As the Satyajit Ray Retrospective gets underway at the British Film Institute, author and filmmaker Sangeeta Datta reviews Ray's extraordinary classic of reviews "Mahanagar" (The Big City - 1963), the Festival's showpiece.
Mahanagar has often been overshadowed by the Apu trilogy preceding it or the masterpiece Charulata ( The Lonely Wife, 1964) immediately following it.
Ray's first film on contemporary Calcutta makes him focus on the world he lives in and is familiar with. Like most of his films, this is also an adaptation of a short story by Naren Mitra, which captures the momentous middle- class family transition when the housewife steps out to find a job in the big city.
A bank officer finds it difficult to make ends meet for his joint family, his father needs new spectacles, his mother needs her tobacco spices, his sister needs her school fees and his child needs toys.
His wife Arati decides to take up a job as a saleswoman to supplement her husband's income. Stepping into the office space and into rich people's homes to sell her product, Arati's identity grows from the narrow family structure to the workplace and the possibilities of the big city outside, where she now walks with more confidence and even uses make up and sunglasses.
Her bonding with co-workers, especially with the Anglo-Indian Edith, allows her to forge relations across languages and cultures.
Arati looks at herself more often in the mirror and sees a modern woman emerge. Her pride with her first earnings is expressed in the shyly triumphant look with which she holds the crisp bank notes to her face and smells them.
Arati's newfound confidence creates trouble at home. Her husband, who loses his job, is forced to stay at home in a role reversal. Ray's examination of social change cleverly hinges on the agency of women.
There are pertinent questions raised here about the shift in masculinity and patriarchal control in this household as with the politics of the workplace and a male boss. Arati's argument with the boss and her eventual resignation ( to defend her colleague Edith) has contemporary overtones, making the question of women's rights in the workplace sharply topical and contemporary.
My favourite scene is the last sequence when Arati has quit her job, after crying on her husband's shoulder, she looks up towards the tall buildings and says. "This is such a large city, will one of us not find a job?" and the husband replies with confidence, "I am sure we both will."
It is followed by a rear shot as the couple step off the pavement and walk briskly up the road and disappear in the far crowd as the camera rises and stops at a street lamp which has just been lit.
Like many other beautiful sequences before, Ray here captures the dialectics of change, the crisis and the hope of the big city.
In her debut with Ray, Madhabi Mukherjee gives a wonderful performance supported by the understated Anil Chatterjee. Ray makes his supporting characters so credible and memorable, as in the younger sister, the disapproving father or the well meaning office boss.
Winner of the Silver Bear in Berlin, Subrata Mitra's camera and Bansi Chandragupta's design contribute to the striking experience of Mahanagar.
Digitally restored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Archives, the film opens with an extended run at BFI and other theatres to allow more people a chance to rediscover what is clearly a classic piece of cinema.
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