The Big City January 12, 2023
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
hen Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), the housewife heroine of Satyajit Ray’s sublime The Big City (1963), decides early on in the movie to get a full-time job, it shifts the axis of the Calcutta home she shares with her husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee); their son (Prosenjit Sarkar); Subrata’s younger sister (Jaya Bhaduri); and Subrata’s elderly parents, Sarojini and Priyogopal (Sefalika Devi
and Haren Chatterjee). It’s a conservative household, and the move — made both because Subrata’s salary is inadequate and because Arati is feeling generally stifled in their cramped apartment — is met like an affront.
Though eventually coaxed into hesitant support, Subrata says bluntly that he believes a housewife should stay at home, never to wander out. And once Arati dives into the professional world officially, Priyogopoal stops speaking to his son altogether, apoplectic he’d let his wife diverge so far from domestic tradition. (Some of this — though he isn’t open about it to many — stems from Priyogopoal’s own frustration in retirement, turned bitter by how, as a teacher, he helped facilitate the professional successes of many of his students only to stay in a kind of arrested development himself.)
Aside from the family problems it causes, Arati’s leap into the workforce proves positive. The salesgirl position she takes pays so well — she receives commissions on top of her regular salary — that she has plenty of her very first paycheck left over after spending an exorbitant amount on celebratory gifts for the family. She’s also given such a boost in confidence and purpose through both her persuasive customer service and her sometimes tetchy interactions with her generally slimy boss (Haradhan Bannerjee) that, mid-movie, Subrata says, not defeatedly but in a way that sounds like a roundabout compliment, that he doesn’t recognize her anymore. In a wonderful performance, Mukherjee luminously captures that gradual shift away from purposelessness and how it can manifest just in the way you carry yourself. The Big City isn’t as much making a case for work itself as a positive as how generally transformative it can be to turn over a new leaf and appreciate what comes next.
That’s pretty much where any kind of straightforward cheer in The Big City begins and ends. Reflective of a period in Calcutta history where women were increasingly asserting their place in the working world, The Big City is blunt about the professional and personal difficulties that come with shifting tides. The latter comes from the family’s conservative household greeting of Arati’s newfound independence, the former from how Arati and her women coworkers are financially taken advantage of by a male boss thinking he can seize not just on their eagerness to work but on their already disadvantaged societal place as women.
Arati strikes up a close friendship with one of her colleagues, Edith (Vicky Redwood), and through her we see the extent to which their supervisor is willing to unjustly retaliate. After the latter speaks up about the unfairness of a policy, she’s labeled a suspicious rabble-rouser — someone who’s “difficult.” The placing of these labels is partially motivated by how, as an Anglo-Indian, she additionally sparks immediate ethnic prejudice from him.
The Big City was Ray’s first project to explore modern life in Calcutta, where he was born and raised, after years of period pieces. It’s a work defined by the empathy for which he’s come to be admired, and is also one of several in which he focuses on characters treading the unfamiliar waters of social evolution, finding some moments of transcendence but, in the long run, far more uncertainty and difficulty. The ending is note-perfect, technically inconclusive but able to find peace in its lack of resolution — the optimistic acceptance rather than defeat by the understanding that in life there exist no catch-all solutions that work exactly quite as you hope. A