The year 2021 was the centenary year of the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). A year later (due to Covid), in celebration of this master of his craft, BFI Distribution will re-release ‘Mahanagar’ or ‘The Big City’ (1963), hailed as one of his greatest films, in UK-wide on July 22.
Set in mid-50s Calcutta, a society still adjusting to Independence and gripped by social and financial crisis, this powerful, progressive cinema sees a middle-class housewife brilliantly and excitingly defy expectations and find herself becoming a successful businesswoman.
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Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), a young bank clerk struggling to support his entire extended family on a meagre salary, firmly believes that ‘a woman’s place is with her cooking pots’. Unsurprisingly, he experiences conflicting emotions when his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) helps out by taking a job as a door-to-door saleswoman selling knitting machines to rich housewives. Though shy and nervous to begin with, Arati soon proves a huge success, relishing her new-found independence (not to mention the joys of lipstick) and thoroughly upsetting the dynamic.
Bengali star Madhabi Mukherjee, with her expressive frown and mischievous smile, gives a ravishing, spirited performance as Arati. This was Mukherjee’s first film with Ray (she was later to star in his ‘Charulata’) and she confessed herself ‘stunned’ by his extraordinary ‘woman-centred’ screenplay, so different from anything she had previously encountered. Indeed, Ray originally considered calling the film ‘A Woman’s Place’.
Yet, for all his focus on Arati’s problems, Ray – who is renowned for his breadth of sympathy – also deploys warmth, abundant and deep psychological insight in his depiction of a large, multi-generational cast of characters, including Arati’s conservative old father-in-law, her studious teenage sister-in-law, her feisty Anglo-Indian colleague and her benevolently despotic boss.
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Although made almost 60 years ago, the themes of film, with an emphasis on conflicting social values and on the role of women, make it feel surprisingly contemporary and as fresh and relevant as ever.
‘The Big City’ will also be on Extended Run at BFI Southbank as part of an extensive Satyajit Ray retrospective, Satyajit Ray: The Language of Film; all of his films will be shown during July and August. The season will be presented in association with the Film Archive and include numerous restorations on 35mm from their archives, as well as three 4K restorations made by the Criterion Collection and the UK premiere of four brand new 4K restorations presented by NFDC – National Film Archive of India.