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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Big City (1963)d. Satyajit Ray

The Big City d. Satyajit Ray is out 8/20/13 in Criterion Collection edition.

Movie Review
The Big City (1963)
d. Satyajit Ray
Criterion Collection #668
Out August 20th, 2013

  Major epiphany this weekend when I realized I was going in the wrong direction vis a vis the Criterion Collection Spine numbers.  Obviously, there is more interest in the new releases vs. the back catalog DUH.  The Big City is actually coming out today, so this is literally a "new release" review.

  Of course, it's not a review of the Blu Ray DVD since I watched it on the Criterion Channel on Hulu Plus, but surely the day of the release of the Criterion Collection edition is the proper time for a blog post on the film itself.  Also being released today is another Satyajit Ray film, Charulata (1964.)  I don't think I'm being controversial by saying that Ray is by far the most famous Indian film maker outside of India.  Personally, I couldn't name another even though I have an above average level of knowledge about the history and cultures of India.

  Something specifically Indian to understand about Ray is his Bengali ethnicity. India is a majority Hindu speaking country.  Bengali is a separate language, different then Hindu, and speakers are concentrated in Eastern India and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh Bengali is THE language and Bengalis are the absolute majority.  Within India Bengali is the majority language in the state of West Bengal but is a minority language in the rest of India.   So the fact that the language of Ray's films is Bengali and Hindi is significant, somewhat analogous to a Quebecois film maker making a movie in French, or a Mexican-American film maker making a film in Spanish.

   The use of language in The Big City is worth pulling out of what is essentially an interesting but conventional "Woman in the work place" melodrama that grapples with issues familiar to any viewer of American movies and television of the 50s and 60s.  First of all, the characters themselves speak Bengali but will switch into and out of English when they want to use a phrase that is specific to the English language, "This is none of my business but...." for example.

Arati Mazumdar (the first role of Bollywood leading lady Madhabi Mukherjee)

    One of the co-workers of the female star of the film, Arati Mazumdar (the first role of Bollywood leading lady Madhabi Mukherjee) is an Anglo-Indian, which is an actual ethnicity in India, the children of relationships between British workers (often Scottish and Irish industrial workers)  and Indians.   These Anglo-Indians were citizens of India, but spoke English as their first language- despite having no history in England or outside of India.  They were not typically "Upper Class" since the parentage often stemmed from working class relationships. In The Big City, the Anglo Indian character is named Edith, and she speaks to Arati in English, and Arati answers in Bengali.

  In one scene, Arati goes to Edith's apartment and meets her Mother, and Anglo looking woman who speaks her English with a heavy and distinct "Indian" accent.  It is Arati's defense of this Anglo-Indian friend that cues the ultimate resolution at the end of the film, so the appearance is hardly a throw-away.

 Ray was supposedly inspired to take up Film after seeing the Italian neo-realist film The Bicycle Thief on a visit to London, so it is no surprise that The Big City has a distinctly realist feel. There's none of the cartoonish song and dance routines that exist in the minds of Westerners as a Bollywood stereotype.

  That being said, I actually lived with a guy from India who was from West Bengal and he endlessly watched Bollywood films and they were all of the song and dance variety- he didn't have any Ray films. The Criterion Collection description of the new release says that the English subtitles are new to this edition.  I would argue that it is the use of language by Ray in this film that is the most interesting aspect.  That, and the performance of Mukherjee who fairly sparkles with her expressive face and mannerisms.   In almost every scene I found myself thinking that she was really nailing the complicated role. 


Adam Calhoun said...

You probably know this but it's actually pretty common for Indian movies to use non-Hindi languages. Outside of Bollywood, many states have majority languages such as Tamil, Kannada, etc, and their own, often quite extensive, cinemas (sometimes variously called "Tollywood", "Kollywood", etc ;). I'm sure you know that many of these states have 60million+ people! Since India is more like Europe than it is like Canada, it's more like national cinemas than it is like Quebecois cinema. Sorry to get pedantic...

(Personal note: my in-laws are Tamil)

PS. I have no idea how I stumbled onto your blog (I live in San Diego? Maybe through that somehow?) but it's been really interesting what you pick up reading chronologically through the 1001 books. It's almost inspired me to do something similar with movies (or books!), if only I had the time

Avec Maître said...

In spite of claims of having an "above average level of knowledge about the history and cultures of India", you

1) kept on referring to Hindu as a language, and

2) mentioned Madhabi Mukherjee as a Bollywood leading lady (she hasn't acted in a single Bollywood film to my knowledge).

Care for an edit, please?

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