by Ashley Jane McClosky
It is 1964 and The Big City, directed by Satyajit Ray, is screening at an international film festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There are thousands of men and women lined up for tickets to three screenings. There just aren’t enough tickets. A riot breaks out. Over one hundred people are beaten up by the police. The festival organizers have no choice but to schedule ten more screenings so that the film ends up playing consecutively for over twenty-four hours. So what’s the big deal?
The Big City follows a lower middle-class family living in 1950s Kolkata just trying to get by in life. The bills are piling up and Subrata’s salary as a bank clerk isn’t going as far as it used to. To add to the stresses of life, Subrata and his wife, Arati, are also caring for their son, and Subrata’s sister and elderly parents. His father’s eyesight is so poor, but Subrata can’t afford to buy him glasses, no matter how much he wishes he could. His mom wants her fancy-pants flavored tobacco, but again - money. I found myself feeling bad for Subrata, having all those stresses on his plate, because he seems like a good guy who loves his family and is trying his best. One night Subrata mentions to Arati that their friend’s wife has recently gotten a job outside the home. This is unheard of in this society and in this point in time. However, once Arati hears of it, we can sense she cannot get the idea out of her mind. Subrata tells her, half-jokingly, that “a woman’s place is in the home." He also tells her, “If you were not so beautiful, I would let you take a job.” Ughhhh. But the truth is, something has to change in this family if they’re going to keep surviving. Necessity is a hard taskmaster. Dem’s the cold hard facts. Arati’s care for the wellbeing of her husband pushes her to press the point. At first Arati’s husband is supportive of her decision. No, it’s not what he wants, but at the very least, he realizes that it’s what the family needs. The rest of the family is decidedly less supportive (excluding Subrata’s sister, Bani). Subrata’s parents cannot stop talking about how much of a disappointment this is and how Arati has changed, while her son is a big ol' crybaby whiner (until she promises to buy him presents - that shuts him up).
The struggle Arati faces is all too real. The first time I really fell in love with Madhabi Mukherjee’s character, Arati, is in a scene where her husband is sleeping beside her in bed. She talks to him, yet he is sleeping and unresponsive. She still says what is on her mind, and dammit, I believe her. She is determined to get a job of her own so that she can help out with the family’s financial difficulties. She only knows of one other woman who has made this choice, but the welfare of her family is more important to her than how people will view her, or what kind of issues she will face because of making this choice. Her choice to leave traditional gender roles behind is one made out of economic necessity, and not so much out of political ideology. Like, even though I personally was thinking, “Go git it, girl!” She is making an unconventional choice, yet she’s brave about it. I admire that so much. I appreciate how real these characters are. There are contradictions between the thoughts of the various generations, but it comes down to motivations.
It doesn’t take long for Arati to get a job as a door-to-door saleswoman selling knitting machines. Before she starts her job, she is very unsure of herself. After she goes for her interview and sees the other women applying for the same job, she is even more insecure. She feels like she isn’t fashionable enough for the job. Subrata assures her he will take an advance from his job to get her whatever she needs to look the part. When the world opens up for Arati, we feel the gradual awakening and endless possibilities just as much as she does. The thing that gets me is the backlash Arati faces for making a choice purely for the good of her family in a most unselfish way. Yeah, she likes her job and newfound confidence that results from it, but that’s not her motivation. There is a scene where she receives money for her job for the first time. She is looking in the mirror and holding the money, and her reaction is priceless. Go watch it, I’ll wait! I can imagine what she’s feeling - like she’s not just a wife and mother but an actual person, contributing. This is a portrait of a person discovering a new side of themselves, along with new potentials, and liking it. It’s something that is quite normal today, but wasn’t the normal thing back when this was made. In fact, throughout the course of the film, Arati runs up against several kinds of prejudice, and through the force of her personality, she works to overcome each one. As time goes on and Arati is more successful in her job, Subrata’s feelings change. It doesn’t take long for him to begin to resent the fact that Arati has a job of her own. At one point, she tells him, “You would not recognize me if you saw me at work.” Subrata admits that he does not recognize her anymore at home either. See, right here at this moment, I get all riled up. I think of all that Arati has done for the good of the family and a part of me is hoping she tells her old-fashioned husband and his disapproving parents off. But she doesn’t. Her reaction speaks volumes to her character. She smiles and leans in, asking again if he does not recognize her. The way she does so is so endearing. And this wins Subrata over. Wait, no it doesn’t.
He writes her a resignation letter to hand in. He’s had enough of this “modern lifestyle”. So here she tells him off, right? Nah. As she is about to hand in her letter to her boss, Subrata loses his job and must contact her to tell her not to quit. The family is back to one income, and it’s not Subrata's. As he says, “The wife’s a hero, the husband’s a zero.”
Mukherjee’s character is never brazen or arrogant. Her love for her family is balanced against her newfound love for liberty and being self-sufficient. For the first time she experiences the feeling of being a provider, yet also feels the desperation that drove her to seek work in the first place. However, to me, we really get to see her character shine when her coworker is dismissed for unfair and invalid reasons - essentially for being a modern Anglo-Indian. Arati is furious and demands that her boss apologize and take her friend back. Well, that’s not her business to demand. Here Arati has a moment of moral assertiveness, sticking up for her friend, and doing the only thing she knows to be fair - quitting her own job so that her friend might have hers back. The scene where Arati admits what she has done to her husband is beautiful. Yes, they are both without work, yet he marvels at her courage.
I love, love, love Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She seems very real. She is able to say so much with just a look. She is able to channel both the feeling of anxiety and the feeling of delight brought upon by her new role. She plays the role in an understated way with so much depth, I found myself really thinking about her and trying to figure her out. Mukherjee, recounting her first meeting with the director Ray, recalls her shock at his intentions to place her character at the centre of a film:
“He read me the entire story, ‘Mahanagar’. I was stunned. This was the first woman-centered screenplay I had encountered. I was not going to play second fiddle of the main male character as in all plays and films I had acted in or was familiar with.”
I also really love Madhabi Mukherjee in another Ray vehicle - his short film, The Coward, which is deeply personal to me, and if you ask me about it, I’ll probably just start to cry. I just get the feeling that this woman knows what she wants, and she has the courage to go get it. I wish I was more like her. I am someone who wears my heart on my sleeve to an absolute fault, and as such, I get hurt super easily. Madhabi Mukherjee somehow seems above that.
At the end of this film, the camera, which has been like a member of the family, zooms out to a shot of the city and then slowly focuses in on a street lamp, one bulb lit, the other missing. So are you a glass half empty or glass half full type of person? But it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that there is no victory without a struggle. This is real life. Sometimes dreams are shattered but hope and, less romantically so, duty, are there to pick up the pieces. So in this moment, the trials and tribulations of this woman are elevated to the universal.
To me, The Big City is an expertly constructed moving humanist film, and a delicate social drama. It’s not a “foreign” film. It’s about humans. Specifically, it’s about women and the challenges they still face. It’s real and relatable. This story has no villains, just necessary circumstances and a few misguided notions that force one to take a stand. It’s about shifting tides and the people scrambling to keep up with them. It’s about barriers - cultural, domestic and otherwise. And it’s about how one can change and grow when these barriers are removed. So where is a woman’s place? Anywhere and everywhere.