Sunday, September 1, 2013

#668: The Big City

(Satyajit Ray, 1963)

I loved The Music Room far more than I expected to, but it took watching The Big City for me to give Satyajit Ray the respect he deserves. At this point, I've only seen three Ray films: The Music Room, Pather Panchali, and The Big City, but it's the last one which showed me what I should have known already - Ray is his country's Kurosawa, a master humanist and technician whose ability to craft a reflection of his society into universally understood cinema was rarely matched in cinema history. The Big City is such an impressive work of art that it's almost criminal that I have been kept from it for so long. Certainly, as I wrote in my review of Ray's first entry in the Collection, his omission from the Western canon has been long overdue for correction, and while non-Japanese Asian cinema has leaked into American movie culture in slow drips (mostly due to Hong Kong's love affair with the shoot-em-up action movie), India has for too long been ignored with only Ray's Apu Trilogy mentioned in hushed tones.

The Big City is a great film for many number of reasons, but what I most loved about it was Ray's ability to depict a fully fleshed out female character who is certainly empowered and brave, but often scared and uncomfortable and always conflicted in her new modern role. Despite the fact that she stayed within her own country, I was often reminded of was El Norte, a movie about a changing culture struck by economic desperation that really couldn't be more different in terms of specifics. But the component both share in spades is humanity, an acute sense of these people and sympathy for their struggles. Ray's film is especially noteworthy because he chose to focus on a woman (who is by the way played by the startlingly beautiful Madhabi Mukherjee, whose screen presence rivals Setsuko Hara and Barbara Stanwyck) and tailored his film to make a specific point about gender relations in an evolving India post-revolution. When combined with the contempt Ray's story has for Mukherjee's father-in-law, his feminist perspective is crystal clear, and his desire to modernize India at this early stage in its development should be eye-opening to anyone unfamiliar with India's history. But it's the way he tells the story that is so impressive.

The Big City isn't perfect. There are moments that play too melodramatic, and I don't know that I entirely buy the husband's turnaround in the final moments of the film, as well-intentioned as it was. But these choices are intentional and point towards Ray's focus on appealing to his audience rather than preach to them. The Big City is not a radical film, which is part of what makes it so noteworthy socially. It's Ray's quiet self-assurance that makes it so impressive technically, and this masterful touch and clear intention manifested in such pure form that elevates him to the ranks of the great directors. Quite clearly, The Big City is Criterion's call for Ray's immortality.

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