Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Satyajit Ray’s powerful working-class family drama set in his native Calcutta.
There is no doubt that Satyajit Ray is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Fellow auteurs as widely disparate in tone and temporality as Kurosawa, Truffaut, Scorsese, and (believe it or not) Spielberg, have poured on accolades, and amongst his many plaudits the Academy of Motion Pictures awarded him an honorary Oscar in 1992. It is perhaps the sense of sanguine humanity in his films that gave him his individual, distinctive flare, and his work can perhaps be drawn closest in comparison to such other humanists as Ozu and Renoir. It was in fact on meeting the latter at the age of 28 that inspired Ray to leave behind his career as an artist and musician and to take up filmmaking, not unlike Renoir’s own experience with Chaplin in 1919. There is the sense with Ray’s work that although the issues being dealt with are often tragic loss and the insidious hold that poverty can have over life, there is still always a beauty and optimism in the human spirit that cannot be beaten out.
After the much lauded ‘Apu Trilogy’, The Big City, or Mahanagar as it was known in its domestic market, is Ray’s best known film, winning him the Silver Bear at Berlin in 1964 and just missing out on making the shortlist for that year’s Oscar nominations. It was his tenth feature in eight years and found him at perhaps the most prolific point in his career, churning out poignant domestic dramas about life in contemporary post-Imperialist India on an annual basis.
The story follows the travails of the Mazumdar family—residents of Ray’s own native Calcutta—comprised of husband Subrata, wife Arati, her sister Bani, son Pintu, and Subrata’s elderly parents, whose own lack of money and inability to work has forced them into their son’s care and the already cramped second floor apartment. Money is understandably tight, and after dwelling on a throwaway statement made by her husband about a colleague’s wife, Arati finds herself heading out into the world of work (controversial for a Bengali wife at the time), peddling an apparently cutting edge wool knitting machine to lazy upper middle-class housewives. After being initially terrified, Arati soon takes to the work and begins to assert herself and enjoy her money, much to the dismay of Grandfather, and soon enough husband too, who hides behind his parent’s prejudices, but clearly feels somewhat emasculated himself. In order to restore harmony and the family’s honour, Subrata convinces Arati to resign, but just before she can he himself loses his own job at the local bank, and Arati finds herself the sole breadwinner for the family. Tensions run high as Arati’s confidence grows and Subrata’s fades—“Exit husband, enter wife,” as he himself states—and duty and honour conflict with the pressing need for the family to survive.
Unlike the post-war West at the time (but interestingly, not unlike many developed countries now), India found itself inundated with university educated young men like Subrata, who were forced to live in poverty with their families due to the low wages for their white-collar jobs, the cost of education for their children, and the traditional ideas of their pension-less elderly parents, who they were forced to look after once they had stopped earning. Was this the cost of freedom from Imperial rule, as the infrastructure in its infancy struggled to find its place after so many years of British rule, or merely the needs of the modern world finally catching up with aging traditions? Did women go out to work in modern India because they wanted to, or because they had to?
It seems that Ray is not showing us the feminist need for emancipation that occurred the world over in the same time period, but rather it is Arati’s sense of duty and the family’s need to eat that drives her out to work. At the beginning she appears contented with her lot, and Subrata is extremely supportive: he types up her job application for her, takes her to the door on her first day, and even calls up to check she is doing well. Rather than assert their own individual identities on the world, we are shown a husband and wife aligned in their drive to provide for their family, but the skill in Ray’s story construction comes from Subrata and Arati’s own personal inner-conflicts as they deal with their newfound situation. Arati cannot help the sense of purpose and worth that earning money gives her, and she exudes a confidence that increases in exact inverse proportion to Subrata’s own sense of futility at his own failings.
The film shows traits of a relaxed master at work, flexing his creative muscles and choosing some beautiful and at times experimental shots, often borrowed from the ingenuity of Godard and Truffaut. One in particular occurs when Arati shares tea in a café with the husband of a friend. Unwilling to relay the truth, she rambles on, creating a fantasy job for her husband, whilst Subrata skulks unnoticed by her or her companion in the corner of the café. Leaving Arati idly daydreaming, the camera tracks forward to focus on Subrata, reflected in the cafe door window. At first he watches, then fades slowly from view as he slinks out of the café, unable to listen any longer or make his presence known. Ray shows us that he has become nothing but a fading reflection, a mere shadow of himself that his wife is too embarrassed to talk about.
Arati’s eventual undoing comes in an unexpected but apt way in the film’s final act. Her friend, the Anglo-Indian girl Edith, finds herself fired after calling in sick, and Arati decides to stand up for her in an act of stubborn solidarity that has us asking whether she perhaps had other motives in leaving the job. The fact that Edith—the only member of the group to speak solely English—had originally acted as the union rep for the small group of girls and had argued for commission, then finds herself fired because she caught a cold when attending a concert, acts as a metaphor directed at the frivolity of India’s former rulers and the ‘Swinging Sixties’ that Ray and his contemporaries may have looked disdainfully upon. Arati succeeds through hard work and the desire to help her family, but ultimately puts the feelings of her husband first, with both parties finding themselves out of work at the film’s conclusion. Typically of Ray’s films, though, there is still a beam of hope that shines on them both. “This is a very big city,” says Arati, as Subrata clutches her in his arms, “surely there is space here for both of us to find a place.”