The Big City (Mahanagar) (5 stars)

Digitally restored masterpiece of Bengali writer-director Satyajit Ray

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The Big City (Mahanagar)

“A woman’s place is in the home – an old English proverb”, says Bengali bank employee Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) in English to his wife Arati (a wonderful Madhabi Mukherjee), smiling affectionately. The lower middle-class Subrata however is struggling in mid-1950s, post-independence Calcutta to support his whole family – including his retired parents, his studious teenaged sister Bani, and his young son Pintu – on his meagre clerk’s salary. Much to the displeasure of his retired schoolteacher father, Arati begins a job as a door-to-door salesperson for a knitting machine company, and encouraged by her outspoken Anglo-Indian colleague Vicky (Edith Simmons), she soon relishes her newfound independence. Her husband though feels undermined by her success in business, especially given his own job is far from secure.

Digitally restored for its fiftieth anniversary, Bengali writer-director Satyajit Ray’s monochrome classic The Big City (Mahanagar) was the first of his films to be set in his native city. There are echoes here of both Renoir, under whom Ray had worked on The River, and Ozu, in the empathy and compassion extended by the film-maker to a range of characters across different generations: everyone here has their reasons. Everyday material objects, such as eyeglasses, lipstick, and banknotes acquire a symbolic resonance, in a piece of cinematic storytelling that unfolds with graceful assurance. Originally released in 1963, the film feels utterly contemporary in its thematic concerns, exploring how a society’s rigid conception of gender roles traps women and men alike, whilst showing how through solidarity injustices can be challenged.

Reissued from Fri 16 Aug.

The Big City (Mahanagar)

  • 4 stars
  • 1963
  • India
  • 131 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Satyajit Ray
  • Cast: Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Jaya Bhaduri

Subrata's salary as an accountant isn't enough to support his extended family who all live under his roof but when his wife gets a job of her own to help out, her decision sends waves of discontent through the family. Subrata claims her employment makes him look like less of a man, and her young son moans and cries when…

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