The opening image of The Big City is a moving shot that traces an electric line as a trolley car runs underneath. The camera barrels ahead on a predetermined path; occasionally the line intersects with another, emitting a brief spark. It’s a lovely visual metaphor for the foreordained domestic life of the film’s heroine, a housewife in 1950s Calcutta. Especially if you consider that the spark of those intersecting lines suggests her life could take another route.
Written and directed by Satyajit Ray, The Big City ultimately follows her down another path, one that has repercussions for both herself and her extended family. In the spirit of Ray’s Apu trilogy, this is a generous and considerate portrayal of social upheaval, in which the effect on individuals is always the first concern.
The movie begins by firmly establishing the patriarchal structure under which its central family operates. After coming home from work, husband Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) tells his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) that she is neglecting the “earning member” of the family by attending to their young son before making him tea. He’s mostly teasing, but he also means it. (Chatterjee gives Subrata a genial presence, which makes his eventual befuddlement at his wife’s transition all the more endearing.) Tradition can be joked about in this home, but it must still be maintained.
This tension between the old ways and the new courses through the cramped household. Subrata doesn’t understand why his teen sister is pursuing an education, yet he still contributes to her tuition. Meanwhile, his elderly father scrimps and saves in order to enter a weekly crossword contest, while his mother laments that her husband, once a respected teacher, must live out his days in need.
Tradition can be joked about in this home, but it must still be maintained.
As the bills pile up – nearly every conversation involves money – Arati suggests she look for a part-time job. Subrata reluctantly agrees, and feels the need to apologize to his parents (“Arati has changed,” his father sighs). Nevertheless, Arati and Subrata become a sweet team, energized not only by the potential for more money, but also by the way the endeavor forces them to see each other in new ways. (Mukherjee doesn’t simply act in this film; she blossoms.) Eventually, they find her a job at a sewing-machine company, where she’s assigned to go door to door making sales demonstrations to housewives who are not all that different from the woman she used to be.
Once Arati leaves the home, an occasion Ray marks with a handheld camera that follows the couple along a jostling street, The Big City opens up into a full-blown exercise in mid-century film feminism, a companion piece in many ways to the work of Douglas Sirk. There’s a proud parade sequence in which Arati and her colleagues head out on the streets and Ray captures them, one at a time, walking with determination toward the tracking camera. The women are coming! The women are coming! Whether traditional Calcutta is ready for them or not.
Rather than draw a simple line from the past to progress, however, Ray captures the reality of Arati’s transformation in all its ripples and waves. She flourishes in the job, but feels a real pang over no longer being the center of the home, especially when her son falls ill. And she understands, as do we, the identity crisis this has forced upon her husband, who is baffled upon discovering his wife has begun to wear lipstick on her calls. When she throws the lipstick out the window, it registers less as submission than a deeply romantic gesture.
Lest you think The Big City panders to Arati, turning her into some sort of pioneering saint, it should be noted that the movie also includes a scene in which she meets a male client at a coffee shop, unaware that Subrata is sitting within earshot. Though nothing untoward happens, the way she speaks about her husband is a sort of betrayal. Ray’s camera slowly pans away from her face to make room for a mirrored wall that reflects Subrata’s table, effectively portraying the couple in multiple exposure. The Big City, at heart, is a similar fracturing of identities, an insistence that these characters are so much more than the social roles into which they’ve been slotted.