Madhabi Mukherjee, remembering the director Satyajit Ray long after he gave her the central role in The Big City, said that he was as ‘magnanimous as the sky, and as serious as a mountain’. She likened him to a landscape because he began his career with an almost pantheistic account of childhood in rural West Bengal in Pather Panchali, but on the evidence of The Big City, now rereleased to inaugurate the BFI’s retrospective of his work, Ray was also as convivial as a jostling urban crowd and as serenely omniscient as a tower block.
Big cities have always supplied cinema with one of its panoramic glories, from the futuristic fantasy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the aerial survey of Manhattan in Robert Wise’s West Side Story to the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In Big City, however, Ray makes no attempt to encompass all of teeming, seething Calcutta, where in the early 1950s Arati, Madhabi Mukherjee’s character, nervously emerges from her domestic shelter into a new world of paid employment and emancipation by stealth. Once or twice she crosses a busy street or ventures into the genteelly empty suburbs hoping to sell knitting machines to affluent housewives, but mostly the film is confined to one of the big city’s congested family dwellings, a tight space where small things – a chipped cup, a packet of borrowed tea, hoarded cigarette butts, a wheezing spray can that wages unavailing war on mosquitoes – acquire outsize importance. The tram tickets brought back each evening by Arati’s husband, Bhombol, a bank clerk, are relics salvaged from the city outside, collected as trophies by their young son; news from the wider world leaks in, along with the mosquitoes, thanks to a radio constantly droning next door.
At school, Bhombol’s frisky young sister specialises in ‘domestic science’, a euphemism for housework and training for a life of dreary, sequestered routine. By contrast, the talisman of Arati’s independence is a tiny tube of lipstick, used when she prepares a face for the streets but kept hidden