In a just world, Madhabi Mukherjee would have the same iconic presence in cinema history (for an American audience) as European contemporaries like Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Giulietta Masina. Deneuve is perhaps the strongest parallel—both women are so stunningly beautiful that it’s easy to overlook the shrewd intelligence that underlies their every move. Mukherjee worked with such esteemed directors as Ritwik Ghatak (The Golden Thread) and Mrinal Sen (Calcutta 71), but she remains best known for the three films she made with the great Satyajit Ray, two of which are being released by Criterion this week. With any luck, they’ll introduce her to a new generation of devotees.
Of the two, Charulata (1964), sometimes known in English as The Lonely Wife, is by far the more renowned—many critics consider it Ray’s finest work, the Apu Trilogy included. Set in the late 19th century, it stars Mukherjee as Charu (for short), a woman with a deeply poetic soul who’s married to a kind but rather literal-minded newspaper editor (Shailen Mukherjee, no relation). Aware of his wife’s restlessness—she paces their enormous, empty house like a caged tiger—Shailen invites his cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee), an aspiring writer, to stay with them and keep her company, little realizing the wild torrent of emotions his visit will unleash. Yet this is no simple illicit love affair, as Charu’s desire is more for knowledge, beauty, and simple human contact than for Chatterjee himself.
Because Charulata deals with repressed passion—one of the all-time great movie subjects—it has a universal appeal that transcends culturally specific details. Nonetheless, Western viewers may get lost in the film’s thicket of literary references, most of which involve Bengali writers unknown in the U.S. There’s also a fundamental schematism to its division between art and politics, as if devotion to one always entails a complete lack of interest in the other. But the movie’s biggest “flaw,” if you want to call it that, is the way that Madhabi Mukherjee’s scorching sensuality overshadows her comparatively weak male co-stars. Chatterjee, with his pencil mustache and puppy-dog earnestness, seems a paltry repository for the intensity of her gaze, which threatens to set shrubbery and small animals on fire; she’s so much more alive than everyone else onscreen that she makes what’s meant to be a complex situation seem cut and dried.
That’s decidedly not the case in The Big City, which Ray made a year earlier. In most respects, it appears to be a smaller, simpler, less ambitious movie (despite being pretty long), and consequently tends to get filed as “minor Ray.” Mukherjee plays a character almost diametrically opposed to Charulata—indeed, she spends much of the movie selling sewing machines door to door to idle rich ladies. That she has a job at all is The Big City’s dramatic fulcrum. Her husband (Anil Chatterjee), who works for a bank, would prefer to provide for his extended family solo, but reluctantly agrees to let Mukherjee bring in some extra cash; she’s so successful a saleswoman, however, that her income rapidly eclipses his, precipitating all manner of dissension. And that’s it, basically: the story of a housewife who develops a new sense of identity and self-respect by taking a job. A nice feminist parable. Nothing too exciting.
Except that it’s magnificent. For one thing, this may be Ray’s most formally dazzling movie, even though it’s mostly set in bland offices and the family’s cramped house. In one scene, Chatterjee (who’s a different, much stronger actor than Soumitra Chatterjee, the cousin in Charulata) happens upon his wife having coffee with some strange man and eavesdrops on their conversation from across the restaurant. Ray clearly establishes where he’s sitting in relation to where they’re sitting, and when Mukherjee says something significant, and the camera slowly pushes past her to where we know Chatterjee is, we wait for it to settle on his astonished face. Instead, the shot ends on a black marble pillar, angled so that it dimly reflects Chatterjee in one of its faces and the man Mukherjee is talking to in the other. That’s a particularly showy example—most of the time, Ray simply creates subtly dynamic compositions for the Academy frame, which he arguably uses more expressively than any other filmmaker in history, excepting maybe Orson Welles.
What truly distinguishes and elevates The Big City, though, is its all-encompassing empathy. There are no villains in this movie—even Mukherjee’s boss (Haradhan Banerjee), who’s an unapologetic racist (a key subplot involves his firm’s sole Anglo-Indian employee, played by Vicky Redwood), comes across as a fundamentally decent person who harbors some screwed-up ideas. Chatterjee isn’t a tyrant, just an ordinary guy made to feel impotent; Mukherjee discovers an inner strength she hadn’t known she possessed, but she doesn’t suddenly turn into a different person. The film’s repeated deflection of overt melodrama doesn’t make it small—it makes it uncommonly rich and intricate and real. And its love for humanity, which it shares with movies as disparate as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai Des Orfèvres and Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, is most strongly reflected in Mukherjee’s almost imperceptibly gradual awakening, which eschews shorthand in favor of genuinely life-sized instances of minute reassessment. She’s a treasure too little celebrated nowadays; these discs make for a welcome corrective.
New this week:
Criterion’s DVD-only Eclipse series offers Early Fassbinder, a five-film package that includes Love Is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods Of The Plague, The American Soldier, and Beware Of A Holy Whore. (All were made in 1969-70, incredibly. The man worked fast.)
Classic titles appearing on Blu-ray from Shout Factory—all of which admittedly stretch the definition of “classic”—include The Idolmaker(1980), starring Ray Sharkey as a rock promoter; Larry Cohen’s cult monster movie Q, The Winged Serpent (1982);and the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Dark Angel,a.k.a. I Come In Peace (1990).
By far the most notable of the week’s contemporary releases is Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy, overstuffed adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which sharply divided critics but did reasonably well with audiences. The English Teacher, starring Julianne Moore in the title role, failed to make much of an impression; likewise The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which judging from reviews is about as exciting as the title makes it sound. And gluttons for punishment will feel obligated to check out Stranded, a low-budget Alien knockoff showcasing Christian Slater at his most visibly bored.