Take a Drink: for every Indian cultural custom you recognize.
Take a Drink: every time the lead actress shares a scene alone with another female character.
Take a Drink: whenever the husband character becomes noticeably jealous of his wife’s success.
Finish Your Drink: to the mundane affair of working in an office, which hasn’t gotten any more exciting after all these years.
“I wonder if this job will be more exciting in 51 years?”
By: Christian Harding (A Toast) –
Indian director Satyajit Ray first burst onto the filmic scene in 1955 with his debut feature Pather Panachali, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Impressing everyone in attendance with its unique and fresh perspective on a relatively unknown culture, it was an event which single-handedly introduced the world of cinema to its first widely known Indian voice in over half a century of the medium’s existence. That film soon led into what is now considered known as the ‘Apu Trilogy’ which also consists of Ray’s next two films, Aparajito and The World of Apu. Less widely known than the aforementioned series of films is Ray’s 1963 domestic drama The Big City, which was the first of his films to take place in what was then ‘present day’ India, and therefore the first to address current social issues of its time. While it’s not as widely known as the Apu trilogy, it’s nonetheless a masterfully engaging film, and a fascinating expression of quiet feminist strength.
The film takes place in Kolkata, India, and centers on a timid housewife named Arati, who spends her days tending to her house full of other inhabitants, including that of her husband, son, and parents. But one day she resolves to get a job as a saleswoman to help make ends meet, much to the disapproval of her banker husband. Nevertheless, she acquires the position she was hoping for and soon enough, Arati begins to prosper in her field and gradually starts to enjoy her new-found financial and psychological independence. Lead actress Madhabi Mukherjee’s performance perfectly conveys all of these qualities, starting out with an initial submissiveness, which eventually gives way to a more appreciable sense of determination over the course of the film.
One of the biggest strengths of this film is its depiction of life in India during the mid-twentieth century. While I cannot personally attest to the accuracy of its portrayal, I am certainly able to appreciate the level of care and detail put into this production. As mentioned earlier, this was the first of Satyajit Ray’s films to take place during the time period it was made in, and he certainly reveled at the chance to do so. There’s still an emphasis placed upon the importance of cultural awareness which was present in the Apu Trilogy, but it feels appropriately updated as to fit in with the time period the story takes place in.
Another noteworthy aspect of this film is its portrayal of a modern woman (again, ‘modern’ in the 1960’s) expressing interest in her own self worth and being determined to prove herself, a prospect which was ahead of its time for a film from any country back in the classic era of film. Now-a-days, audiences tend to judge how ‘feminist’ a film character is by equating it with how much butt she kicks or how much of a wise-ass she is, and whether or not any film containing female characters can pass the Bechdel Test. But this film proves – like so many others – that strong writing and characterizations will always trump such empty fallacies like those just mentioned. Who cares if Arati has a minute long conversation with the only other woman in her office about what she ate for breakfast or what their shoe size is? The point is to have meaningful and engaging characters, something which Satyajit Ray was fortunately wise enough to realize.
Yeah, she’s a well-written and fully developed character, but how much butt does she kick?
After this film, Satyajit Ray would go on to make more complex or sophisticated films, but the warmth, compassion, humor, eye for detail, and emotional directness that gives films like The Big City – as well as several of Ray’s other works – a truly lasting appeal is clearly on display here, with the ideas being explored in this one making it thematically relevant still today. Anyone looking to expand their filmic horizons or get a start in Indian cinema would do well to start with the filmography of Satyajit Ray. Many of his works are well worth seeking out and this is one of his best.