Criterion is releasing two films by Satyajit Ray on Aug 20, 2013: “The Big City” and “Charulata.” This dual review has been cross-posted for both Blu-ray releases. The Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value section are specific to each title.
Satyajit Ray had a remarkable ability to portray vivid, fully-fleshed characters. It always feels like their lives begin well before the camera starts rolling and will continue long after it stops; Ray has simply captured them in action for a moment before setting them free again to go about the day. They arrive fully formed and only grow from there as each film closely observes the intricate relationships that develop among them and constantly evolve.
Even supporting characters are rarely defined by a single quality. In “The Big City” (1963), for example, young housewife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) takes on a job to help her bank clerk husband make ends meet. Her father-in-law lets her know of his strenuous disapproval; even in 1950s Kolkata a woman's place should be in the home. Ray is not content to let the older man be either a scolding grump or a rigid paragon of traditional virtues. He vents his frustration to Arati, but then acknowledges his own obstinance: “I am too old to change.” And he won't change, but perhaps he wishes that he could. Add another complicating layer: he lives with his son and daughter-in-law and depends on their income to support him in his retirement. He must tolerate the bitter medicine of change strictly out of self-preservation.
Ray also draws a detailed line with the workaholic husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) in “Charulata” (1964). The wealthy Bhupati often ignores his wife Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee once again, in a career-making role) in favor of the muckraking independent newspaper he publishes from his home. He remains largely oblivious as his wife develops strong feelings for his cousin, the charismatic and carefree poet Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee). As Bhupati risks being cuckolded, he could also be portrayed as a fool or even an ogre, but that's not Ray's style.
Though we first meet Bhupati as he walks right past his wife without a glance because he is buried in a book, his love and respect for her are evident. Though he surely wishes she would just “settle” for being a content housewife (she won't), he encourages her to write and cheerfully credits her when she comes up with a brilliant idea. He is guilty of putting politics ahead of the personal, but not of cruelty or callousness. This level of nuance is rare in cinema, and we're not even talking about the protagonists of either film!
Ray's debut film “Pather Panchali” (1955) won him instant worldwide acclaim, and saddled him with the burden of being both a newly minted genius and the (virtually) sole international representative of Indian cinema. No director could have handle the responsibility better. By the end of the decade, Ray had completed the wildly popular Apu trilogy and filmed “The Music Room” (1958), regarded by many (including yours truly) as his greatest masterpiece. He was just getting started.
“The Big City” represented a new challenge, his first film set in contemporary Kolkata (his home town) and an insightful portrayal of the plight of the modern Indian woman. Like many Ray characters, Arati is torn between tradition and the demands of a modern world dominated by technological change and capitalism. She handles the transition with flawless grace, but what makes “The Big City” so unique is the attention paid to the hopes, fears, and anxieties of women, a rarity in a business dominated by male directors, writers, and producers.
Ray clearly enjoys spending time with the newly employed Arati and her fellow saleswomen as they swap their newly acquired war stories. We bob along next to Arati as she decides whether to put on lipstick and plans how to stand her ground when her boss crosses a line she cannot accept. It's genuinely exciting to watch Arati blossom once liberated from the domestic space; she's smart, she becomes increasingly confident, and Ray helps us cherish every minute of it. Of course he had a little help from Madhabi Mukherjee, an actress who also blossomed on Ray's watch.
Mukherjee is magnificent in “The Big City,” but she would become a national star as the title character of “Charulata.” Ray adapted the film, set in 1880, from a novella by the superstar Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, and molded it into a showcase for his lead actress. The film opens with a lengthy sequence featuring Charulata alone in her gilded cage, knocking about her handsomely furnished home. She lounges on the bed, plucks a book off the shelf, sings quietly, and peeks through binoculars at the street life just outside the front window.
