Sunday, January 25, 2015

Satyajit Ray's The Big City and Charulata.

[This piece was originally published at the now-defunct website]

Satyajit Ray’s The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964), both newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, make a compelling case for the legendary Bengali director as one of cinema’s great feminist storytellers. Both films star the remarkable Madhabi Mukherjee as women challenged and transformed by the social and sensual pleasures of a radically unstable world, and the films depict the emotional realities of these characters’ experiences with startling acuity. They also reflect the influence of Ray’s mentor, Jean Renoir (Ray began his career as an assistant to Renoir during the filming of the latter’s 1951 masterwork, The River), by avoiding stridency or problem picture posturing in favor of a radical ambiguity that treats all perspectives with equal sympathy. Consequently, they’re also among the most perceptive movies ever made about marriage, conveying the fragility of human affection in the face of bad luck and good intentions.

Both films tell fairly straightforward stories of sheltered Bengali housewives coming into contact with the outside world, with profound consequences for themselves and their husbands. The Big City, freely adapted from a pair of short stories by Nerendranath Mitra, follows Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) and Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) Mazumdar, a lower middle-class couple suffering from financial hardships that eventually force Arati to seek employment, much to her husband’s discomfort and the overt disapproval of her conservative in-laws. She obtains a job as a door-to-door sales rep, eventually out-earning her husband, and as she experiences solidarity with her female co-workers, she discovers a new autonomy and strength of character even while her relationship with her increasingly suspicious husband becomes frayed.

Charulata, adapted from a 1901 novella by Rabindranath Tagore, covers thematically similar territory in a strictly domestic context. Set in 19th-century Kolkata, the film stars Mukherjee as the eponymous heroine, the bored wife of Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), a liberal newspaper publisher and political activist who mostly ignores his wife as she wiles away her days reading classics of Indian literature and catching glimpses of life outside her spacious, tastefully decorated home via an omnipresent pair of opera glasses. Bhupati’s cousin, Amal (Soumitrz Chatterjee), a layabout and would-be poet, disrupts Charu’s ennui when he arrives for an extended visit. He encourages her latent literary ambitions, and eventually, their intellectual and temperamental sympathies turn amorous, as Charu awakens to the possibilities of life beyond her husband’s walls.

The Big City and Charulata don’t easily reduce to the liberal message pictures their plots suggest. The women in both films change radically as they open up to the challenges of the outside world, but they risk becoming strangers to themselves and their husbands, leaving both women simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. Ray’s films straddle the line between respect for tradition and hunger for transformation, an intellectual position he plays out in his view of marriages in which husbands and their newly transformed wives must come to recognize each other for the first time (to borrow James Agee’s felicitous description of the final image in Chaplin’s City Lights, another film about transformation and recognition). In The Big City, the moment of serendipitous rediscovery that climaxes the film echoes the transformative, if tentative, ending to Rossillini’s Journey to Italy (1954) in its depiction of two intimate strangers rescuing each other from the void, and though much of the film flirts with an Ibsen-esque literalism that bogs down the last third of the picture, the last five minutes achieve an emotional sublimity that belies all flaws. For its part, Charulata ends with an allusion to the famous final freeze frame of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (a magnanimous bow to the masterpiece directed by the man reputed to have dismissed Ray’s 1955 debut, Pather Panchali, with the remark, “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands”), and appropriates the desperately sad but open-ended tenor of that iconic moment to comment on its heroine’s marriage and feminine identity.

Both films’ climaxes testify to Ray’s debt to European cinema, and especially the legacy of Italian neorealism (Ray claimed the revelatory experience of seeing De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief directly inspired him to become a filmmaker). Ray appropriated neorealist conventions to cover the discrete, life-shattering dramas of domestic spaces, transplanting neorealism’s focus on the desperate lives of men out in the streets to the lives of women largely isolated from the crowd and its attendant dangers. Even The Big City keeps location shots to a minimum, focusing instead on how Arati responds to a variety of interior spaces, from her cramped apartment to her boss’s threadbare offices to the lavish homes of the well-to-do clients to whom she tries to sell sewing machines. It’s an intelligent extension of neorealism’s attention to the material pressures that shape desire and destiny, and Ray’s marriage of spartan naturalism, formal lyricism, and domestic melodrama, in Charulata in particular, presages facets of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), and in its relatively stripped-down aesthetics and forthrightly progressive politics, The Big City exemplifies why Ray’s films served as a model for third world cinema as it would emerge over the coming decades, especially the observant, casually feminist films of the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene.

Both discs come with usual wealth of extras, including new interviews with Madhabi Mukherjee in which she happily recalls reworking with the attentive Ray. The Big City Blu-ray includes the illuminating documentary Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman, in which film scholar Suranjan Ganguly expounds on the feminist themes of both The Big City and Charulata (though I recommend waiting to watch it until after you’ve watched both films); Satyajit Ray, a 1974 documentary on the director that includes some fascinating footage of Ray directing scenes from The Big City; and most significantly, yet another Ray feature, The Coward (1965), a relatively minor though still impressive effort highlighted by another great performance from Mukherjee. The Charulata Blu-ray includes an archival radio interview with Ray as well as the informative documentary Adapting Tagore, which explicates the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and explores the many literary references that pop up in the film’s dialogue. Both discs come with the requisite booklet that contains critical essays and interviews with Ray that help contextualize both films within Indian history and Ray’s oeuvre. It all amounts to the typical Criterion class act, and hopefully augurs a similarly sterling treatment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy in the near future.