Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Criteritron #11

The Criteritron is an occasional series in which I take a look at The Criterion Collection's vast streaming offerings on HuluPlus and recommend a title to watch.

The Criteritron #11: The Big City / Mahanagar
India, 1963
Written and directed by Satyajit Ray

What Is It?: A progressive, socially conscious movie set in the "big city" of Kolkata (Calcutta) in eastern India. Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) is a young housewife, married to Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), a bank employee. They and their young son Pintu (Prosenjit Sarkar) share their home with Subrata's father (Haren Chatterjee), a former teacher, mother (Haren Chatterjee), and little sister Bani (Jaya Bhaduri), but this brings a significant financial strain. After Subrata casually mentions that a friend's wife has taken a job, Arati decides to do the same, in spite of her in-laws' consternation and all of the societal pressures against a married woman and mother working. As a door-to-door "sales girl", she runs into other pressures, from class issues brought on by her wealthy clients to questions of ethnicity through her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith (Vicky Redwood)'s patchy relationship with their big-shot boss Mr. Mukherjee (Haradhan Bannerjee). Yet the confidence and money that come from being good at her work lifts Arati's spirits even as they bring a new, potentially troubling dynamic to the family's lives.

Why Watch It?: Did you even read the prior paragraph? Look at it again, and recognize the audacity of these frankly feminist issues being dealt with in conservative West Bengal in 1963. Writer/director Satyajit Ray has a huge reputation in world cinema, and he earned that reputation by combining his own innate sense of composition, character, and story with the things he learned from Western directors like Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealist school. The result is a blend of craft, humanism, and truth that pervades all of his work without becoming too precious or overly sentimental. Watch how, in a few short scenes early on in The Big City, Ray sketches a family that not only feels real—with a lived-in history, complex interrelations, and genuine love—but which also manages to capture our sympathies and concerns. Similarly, Arati's travails function perfectly as her own story, yet also work as a microcosm of the issues women and families faced in India at the time (and, indeed, continue to face in the struggle for equality). Yet in spite of Ray's huge reputation, his films have been poorly represented on DVD and Blu-ray in the US. Thankfully, Criterion have now restored and released a few of Ray's works, so why not take advantage and stream this one on my word?

The Big City is available for purchase on DVD or Blu-ray, but only the non-Criterion DVD version is available via Netflix's disc rental service. You can also stream The Big City on HuluPlus via any compatible device, or through the embedded player below the cut. 

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