Indian director Satyajit Ray first burst onto the filmic scene in 1955 with his debut feature Pather Panachali, which single-handedly introduced the world of cinema to its first widely known Indian voice in over half a century of the medium’s existence. That film soon gave way into what is now considered known as the ‘Apu Trilogy’ which also consists of Ray’s next two films, Aparajito and The World of Apu. Less widely known is his 1963 domestic drama The Big City, which was the first of Ray’s films to take place in ‘present day’ India at the time of its release, and therefore the first to address current social issues of its day. While it’s not as widely known as the Apu trilogy, it’s nonetheless a masterfully made film, and a fascinating expression of quiet feminist strength.
The film takes place in Kolkata, India, and centers on a timid housewife namec Arati (played by Madhabi Mukherjee) who spends her days tending to her house full of other inhabitants, consisting of her husband, son, and parents. But one day resolves to get a job as a saleswoman to help make ends meet, much to the disapproval of her banker husband. Soon enough, Arati begins to prosper in her field and gradually starts to enjoy her new-found financial and psychological independence, and Mukherjee’s performance perfectly reflects this, starting out with an initial submissiveness, which eventually gives way to a more appreciable sense of determination.
One of the strengths of this film which is most agreed upon is its depiction of life in what was then considered to be ‘modern life’ in India. While I cannot personally attest to the accuracy of its portrayal of such, I am certainly able to appreciate the level of detail put into this production. As mentioned earlier, this was the first of Satyajit Ray’s films to take place during the time period it was made in, and he certainly reveled at the chance to do so.
Another noteworthy aspect of this film is its portrayal of a modern woman (again, ‘modern’ in the 1960’s) expressing interest in her own self worth and being determined to prove herself, something which was ahead of its time for a film from any country back in its era. Now-a-days, people tend to judge how ‘feminist’ a film character is by equating it with how much butt she kicks or how much of a wise-ass she is, and whether or not the films surrounding said characters pass the Bechdel Test. But this film proves – like so many others – that strong writing and characterizations will always trump such empty fallacies like those just mentioned.
After this film, Satyajit Ray would go on to make more complex or sophisticated films, but the warmth, compassion, humor, eye for detail, and emotional directness that gives films like The Big City – as well as several of Ray’s other works – a truly lasting appeal is clearly on display here, with the ideas being explored in this one making it thematically relevant still today.