The Big City Review

Film Still
  • The Big City film still


Satyajit Ray’s stunning 1963 drama is re-released ahead of a full retrospective at London's BFI Southbank.

This is a film about lipstick. Not so much its application, cost or aesthetic properties but what it represents. The lipstick in Satyajit Ray’s 1963 melodrama, The Big City, is key to empowerment and independence. Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) and Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) are a conventional, conservative, educated couple living on a shoestring among the bustle and burr of 1960s Calcutta — very much a city on the make.

His paycheque pays for the kids’ tuition fees, the livelihoods of her (now broke) parents, plus any and all household expenditures. As a way to allay some of the strain from his purse strings, Subrata grants Arati permission to accept a job as a door-to-door salesgirl for a knitting machine company. In a similar fashion to George Cukor classic, A Star is Born, it’s not long before the family gender roles are reversed and the happy couple soon succumb to bouts of violence, jealousy and depression.

Though the central story thread concerns the severely tested relationship between Arati and Subrata, Ray vacuum-packs every shot with rich, telling details which all add to the overall context of a society on the brink of major transition. Just as Ray seems to be furtively channelling the bittersweet, angst-ridden tenor of work by Western filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk or Elia Kazan, his characters too are beginning to allow innovations and fashions from the West to creep into their lives.

Though The Big City is set in a specific time and place, its recognition of the idea that the world often changes faster than humans are able to adapt to it is universal and timeless. It’s tragic, too, particularly in its suggestion that those who have been socially hindered for the longest (in this case, women) are able to take on these changes with more ease than their dominant counterparts.

One of the most interesting supporting characters in the film is the inexplicably affable boss of Arati’s firm, permanently ensconced behind a desk, shirt buttoned down and rapaciously strategising on behalf of his bevy of dolled-up sales girls. The delicate way in which the character has been written presents him as a man who sees the benefit of kindness and concession in business. Yet his evil streak arrives in the form of post-colonial bitterness, where Vicky Redwood’s British-Indian mixed-race employee, Edith, bears the brunt of his occasional ire.

There’s even a heartbreaking sub-plot following Arati’s doddering, ex-schoolteacher father as he visits his pupils in search of a hand-out. He claims that they would be nothing without his teaching, and though his grown charges realise he’s driven by desperation more than an earnest belief in these lofty claims, it still makes for tragic viewing, especially as we know that he’s only doing this so his daughter can stop working and he can save face. It’s an effortlessly great and complex film, capped off with a stunning final shot: the camera cranes back as Arati and Subrata saunter off into the busy streets. The city is a gorgeous face, the people are the lipstick which helps to make it beautiful.

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