In most cases, the trouble with melodramas and problem pictures is how much the plotting seems to follow a linear, predictable arc of gantlets and obstacles lifted straight out from screenwriting 101 and more concerned with issues than with plausibility or character. Not so - quite the opposite - in Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray's 1963 masterpiece The Big City: its tale of hardships and struggle in the suburbs of Calcutta is simultaneously less predictable and more realistic than a mere synopsis would provide, while fitting perfectly into the director's recurrent theme of the contrast between tradition and modernity in a sprawling country attempting to stand on its own two feet.
Inspired by a short story by celebrated Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra, The Big City tells of the daily life of the Majumdar family, struggling to pay the bills at the end of the month ever since husband Subrata's (Anil Chatterjee) elderly parents have moved in. Wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) eventually decides to look for a job - something frowned upon in a traditional household - but she soon finds she's been dealt a more complex hand than it seemed at first. The empowerment she feels from her successful entry in the workforce as a saleswoman for a knitting company becomes a threat to the entrenched patriarchy, from a father-in-law (Haren Chatterjee) that refuses to acknowledge her job to a boss (Haradhan Banerjee) who still sees her as docile and servile, ending in the problems that arise when bank teller Subrata loses his job in a bank run and Arati becomes the single moneymaker in the family.
For all that, as always with the director, it's personality and character that are put to the fore: these are not characters created to explain or set an issue, rather fully-fledged people with feelings and doubts. This isn't so much the story of a family struggling to keep afloat, but the personal transformative journey of two people who learn about themselves the hard way: a woman who realises she does not have to remain in a passive homemaker role and can find other ways of feeling fulfilled, a man who finds a changing society is not only for him but for everyone else as well, both extraordinarily performed by Ms. Mukherjee and Mr. Chatterjee.
Mr. Ray's exacting, quiet slow-burn approach, simplicity itself, douses any excesses or dangers that the story might have fallen in in lesser hands, while underlining just how perfectly attuned he was to the ever-changing challenges of modern life. The attention to revealing detail in the relationships is astounding, with apparently throwaway moments used as context-creating shortcuts (the young son's desire for gifts as a constant source of despair for an Arati afraid of bribing her son with toys; the boss's reverse racism towards the English patent in his dismissive treatment of fellow salesman Edith), painting in the corners of a background that never undermines the big picture at its heart.
Extraordinarily assembled in its ebb-and-flow mesh network of criss-crossing stories and plot lines, The Big City is one of the Indian director's utter masterpieces, even if one of his least remembered ones. And also one of his most resonant and enthralling, 50 years later.
Cast Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Haradhan Banerjee, Haren Chatterjee, Vicky Redwood, Jaya Bhaduri, Sefalika Devi, Prasenjit Sarkar
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the short story by Narendranath Mitra, "Abataranika"; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); designer Bansi Chandragupta; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 19th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)