The Big City
The Big City, the great Satyajit Ray’s first portrayal of contemporary life in his native Kolkata, follows the personal triumphs and frustrations of Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), who decides, despite the initial protests of her bank-clerk husband, to take a job to help support their family. With remarkable sensitivity and attention to the details of everyday working-class life, Ray builds a powerful human drama that is at once a hopeful morality tale and a commentary on the identity of the modern Indian woman.
Satyajit Ray’s The Big City comes to Blu-ray from Criterion in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The transfer is delivered in 1080p/24hz.
For the Ray titles I try to keep my expectations fairly low simply because the previous DVD editions of his films that I’ve seen (including Master of Cinema’s DVD for Abhijan) have all come off fairly rough thanks to poor source materials. Criterion’s Blu-ray for The Music Room was a revelation, delivering a surprisingly crisp and vibrant image. True, it was still littered with noticeable damage, but compared to previous DVDs it was a miracle of sorts. I was hoping for at least something similar with The Big City but was pleasantly surprised to get something even better, a near-immaculate presentation of the film.
Clarity and depth is astounding, with textures clearly rendered and finer details distinctly visible, including those found in the clothes and the various settings. Close-ups show an amazing amount of detail on the faces of the actors, and long shots don’t appear fuzzy or blurry. Contrast may have been boosted a bit but blacks are rich and inky, with excellent shadow delineation and gray levels. There are a few places where crushing occurs, but it appears to be related to the source materials and not an issue with the transfer. The transfer itself is clean, free of any distortion or filtering. Film grain is faint but looks clean and natural, and the print is in spectacular shape, with only few minor blemishes remaining.
This is my first time seeing the film so I can’t say how previous releases look, but compared to some of the DVDs I had seen for his other films this presentation is a wonderful surprise.
The Bengali linear PCM 1.0 mono track is actually fairly decent but is still noticeably flat and hollow. English dialogue that is occasionally laced in is still a bit hard to discern at times but thankfully Criterion still provides English subtitles. Music is a little edgy but is otherwise clean. Overall it’s better than I would have expected but it still clearly shows its age.
The Big City receives a nice selection of supplements starting with a new interview with Madhabi Mukherjee, the lead of the film. For 17-minutes she talks about Ray’s style, his use of imagery over dialogue, and then first meeting him. She talks about the mindset of the period on the topic of women working, and talks about her character and the character of Edith, the Anglo-Indian character important to the story. She’s a very cheerful, warm person, delivering some great insights into the story and character.
A little weaker is the sole scholarly feature on here, and interview with film scholar Suranjan Ganguly entitled Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman. In this 22-minute piece Ganguly talks about the three films gathered together here between Criterion’s Blu-ray editions of The Big City and Charulata, which includes those two films and then The Coward, which is included as a feature on this edition. While he talks a little about India in the 60’s he simply goes through each of the films and talks about specific moments in the films and how they impact their central female characters. Disappointingly I didn’t find it overly insightful and not something that needs to be watched. But if one does choose to watch it please note that there are spoilers galore, so you’d be best to watch it after you’ve viewed all three films between the two releases before viewing this feature, that is of course if you plan on watching all of them.
B.D. Garga’s Satyajit Ray is a 14-minute program about Ray, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from The Big City while the director narrates over them, explaining his reasons for making films. The latter half of the feature contains footage from some of his films.
The disc then closes off with the best feature on here, Ray’s 69-minute film The Coward (Kapurush,) which also stars Mukherjee. The story centers on a screenwriter (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) who finds himself stranded in a small village after his car breaks down and the local shop doesn’t carry the necessary part he needs. A Good Samaritan, a wealthy local, allows him to spend the night in his house. Much to the man’s surprise, though, this Good Samaritan is now married to the young screenwriter’s former lover, played by Mukherjee. He had previously refused to marry her previously, which led to the break-up, but the young man (coward/schmuck) then of course finds himself drawn to her again. Not overly surprising, but in its short time period Ray delivers a wonderfully layered drama, that delivers some wonderfully tense moments and a great performance by Mukherjee.
The film is also given a rather stunning 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer itself, coming off sharp with very few blemishes and no digital issues of note.
The included booklet then includes an essay by Chandak Sengoopta, that focuses on the film’s presentation of its central character. The booklet then concludes with translated excerpts from an interview by Andrew Robinson with Ray, with the excerpts focusing specifically on The Big City and The Coward. The interview makes for an especially great read.
Though it lacks much in the way of scholarly material, and its one scholarly extra leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a very strong collection of features, with the inclusion of The Coward being a rather large plus.
A beautiful edition complete with some great supplements and a fabulous transfer, Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Big City comes with a very high recommendation.