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The Big City (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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the big city (mahanagar), set in mid-1950s calcutta and directed by the great satyajit ray (the music room), follows the personal triumphs and frustrations of arati (madhabi mukherjee), who decides, despite the initial protests of her bank-clerk husband, to take a job to help support their family. With remarkable sensitivity and attention to the details of everyday working-class life, ray gradually builds a powerful human drama that is at once a hopeful morality tale and a commentary on the identity of the contemporary indian woman. Special edition features � new 2k digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the blu-ray edition � new interview with actor madhabi mukherjee � satyajit ray and the modern woman, a new interview program featuring ray historian suranjan ganguly � the coward (1965), a feature film directed by ray that also addresses modern female identity and stars mukherjee and soumitra chatterjee � new english subtitle translation � plus: a booklet featuring an essay by scholar chandak sengoopta and an interview with ray from the 1980s by his biographer andrew robinson //
special edition features, new 2k digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the blu-ray edition, new interview with actor madhabi mukherjee, satyajit ray and the modern woman, a new interview program featuring ray historian suranjan ganguly, the coward (1965), a feature film directed by ray that also addresses modern female identity and stars mukherjee and soumitra chatterjee, new english subtitle translation, plus: a booklet featuring an essay by scholar chandak sengoopta and an interview with ray from the 1980s by his biographer andrew robinson
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1) The impact on the other family members - the loving but traditional husband, his orthodox parents, the young child (They all have reservation to some extent, and the only unequivocal supporter is the husband's kid sister, who sees it as a projection of her own ambitions)
2) The changes in the woman herself - how she grows from a shy house-bound wife to a more confident worldly-wise person.
Without any arty pretensions, but with the sharpness of observation and empathy towards the characters which are his strongest assets, Ray paints a very tangible portrait of this little personal revolution in the traditional family. Of course he is here immensely aided by the marvelous chemistry between the gorgeous Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee - their husband-wife relationship is a very credible and heartwarming picture of romance and friendship, mischief and responsibility. While some reality-obsessed curmudgeons may find the film's end unduly optimistic, it is a very well-placed happy ending, representing the never-say-die spirit of hope over adversity that keeps humanity alive. Ray's touch is very much evident in the screenplay and the visuals - many times, more is conveyed than said, with the use of beautiful visual metaphor or plain restraint, allowing the sensibility of the audience to fill in the gap. For this film he also composed the score, which is lovely and worth hearing on its own. All in all, highly recommended.
Video-wise Criterion's blu-ray is sourced from another amazing restoration (taking a 2K scan of the original negative) from RD Bansal / Pixion (Chennai). Sometimes, the brightness levels seem very high, although there are no blown whites; it might have something to do with the intended look or the shooting conditions. The encode itself is excellent to mine eye, with no apparent digital artefacts. The mono sound is clear and robust and the music comes across quite nicely. I have not seen Kapurush, the short feature presented as an extra on this disc, but the other stuff is quite nice - a critic's video essay talking about the film, Madhabi Mukherjee reflecting on her experience, a Films Division short by BD Garga on Satyajit ray, which briefly looks at the shooting of Mahanagar.
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.
However, to see Ray capture the heart and humanity of so many of the Indian people I have been fortunate to interact with was too much emotionally for me. I couldn't make it to the end, as the scene in the coffee shop was so intense (imagining the pain of the husband hearing his wife's description of his job) I just couldn't bare the emotional intensity anymore.
His own music composed for the film ,beautiful and sparingly applied ,reminds me of the sensitive and subtle ways that so much of the food in India is so delicately spiced and is perfect in a way that no soundtrack I have participated in equals. Having created or played in the soundtracks of over 90 major motion pictures I don't think I have ever sensed such a perfect wedding of cinematic views with music .
A revelation, as my love for film has always been huge, it actually made me plan to visit the school that is dedicated to his films and teaching, to perform and also to learn more on how to craft films myself as I now am lucky enough to have a pro level dslr and requisite equipment.
As much as certain films can be the lynchpin for those wanting to delve deeper into this field, the humanistic and deep sensitivity of Rays vision in this film will I hope be as moving for you as it was for me. (and I intend to purchase so that I can watch the rest of it!).
Also , as I am in love with the colors of India (among many other aspects),though at times (frequently) this can also be overwhelming,,by creating this in b/w with the grainy aspect of film of the period ,it actually makes it in a different way ,,even more deep and colorful !
Just a few words on the movie itself: it is middle of the road Ray. A veritable feminine triumph story but in Ray's hands, it is curiously ambivalent. The heroine would rather stay home and take care of her son than be out in the wilderness of Calcutta's fashion world selling cosmetics. Her husband's (Anil Chatterji) attitude changes within moments of his losing his job. His acting is the worst part of the movie: and significantly he never appeared in another Ray movie. On the other hand, Madhabi remains Ray's greatest triumph (yes, more than Sharmila) in this and Charulata.
Great crieterion disc; and a far from Satyajit's top movies.
By the way, the short Kapurush movie is a masterpiece. It lingers in memory. Madhabi and Soumitra with their understated charms and acting make it a top class Ray.