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DVD Review: ‘The Big City’ and ‘Charulata’ (Criterion Collection)

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BigCity_DVDcoverDirector Satyajit Ray’s most celebrated films have yet to appear in a well-mastered U.S. DVD. The Criterion Collection has the U.S. rights to Ray’s essential Apu Trilogy, and rumor has it the company is in the process of restoring them for an eventual Canadian and U.S. release. In the meantime, a generous selection of Ray’s other films is available for streaming on Hulu Plus. Before the Apu Trilogy  gets its long-awaited release, Criterion has released a pair of the director’s mid-career films that look at the role of women in a changing India.

The Big City  was the first of Ray’s films to address his home town of Kolkata (Calcutta). Subrata (Anil Chaterjee) is a bank worker whose wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) chooses to take a job to help take care of her family. In a traditional Indian household, Arati’s family meets her choice with resistance and resentment. The cast deftly navigates the conflicting influences between Indian tradition and Western modernity, but the movie belongs to Mukherjee. Her face, both stoic and expressive says what the script doesn’t have to.

One of the two-disc set’s bonus features is an insightful interview with Mukherjee,  who gives her own critical assessment of The Big City and puts it into its social context. The actress recalls how different Ray’s films were from other, taklier Indian films of the time. Ray showed her that film is primarily a visual medium. Also included with The Big City is Kapurush (The Coward), a short feature from 1965 that deals more concisely with some of the issues in Charulata, Criterion’s other recent Ray release. A screenwriter (Soumitra Chaterjee) on a research trip to a small town unexpectedly runs into former lover Karuna (Mukherjee), now unhappily married. The actress steals the show again with her steadfast presence among men who are pompous or weak. Kapurush is a powerful, succinct  74-minute chamber piece whose characters I would have been happy to follow for another hour. Other supplements included with The Big City include a 1974 documentary short and the interview Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman, which places these films in the context of traditional and modern India.

Charulata_DVDcoverIn The Big City, Ray tells the story of a mid-20th Century woman trying to balance domestic life and a career.

Charulata  is set in the late 19th Century, but in cimenatic terms, it is even more modern than its predecessor. The film begins with a long, nearly wordless scene in which a lonely homemaker (Mukherjee again) wanders around her lavish home, bored. Ray adapted a novella by master author Rabindranath Tagore for this film, but the literary and cinematic worlds do not work well together. Here Ray’s neo-realism meets the alienation of Antonioni, but the marriage is uneven.  Much of Charulata is ponderous in exactly the heavy-handed, talky vein that Mukherjee declared Ray had stepped away from. Her title role carries the film, but the men are self-centered and tedious, talking about politics. These scenes may be good context and history; they do not make for living cinema. Ray conveys the kind of world the lonely homemaker has to work with, but if these men keep Charu from fulfilling herself, they also keep the film from fulfilling Ray’s promise of compelling cinema.

Extras on the single-disc Charulata DVD include informative interviews with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee; Adapting Tagore, an interview program that discusses the challenge of  making a film from the work of one of India’s best-loved literary figures; and an audio interview with the director.

Satyajit Ray considered Charulata one of his finest films. But despite Mukherjee’s quietly powerful lead performance, and long, silent sequences as strong as any in his oeuvre, the film’s more stage bound scenes work against its impressionistic heights. Charulata is worth seeing for the pure cinema of its opening sequence, but The Big City is the more compelling film, a fine balance of drama and social commentary.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.