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4 1/2 stars -- American audiences are unlikely to be bothered by the rather upbeat ending of the narrative in Satyajit Ray's 1963 film. It's the kind of ending they hanker for in much less interesting movies, and it has a nice feminist kick to it too. But if you compare "The Big City" to the movies Fellini was making in Italy around the same time, it's clear that Fellini is casting a colder eye on the state of post-war Italy than Ray is casting on post-independence India. There's a sense in this movie that modernization and urbanization offer opportunity, for women as well as men, in a new economic world and that taking a place in that new world will lead to a reconfiguration of traditional social roles that among other things, for example, seem to suggest that older citizens have little to offer their community and that a woman's place is to reinforce these older social patterns. Thus, as this movie opens, Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) seems fixed in a world where she has to run a household consisting of her husband, her child, her husband's teenage sister, and her husband's aging parents -- and all this on the modest salary that her husband (Anil Chatterjee) earns as a bank-clerk. Expenses mount -- the teenager's education, the father-in-law's medical needs -- and things come to a point where Arati decides that she must take a job to help make ends meet. Neither her in-laws nor her husband is happy at the prospect: this is just not done in traditional families, and her husband eventually relents but makes it clear that he will seek additional part-time work that could make his wife's working unnecessary if he can find a part-time job. Arati gets a job selling knitting machines as a door-to-door saleswoman -- and she finds that she's good at it, and her sense of her worth grows as she comes to consider herself a contributor to the family's economy -- but there comes a point where she has to face a decision to resign, because her father-in-law has ceased to talk to her husband over what he sees as the outrage of Arati's working. Arati goes to work one day with her letter of resignation in her purse . . . and I'll stop there to avoid spoilers!
The strength of the movie for me lies in the way Ray pays attention to the texture of the family life of Arati and her husband. It's a bit like the way Mike Leigh takes his time in letting us see a family in a domestic space that enables us to understand their limitations and strengths (although Ray's movie is shot in black-and-white, while Leigh typically shoots in color). The family is clinging to respectability under economic stress, but the design of the interior of their living quarters makes clear the sacrifices in dignity and privacy that they are living with. For all that, they treat one another with great respect, and Ray's script gives each of the characters his or her own distinct personality and respects that too. The airier spaces of the office from which Arati works, and the sense of space in the houses at which she sells her machines bespeak a way of life that is freer and more appealing, and Ray makes sure that we realize that Arati registers these differences in environment. The world of corporate capitalism is not the enemy here, and that perhaps is part of what makes the story sentimental. Arati's boss makes a decision late in the movie that causes a crisis for Arati, but he's presented on the whole as a reasonable and attractive figure, and nowhere else in the movie, really, is there the suggestion that capitalism and consumerism might have their own problems.
The disagreements between Arati and her husband don't really threaten the marriage -- they are presented as a loving couple -- and one can well believe that without the in-law presence, Subrata would not raise any great objection to Arati's working if she wanted to. But they do threaten the larger unit, and that unit matters to both. An important part of the movie makes clear how Arati's father-in-law (Haren Chatterjee) believes he should be taken care of: as a retired teacher, he goes around to now-prosperous ex-pupils (a dentist, a doctor) and basically asks them for money or services on the grounds that if it had not been for him, they wouldn't be the successes they are. He does this without any obvious sense of shame but seems to feel rather that he is entitled, and the ex-pupils seem to accept his request without a whole lot of fuss. What we're seeing here, I think, is a model of an older way in which a community could work that still has some moral purchase ten years or so after independence and the beginnings of modernization. Even Arati's boss (Haradhan Banerjee) seems to recognize ties that are more than merely contractual and commercial. When Arati's husband visits the office late in the movie, he and her boss realize that they grew up in the same region. On that basis, the boss offers Subrata a job -- a job he had not come to the office to seek -- again suggestive of an older way of doing business that is still current and not really presented as being at odds with the newer capitalism. It turns out, that the boss has his blind spots and prejudices, and they lead to the moment of decision for Arati at the end, but these late scenes don't undercut (and maybe even reinforce) the continuing power, for better and worse, of older ways.
So it's a fascinating movie. The acting is just fine, with Madhabi Mukherjee's Arati being a luminous presence throughout. She's a strikingly beautiful woman -- heck, I would buy a knitting machine from her -- and yet she inhabits the role of Arati very comfortably and credibly. The other striking performance is from Haren Chatterjee as the father-in-law, who makes us understand a way of operating in the world that seems strange in the West by playing it as naturally as you could wish. The intervening years since the 1960's have tended to validate Fellini's cooler gaze rather more than Ray's optimism, but you can enjoy the sentiment and appreciate the specificity of the presentation too.