Cast & Crew
Subrata, a mild-mannered and underpayed Calcutta bank clerk, supports his wife, Arati, their small son, his aged parents, and his younger sister. When his meager salary fails to meet the daily needs of the family, Arati takes a job selling knitting machines to wealthy housewives. Outraged by this violation of propriety, Subrata's father, a half-blind retired schoolteacher, shuns Arati and looks upon his son with contempt. Subrata, however, tries to accept the practicality of his wife's working, despite the severe blow to his ego and the diminishment of his importance as head of the household. As Arati gradually becomes accustomed to the outside world and the art of selling, she begins to enjoy her new independence, delighting in meeting new people and assuming new responsibilities. When Subrata's bank is forced to close down, Arati becomes the only breadwinner in the family. Emotionally broken by his failure as a provider, Subrata is on the verge of demanding that his wife stop working when she quits her job because of her employer's prejudiced attitude toward Edith Simmons, an Anglo-Indian salesgirl. United by a mutual determination to overcome adversity, Subrata and Arati set out together to look for employment.
The Big City (1963) -
It was Ray's first film set in the contemporary world of modern urban life but he had been struggling to bring his screenplay, adapted from the short story "Abataranika" by Narendranath Mitra, to the screen since 1955. The film follows the journey of Arati, a wife and mother who steps out of her traditional role as homemaker to take a job to help out the family income. When her husband Subrata loses his job in the bank failures, she becomes the family's sole breadwinner. Ray, who was raised by a widowed single mother who worked outside the home to support them both, was deeply committed to the project and to the theme. But he had difficulty in securing financing for the film, which was more ambitious than his gentle debut feature, and he needed an actress who could carry the leading role. He overcame both challenges by 1963.
For the role of Arati, Ray turned to young actress Madhabi Mukherjee, who had appeared in films by some of India's leading filmmakers. This was her first leading role. "I was stunned," she wrote in her autobiography, after reading the script. "This was the first woman-centered screenplay I had encountered. I was not going to play second fiddle to the main male character as in all plays and films I had acted in or was familiar with." Mukherjee remembered Ray as a compassionate man and a generous director. On the first day of shooting, she discovered that she had a sty in her eye. "Don't worry," Ray said. He framed the shots so her afflicted eye was hidden from the camera until it healed. Mukherjee went on to star in two more Ray films, Charulata (1964) and The Coward (1965), and became a major star of the Bengali film industry in a career that continued through the 2000s.
The Big City is also a portrait of life in Calcutta as modern economics collides with traditional social roles. Three generations live in the overcrowded apartment of Arati and her husband Subrata. To convey the culture of an extended family living together in a lower-middle-class existence, Ray crammed them into a set he described as "the smallest rooms ever built," and filled the soundtrack with the ever-present radios of the neighbors bleeding through the walls, reminding us of the close quarters of this urban life. And where Subrata's retired father voices criticisms of Arati's empowerment, Subrata's teenage sister Bani is inspired by the newfound independence in sister-in-law Arati. Ray cast unknown 15-year-old actress Jaya Bhaduri in the role of Bani. The young woman later changed her name to Jaya Bachchan, went on to become a major star of 1970s cinema, and served four terms in the India Parliament.
Ray situates them within a socially and racially diverse Calcutta and takes on racial prejudice as well as sexism through the character Edith, a young Anglo-Indian woman who embraces Western culture, from fashion to the newfound freedoms of women, but is shunned by her coworkers until Arati befriends her. This touchy theme resulted in a scandal when the film was accused of prejudice against the Anglo-Indian community by an MP who had not even seen the film. Indira Gandhi, then the minster in charge of cinema and broadcasting, was called to investigate the charge and found no substance to the charge, clearing the way for exhibition.
The Big City was widely praised at home and abroad. Ray won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival and the film was India's official entry for the foreign language film category of the 36th Academy Awards, though it was not among the five nominees. And when the film was screened at a film festival in Dhaka (now Bangladesh), a near-riot broke out when thousands of people lined up for the three scheduled screenings, far more than the venue could accommodate. The festival organizers scheduled ten additional screenings at the last minute and the film ran consecutively for twenty-four hours to meet the demand.
