মহানগর Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963)

If I had a personal credo when it comes to filmgoing — and I’m not sure I do, but I’ll have a bash at one now — it would be to keep yourself open to new things. Not new as in the most recent, but new as in stuff that challenges you, that presents visions of the world from perspectives you’d not seen before. I was recently followed by a blog called Adventures in the 8th Dimension, whose writer is dedicated to watching all the films in the 1,001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book, which is exactly the kind of online project I love. Now, of the book itself (and those of its ilk), there are plenty of things you could criticise (I personally hate the … Before You Die name of this series), though I have nothing at all against canons, best-ofs or curated lists of this kind, provided the source is very clear about the factors and biases that go towards creating that list. But more than that, I really appreciate the desire to use such a list as a means of engaging with a history and variety of filmmaking that extends far beyond the usual comfortable classics (your typical IMDb highest-rated) to take in examples from all the world’s nations and genres.

The point of this was not intended as a means to pat myself on the back, but just as a prelude to saying that sometimes I don’t really have the critical background to properly assess a film against all the different contexts within which it was made and first shown, but that if a film is great it can still be enriching even so. Regarding the film I’m reviewing here — which is a great film (though not apparently one of those blessed 1,001) — I’ve never to my shame seen any other Satyajit Ray films (in fact, I’ve seen only one or two Indian films in total), and I know very little about the geography, history or culture of this great country, save for some vaguely-held notion of my own country’s treacherous imperialism in the region. What I do know for certain is that not having a full grasp of these things in no way impedes the ability to enjoy what is a beautifully-crafted piece of classical filmmaking with a very humanist warmth to its recognisable characters — this is no opaque, esoteric work.

The story it presents is one that in its outline could have been set in many different parts of the world following World War II. It deals with a woman who, to make ends meet, has taken a job, thereby challenging some of the traditionalist notions held by her family. It’s the details, of course, that make it an Indian story — more specifically, a Bengali one, set as it is in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1953, ten years before the film was made. The woman is Arati, played with piercing intelligence by Madhabi Mukherjee, who begins the story at home, tending to her two children. She is softly-spoken, takes care to ensure her head is covered and has her eyes lowered respectfully around her parents. She’s married to Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), who works as a customer adviser at a new bank, and with whom she has a fairly modern, equitable relationship. And yet, in taking the job as a salesgirl for a mechanised knitting machine company, she finds herself increasingly resented by him and shunned by her elderly father-in-law (who holds this transgression against his son).

The way the conflict unfolds is never quite so simple, but equally the film is not a tragedy or a polemic. It’s very good at observing the small ways in which she is judged by her family — Chatterjee marshals a range of hurt and confused, rather than angry, expressions — but also the ways in which having the job enhances her self-esteem and her confidence in dealing with others (her family, her boss and her work colleague Edith, who being of English-speaking Anglo-Indian extraction, suffers a certain amount of racial discrimination). It’s not long before Arati is drawing herself up to look at herself in the mirror, and when she becomes the family’s only breadwinner, you can track every inflection of her new-found resolve in Mukherjee’s eyes and terse expression, exiting her boss’s office with this news on her shoulders.

Women’s changing role in society isn’t the film’s only theme. With its focus on the city as a place of dynamism and change, it seems to reflect a new-found spirit of post-war (post-independence, indeed) national optimism, based on the hopes of its people. Subrata works for a new bank, one of many which has popped up following independence, and which (as it turns out) are of varying stability. Arati’s job, meanwhile, is within the burgeoning consumer economy, peddling luxury items to the wealthy upper-classes; her office is booming, and over the course of the film they need to hire new sales personnel and are also seen installing a new logo in a classic thrusting metallic style of the 1950s. The changes in attitudes are largely attendant on these societal changes. In tracking down his old students, Subrata’s father, a retired teacher, finds many of them have gone on to do very well for themselves, though increasingly few have the respect he expects to receive from them — the respect that his son has lost in his eyes.

All these ideas are held together by those nuanced central performances, as by the gorgeously effective black-and-white cinematography of Subrata Mitra. In the end, the directorial craft of Satyajit Ray is all too easy to overlook, feeling so effortless and almost subconscious in its gentle lyricism. Yet this is an enjoyable and thoughtful film that wears its 135 minutes very lightly.

Director/Writer Satyajit Ray সত্যজিৎ রায় (based on the short story “Abataranika” by Narendranath Mitra নরেন্দ্রনাথ মিত্র); Cinematographer Subrata Mitra সুব্রত মিত্র; Starring Madhabi Mukherjee মাধবী মুখোপাধ্যায়, Anil Chatterjee অনিল চ্যাটার্জী; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 20 August 2013.