking to reform not only the Hindu faith but also Hindu society and morals. The emancipation of India’s women was central to this project. Dwarakanath Ganguli, the father-in-law of Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, was a tireless fighter for the unrestricted entry of women into higher education and risked his life combating the oppression of indigenous laborers on British-owned tea plantations. Ganguli’s second wife, Kadambini, the first Bengali woman to train in Western medicine, was the obstetrician who delivered the baby Satyajit in 1921.

Ray’s mother, Suprabha, left virtually destitute with her two-year-old son after her husband Sukumar’s sudden death and the ensuing bankruptcy of the Ray family’s printing business, was compelled to earn her living by teaching sewing at an institution for widows. She also sculpted and did leatherwork (often selling her creations for good money), taught the young Satyajit at home (he didn’t go to school until he was nearly nine), and, simultaneously, cooked and kept house with an efficiency that few could match. Being the only son of a widow, Ray often acknowledged, helped him in Aparajito (1956) to portray with sensitivity Apu’s relationship with his mother; although he never spoke about it, his depiction of Arati must have been similarly assisted by the experience—most unusual for a Bengali of his time and class—of growing up with a working mother.

The issue of female autonomy is interwoven in The Big City with Ray’s lifelong concern with the social, psychological, and moral dimensions of work. The invigorating effects of paid labor on Arati’s soul are celebrated unequivocally, but the unfair dismissal of Edith reveals the arbitrary nature of capitalistic power. Above all, the film indicts the brutality with which modern capitalism excludes unproductive individuals like Priyagopal, a character who was almost an original creation of Ray’s. He is named after the near-silent representative of tradition in “Abataranika” and remodeled from the schoolmaster protagonist of “Akinchan,” but all the situations the old man is involved in in The Big City were conceived by Ray himself, and some of them were even taken up by Narendranath Mitra when he reworked “Abataranika” into the novella Mahanagar (1963).

Ray’s social critique, however, was milder than Mitra’s. In “Abataranika,” Arati’s resignation is not supported by her husband or her family; indeed, her mother-in-law grumbles that an employer’s bark has to be tolerated, especially when he is not barking at you. There was no place for such harshness in Ray’s vision. An individual’s moral courage had to be rewarded by some triumph, even if it was only the emotional reward of Arati and Subrata rediscovering their love in adversity. Ray would later pay more attention to the cost of moral gestures—notably in The Adversary (1970), which ends with a comparably quixotic protest—but in 1963, it was the gesture itself that mattered most to him. As Suranjan Ganguly and other critics have argued, this attitude may have been influenced by Ray’s—and the Indian progressive bourgeoisie’s—conviction, during the years of Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministership (1947–64), that a glorious future awaited the fledgling nation if its citizens worked hard, rejected outdated dogmas, and acted with complete moral integrity. It was only after India’s descent into the difficulties of the post-Nehruvian age that Ray’s films darkened in tone and increasingly questioned the individual’s moral significance.

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The Big City received much praise in India, despite an early, misinformed controversy about its alleged maligning of Anglo-Indians. (Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, then the minister responsible for cinema, had to intervene before the film could be sent for international exhibition.) The Kolkata press was unanimous in praising the sheer poetry that Ray had conjured out of “three wretched rooms stuffed with decaying furniture.” In Britain, Richard Roud thought that the film approached “absolute realism,” while in the U.S., Time’s reviewer gushed that Ray had almost managed to “take the lens off his camera and allow life itself to touch the raw film.”

The Big City was awarded the Silver Bear for best direction at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964, but it was at a festival nearer home that it had its greatest impact. When screened during a 1964 international film season in Dhaka (the capital of Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), enormous crowds, including thousands of women, queued for tickets for the three scheduled shows. The lack of seats precipitated a mini riot, and after more than a hundred people were beaten up by the police, the festival organizers were forced to schedule ten extra shows, running consecutively over twenty-four hours.

Not everybody, of course, was as overwhelmed by The Big City; many critics, including Penelope Houston, the editor of Sight & Sound, found the conclusion to be clichéd and sentimental. Whatever people felt about the ending, though, very few seem to have appreciated that its optimism had stemmed not from any penchant for melodrama but from Ray’s liberal ideology, his conviction that the individual conscience was powerful enough to challenge, if not vanquish, the amoral Goliath of capitalism. That faith would be undermined over time, and The Big City, apart from being an important film in its own right, was a significant way station on Satyajit Ray’s complex—and as yet little-analyzed—journey from a relatively sanguine liberalism to the edgier, far more conflicted worldview that one detects in his later works.