Monday 18 July 2022

From the archive: "Mahanagar/The Big City"

There are two problems – if, indeed, you’re inclined to view them as problems – with the career of the revered director Satyajit Ray. The first: the shadow Ray has come to cast over the rest of Indian cinema, far greater than that cast by, say, Nick Ray over American cinema. The second: how Ray’s early masterworks – the Apu trilogy, The Music Room – cast their own shadow over the three-decade career that was to follow.

One suspects part of the BFI’s rationale in staging its full Ray retrospective over the next two months – backed up by Artificial Eye’s upcoming raft of DVD reissues – is to shine renewed light on these later years, by which point the director had been elevated to the status of festival favourite; it’s why the season’s flagship re-release isn’t Pather Panchali or The World of Apu, but 1963’s lesser-known Mahanagar/The Big City.

This is a reminder of the extent to which Ray’s later work still chimes today: where 1965’s Nayak/The Hero – one of those Artificial Eye titles – constitutes an early excavation of celebrity culture, The Big City centres on a household representative of the squeezed middle class, or at least as it was in Calcutta at the turn of the Sixties.

The household is that of Subrata Majumdar (Anil Chatterjee), a blithe, rather complacent fellow who lives with his retired parents and two young children, and is therefore seeing his modest bank clerk’s income eaten away at both ends. His solution is to send wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) out to work as a door-to-door saleswoman, never mind the prevailing attitude that insisted a woman’s place was still in the home.

It is, perhaps, a localised form of the upheaval India was itself undergoing during this period, moving from traditional values to something more modern and business-minded, with both the rewards and risks this entailed. Ray was a dab hand at putting his fingers on these sensitive, sometimes sore spots, and seeing how his characters react: Subrata suffering the guilt and jealousy that comes with being usurped as the family breadwinner, Arati nervily entering the business class, becoming good at what she does even as every household she enters reminds her of what she’s leaving behind.

There’s an argument that Ray was almost too close to the (very personal, if not wholly autobiographical) material being dramatised in the Apu movies – that they meant too much to who he was both as a man and as a director, hence their towering reputations. The Ray of The Big City, by contrast, has learnt how to step back and view his characters more quizzically or amusedly.

There’s a certain wry, rueful humour on the homefront, where university degrees have suddenly become good for nothing better than solving crossword puzzles, while the scenes involving the gossipy shop girls – bouncing very different models of femininity off one another – are as zippy and peppy as anything in the era’s Doris Day comedies.

For though Ray is often set in opposition to Bollywood cinema, it’s clear from The Big City that he was making his own, socially engaged masala movies: films that balanced their critique with light, forgiving satire, that blended jokes and emotion with patience enough to draw out what a Calcutta bank clerk might do upon getting to his desk in the morning, or the atmosphere in an optician’s waiting room. Even in a slightly overstretched second-string film like this, there remains plentiful evidence of a master at work, forever sorting and sifting, and finally arriving at something close to the right, piquant mix of sugar and spice.

(MovieMail, August 2013)

Mahanagar/The Big City is rereleased in selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment