Big City, The (Blu-ray Review)9 Sep, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
In Bengali with English subtitles.
Stars Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Jaya Bhaduri.
Too many pounds ago way back in the 1970s, I owned a gold Satyajit Ray T-shirt that I saved for special occasions. Now, this is a remembrance that likely won’t be a life-changer for too many people — but it is one that symbolizes just how accessible the movies of India’s greatest filmmaker are. Trouble is, if you actually tell someone you’re about to watch a humanist drama with the actors speaking Bengali, it only takes a count of three until their eyes glaze and begin tuning out. Well, they’re wrong: Ray, like Dreyer, is director whose works I tend to ration, saving them for the times when I want to view an achievement by someone who knows what he’s doing after I’ve seen too much of what used to be called “greasy kids’ stuff” by today’s crop of filmmakers.
City, aka Mahanagar, is one of a half-dozen or so Ray titles that got restored in the ’90s for VHS release by Sony — one that, in particular, set me on my behind at the time. Set in Calcutta during a time of social upheaval fostered by Indian Prime Minister Nehru (he of the jacket), this 2¼-hour domestic drama with compelling sojourns outdoors deals with a crowded household indebted to the wife (Madhabi Mukherjee) who makes who makes things happen — though little do its other members realize the degree to which this is true. Married to a bank employee played by Anil Chatterjee (like his co-star, a most appealing actor), she is thrust into the alien role of entering the job force and self-sufficiency after a job-ending mishap at her husband’s workplace (no fair spoiling, but the incident isn’t his fault).
The story’s dynamics are already interesting — for one thing, her all but invalid father-in-law is a nearly broke former teacher who attempts to sponge off his ex-students’ professional services — when Mukherjee’s “Arati” character enters a whole new world going upscale door-to-door peddling some kind of knitting device that will ease the busy housewife’s burden. Featured player Haradhan Banerjee puts a distinctive spin on the role of her work supervisor, and I, at least, was never quite sure of what to think of the character, who is at once helpful, oily, more reasonable than not and a person not to cross. The two have a complex relationship (though romance isn’t among the complications), and it’s one of those welcome plot devices that comes along to give a picture a real shot in the arm at the midway point if the picture is particularly blessed. Another bonus here is the evocative set decoration for Arati & family’s household, which almost becomes a character in the movie by conveying inevitable clutter amid attempts to achieve organization in a financially strapped atmosphere. People always say that other people don’t ever got to movies for the sets, but I always wondered why not. Seems like as good a reason as any.
Martin Scorsese was a huge champion of Ray and championed the special Oscar Ray received less than a month before his death in 1992. It was literal deathbed footage captured via satellite for the Oscarcast, a moment of magnificent grandeur that would never make the show’s final cut these days because the academy would instead need the airtime for a John Hughes tribute or to indulge Seth MacFarlane in playing down to the cretin demographic. But preservationist that he is, Scorsese will like seeing how good this 2K Criterion transfer looks, and I assume the same goes for the company’s tandem release of 1964’s Charulata, which I’ve never seen but soon will.
On one of the bonus features here (of several), titled “Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman,” scholar Saranjan Ganguly discusses City, Charulata and 1965’s The Coward in terms of feminist cinema — and, to be sure, City is one of the great feminist movies I’ve ever seen. His comments and the excerpted clips make the last of the trio look interesting, and I was lamenting that I’d never even had a chance to see the 70-minute Coward, a film unknown to me and one that never got a U.S. release. When — lo and behold — I belatedly noticed that the entire film is included as a stealth release in City’s bonus section, much as Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss all but secretly showed up on Criterion’s version of the “other” Stan the Man’s The Killing. Re-teaming a more glamorous Mukherjee with actor Banerjee, Ray’s predominantly three-character drama turns out to be something of a grabber about the unexpected reunion of two long ago lovers under “Kiss Me, Stupid” circumstances when the car breakdown of a movie scriptwriter forces him to spend the night in a remote village. Two good or better movies for one means Ray fans might want to grab this release as well.