The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Darius Cooper. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
My Life, My Love: An Autobiography, Madhabi Mukherjee. Palo Alto: The Stanford Theatre Foundation, 1999.
"Big City: A Woman's Place," Chandak Sengoopta. The Criterion Collection, 2013.
Our Films, Their Films, Satyajit Ray. Hyperion, 1994.
Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson. University of California Press, 1989.
Madhabi Mukherjee on The Big City, video interview produced by Abbey Lustgarten. The Criterion Collection, 2013.
By Sean Axmaker
The Big City (1963) -
The Big City (1963) -
The Big City is a movie about a culture in flux. Not a culture of nationality or race but of gender and tradition. A culture that was universally in flux in 1963 (though the film takes place in the 1950s) and still in flux today. That culture is one in which men and women accept socially approved gender roles and stepping outside of it means risking everything.
In the Mazumdar household, the husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) is the sole income provider while his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), takes care of the chores around the house. When Arati wants to get a job, both because she knows of a neighbor who has done so and they could use the extra financial help, her conservative in-laws object but Subrata, to his credit, supports his wife and her ambitions. That she succeeds far beyond anyone's expectations and to the point that she becomes the chief bread-winner complicates matters considerably.
It is in this examination of a gender culture war that Ray touched on a subject that was both universal and extremely of the moment. Women all over the world were fighting for equal rights, and that extended to equal pay, respect and autonomy. The film was a critical and commercial success, although it was not selected as a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy that year (a blunder on the Academy's part), and regained prominence for Ray as a director. Not that he ever lost it but as every great director before and after him discovered, critics and audiences have incredibly short memories.
The star of the movie, Madhabi Mukherjee, was a rising star in the Indian film industry when she began working with Ray. Her role in The Big City would bring her international fame and recognition for a truly great performance. One of the key aspects of her portrayal is Arati's strength. She fills the role with a confidence that makes Arati's successful transition to salesperson seem like a natural arc. After working with Ray on two more films, she continued her stardom but never made any movies again as good as those with Ray.
The rest the cast are equally good, with Anil Chatterjee, Haradhan Bannerjee, Vicky Redwood and Haren Chatterjee all standouts in their roles. And then there is Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan) as Subrata's sister, Bani. It was her first role at age 15, and though no one knew it at the time she would go on to have one of the most successful careers in Indian cinema and then after retiring, a successful career in the Indian Parliament as well.
Despite The Big City touching on so many culturally charged themes, Ray didn't make a movie about a cause, a simple political narrative with characters as mouthpieces for each individual position. Rather, he crafted out of Mitra's story a study of a family, and friendship, between co-workers and spouses alike. And a study in courage, as Arati embraces her new role but also stands by her ideals without flinching. It is a beautiful film, one that reminded the world, once again, of the greatness of Satyajit Ray and the poetry of his art.
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Written by Satyajit Ray
Produced by R.D. Bansal
Music by Satyajit Ray
Cinematography by Subrata Mitra
Film Editing by Dulal Dutta
Production Design by Bansi Chandragupta
Art Direction by Bansi Chandragupta
Makeup by Ananta Das
Cast: Anil Chatterjee (Subrata Mazumdar), Madhabi Mukherjee (Arati Mazumder), Jaya Bhaduri (Bani), Haren Chatterjee (Priyogopal, Subrata's father), Sefalika Devi (Sarojini, Subrata's Mother), Prasenjit Sarkar (Pintu), Haradhan Bannerjee (Himangshu Mukherjee), Vicky Redwood (Edith)
By Greg Ferrara
The Big City (1963) -
You would not recognize me if you saw me at work.- Arati
Released in India in 1963 as Mahanagar; running time: 133 min.
Winner of the Best Director Prize at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival.
Released in United States 1964
Released in United States September 26, 1964
Re-released in United States December 27, 1995
Re-released in United States July 14, 1995
Shown at 1964 Berlin Film Festival.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 26, 1964.
Formerly distributed by Edward Harrison.
Released in United States 1964 (Shown at 1964 Berlin Film Festival.)
Re-released in United States July 14, 1995 (Lincoln Plaza Cinemas; New York City)
Released in United States September 26, 1964 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 26, 1964.)
Re-released in United States December 27, 1995 (Film Forum; New York City)