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The Big City review – a transgressive classic of Indian cinema

A woman takes over as breadwinner in Satyajit Ray's feminist exploration of family power structures, now back in cinemas

The cinema of Satyajit Ray is one of pure expression, be it through his Apu trilogy’s negotiation of the self, or in his lesser-known Calcutta trilogy, which reflects India’s socio-political background across the 1970s. The Big City, released in 1963 but back in cinemas as part of a new BFI season dedicated to the filmmaker, focuses on the dreams of one woman against the harsh realities of a society that expects her to stay at home. At the centre of what amounts to one of Ray’s more quietly impactful films rests a profoundly modern issue that writers such as Rabindranath Tagore explore in texts like The Home and the World, which attempts to decode the traditional values of Indian family structures.

Adopting his native Kolkata as the story’s setting, Ray’s graceful tale follows the struggles of one family, rendered through the perspective of Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee). Alongside her dreams of gaining employment in the outside world, she has to contend with the woes of her husband, played by Anil Chatterjeel, and his job working at a bank, plus the growing pressures that come with her extended family all living under the same roof. Noticing the strain across the household, Arati manages to secure work as a saleswoman in a business specialising in knitting machines.

Coincidentally, the company’s target market for such pieces of homeware is rich lonely housewives who have nothing better to do than knit fashionable jumpers. A complete juxtaposition to Arati’s busy life and class, such women are beguiled by her presence though ultimately share the same love for bettering their families. Still, Arati's transformation under her newfound freedom at work sends ripples through her own.

Her partner, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) is a delicate man who is aware of his position as head of the family, yet has to eventually rely upon his wife’s efforts to get by. Central to the film’s poignancy, Mukherjee is a radiant star who emits pathos, sincerity and passion in equal measure. Her vivid presence allows Ray’s film to feel distinctly modern in its placing of women at the centre of their own existence.

Central to her growth as a woman, a colleague at work introduces Arati to red lipstick and persuades her to adopt it during her door-to-door calling. Designed as a mark of independence, the make-up transcends Subrata Mitra’s monochrome cinematography, a moment of pure incandescence as Arati’s true inner being is awakened. Reflective of Ray’s humanist touch, the scene is the film’s most indispensable display of one woman finding a new self in a space away from the home.

The Big City marvellously captures the small-scale pressures of everyday life, whilst still portraying a universal tale of aspiration, devotion, and ultimately love. To this day, it remains a boldly transgressive work, beautifully illustrating ideas about gender equality as a means of breaking down decrepitly out of touch values. The majestic qualities of Mukherjee's performance further solidify Ray’s hometown story as one of his finest.

The Big City is re-released in select UK cinemas on 22 July.

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