In just this short sequence, we are fully immersed in Charulata's claustrophobic world. Her languid gestures are offset by her pensive, observant expressions; those twinkling eyes hint of the depths within. She is bored, but she is no dull-witted idler. Her movements are contained entirely to the house and garden, but her thoughts expand far beyond her physical confines. Charulata's interplay with her newly arrived cousin-in-law Amal is a meeting of both minds and hearts and always a match of equals. It's one of the most convincing romances ever depicted, one that develops organically from a shared love of words (a love shared by Ray, who films the act of writing with fetishistic attention) and isn't sealed with even a single kiss.
“Charulata” marked the end of Ray's whirlwind first decade as a filmmaker, a ten year sprint from the starting blocks matched or exceeded by few directors. He remained just as prolific over the next two and a half decades until his death in 1992, and if 1964 represented a towering peak, he was hardly on the downslope with films like “Days and Nights in the Forest” (1970), “The Adversary” (1970), and “The Chess Players” (1977) still to come.
Satyajit Ray is one of the titans of world cinema, and his films have long been neglected on DVD and Blu-ray in the North American region. Criterion has now added these two mid-'60s masterpieces to “The Music Room” (1958) in the collection, and teased with the possibility of many more to come. I can't wait.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new digital master was produced from a restoration undertaken by RDB Entertainments, under the supervision of Kamal Bansal and Varsha Bansal... a transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original 35 mm camera negative and a 35 mm print at Pixion in Chennai, India. Due to several instances of severe warps in the original negative, a few sections were replaced using an original 35 mm safety grain belonging to the Academy Film Archive.”
Though Ray's films are not that old, some were treated quite poorly in storage. “Charulata” appears not to have been preserved in quite as good a condition as “The Big City,” and Criterion's Blu-ray transfer suffers a bit because of it. There are several scenes where digital boosting leads to some loss in detail, moments when faces look a bit waxy, and there is at least one scene (when Amal walks away in a dark corridor) that looks unrestored. Though image detail is somewhat lacking, the 1080p transfer is still a vast improvement over previous available versions, and much of it is very pleasing to the eye. There are several shots of people writing in notebooks, and the letters stand out in fine detail. Some bad, more good here.
The linear PCM mono track sounds clean and free of distortion. The score (also by Ray, incorporating Tagore's music) sounds a little weak from time to time, but is presented fairly well. Optional English subtitles support the Bengali dialogue; English dialogue is usually not subtitled.
Criterion didn't find a killer extra like the addition of Ray's “The Coward” on “The Big City” Blu-ray, but the extras here are interesting.
First up is a feature that combines separate 2013 interviews with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chaterjee (17 min. total). The feature cuts between the two interviews as they discuss Ray and his production methods. Both, of course, are effusive in their praise. Mukherjee is pleased to note that Ray never got in the way, and simply described the scene and gave the actors their freedom. That's probably not quite how Ray would describe it, but it's great to hear from two of the performers most closely identified with the filmmaker.
“Adapting Tagore” (24 min.) combines separate 2013 interviews with Bengali cultural historian Supriya Chaudhuri and Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas. Ray and Tagore are two of the most influential figures in modern Indian culture, and Chaudhuri and Biswas discuss the challenges Ray had in adapting Tagore's novella. Both speakers are fantastic, and I enjoyed this feature quite a bit.
“Satyajit Ray on Progress” (13 min.) is an audio interview recorded on July 2, 1966 by film journalist Gideon Bachmann. Ray discusses how the theme of progress and transition plays out in his works.
The 32-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Philip Kemp and an excerpt of a translated interview with Ray conducted in the mid-1980s by author Andrew Robinson.
Madhabi Mukherjee was already an accomplished actress, but “Charulata” made her a beloved star. It's easy to understand why. Charulata is not just one of the most memorable characters in Ray's work, but in all of cinema, so vital and dynamic she will always be present. Criterion's high-def transfer has a few problems, but is a significant improvement over previous versions, and the extras are solid. Here's hoping the Ray section of the Criterion canon is set to expand.