It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.