At the beginning of Satyajit Ray’s 1963 film The Big City, Subrata “Bhombol” Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) returns home from his job at a Kolkata bank and discovers that his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), has borrowed tea from a neighbor. In light of their financial difficulties — he’s the sole breadwinner for a household consisting of four adults, a teenager and a child — he finds the act embarrassing. “What choice do I have?” Arati asks. “If you don’t have your tea when you get home, you kick up a fuss.” Subrata has to admit that she’s right, yet he looks and sounds rather dubious when he adds, “You pay no attention to appearances.” It’s a brief exchange, a matter of seconds, seemingly incidental. Shortly thereafter, he prepares to go out again in hopes of collecting payment from a student he tutors. While he combs his hair, Arati can be seen reflected in the mirror, although her image is repeatedly obscured by her husband’s elbow. Again, this is a minor thing, so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but like the conversation about the tea, it foreshadows much of what will follow.
Before Subrata leaves, Arati suggests that he borrow money from a friend in order to relieve their financial worries, at least for a little while. He explains that that would be futile: “Don’t you know their situation? Some relatives came to stay, so they’re both working to make ends meet.” Arati is bewildered. “What do you mean, ‘both?'” she asks. “Husband and wife,” he replies. Incomprehensible though this idea is to her, she starts to wonder if it might be a viable solution to their own problems. Subrata laughs it off at first, teasing her that her good looks would lower her male co-workers’ productivity, playfully proclaiming that “a housewife should stay in her house and not wander about.” However, his attitude changes when he realizes that this is more than a whim. As with the tea, but on a much larger scale, Arati is willing to act for the good of her family no matter what the rest of the world thinks.
Unfortunately, most of the opposition she faces after obtaining a job comes from within her family, especially from her conservative father-in-law (Haren Chatterjee). Subrata, who has helped Arati peruse the want ads and typed up her letter of application in English, tries to reason with his father: “I suppose you’ll say you supported a large family all by yourself and that Ma never had to go out and work. I’m not denying that. But times have changed. It’s a new day, and we have to change. We have to accept it. Change comes by necessity. We have no choice but to take this step.” It does no good. The couple’s young son, Pintu (Prasenjit Sarkar), can be bribed with toys when he throws a tantrum over his mother’s departure, but neither logic nor gifts will sway the old man.
Between her sorrow over causing disharmony in the household and her fear of entering a new and unknown world, it seems that the odds are against Arati. The job itself — peddling knitting machines in quiet, wealthy neighborhoods, strikingly different from her own chaotic street — is also far outside of her comfort zone. When a man opens the first door on which she knocks, she’s so startled that she shakes her head and scurries away, not pausing for breath until she reaches the front gate. An overreaction? Perhaps, but natural enough for a woman from her background; besides, one of her co-workers tells a story about an apparent seduction attempt during a sales call, so the job is not without its risks.
But Arati perseveres, grows accustomed to the work and, at last, receives her first month’s salary: one hundred rupees, plus a commission. She goes into the bathroom at her office, and Ray shows her reflected in a mirror once again; this time, though, Subrata’s elbow is not there to hide her from view. A skeptical smile crosses her face, as if she’s pleased but can’t quite believe that she’s actually achieved this. The skepticism fades. She regards herself more boldly, more confidently, then raises the bills to her nose and inhales. For all of her despair over her lack of marketable skills, for all of the stress at home and on the job, she now has tangible proof that she’s capable of earning money and improving her family’s life. Ray’s message is clear: Arati has become empowered.
Her reverie is interrupted by the entrance of co-worker Edith Simmons (Vicky Redwood), the only white woman amongst the five salesgirls. “He’s given you such nice new notes, and look at these — all crumpled and dirty and smelly,” she laments, displaying her own pay. Arati suggests that they trade. After a brief show of polite resistance, Edith agrees to exchange five of her bills for five of Arati’s, then offers her an unused lipstick from her purse in thanks. Now it’s Arati’s turn to refuse. “Why not? What’s wrong with using a little lipstick? You put red here, red here. Why not here?” Edith argues, pointing to her forehead, hairline and lips in succession. Arati relents and lets her co-worker apply the makeup, although she makes sure that no one else is around and insists that she only use a little. Once more, she studies herself in the mirror, uncertain about the change in her appearance but not entirely displeased by it. She asks Edith for a tissue so that she can wipe it off, explaining, “There’ll be trouble if I use my handkerchief.” Edith obliges but also tells her to keep the lipstick: “It’s good for business.” In other words, a saleswoman must sell herself as well as her product.
For Arati, however, the lipstick proves liberating rather than regressive. There’s a telling moment later on that takes place in front of the same bathroom mirror. Having just learned that Subrata’s bank has closed down and he’s out of a job, she decides that she must ask her boss, Mr. Mukerjee (Haradhan Bannerjee), for a raise. Blinking back tears, yet with growing determination, she applies a coat of lipstick and then marches across the hall to his office. Does she hope to win him over by making herself more attractive? It’s not impossible, but considering the boss’s attitude toward women in general and Edith in particular, it’s not likely either.
Earlier, after Edith confronted him on the other employees’ behalf and secured their commissions, Mr. Mukerjee had chastised Arati for allowing her to speak for the rest of them: “There are five of you — four Bengalis and one Anglo-Indian. So why doesn’t one of you four represent the group? Why must that Anglo-Indian be your representative?” He had gone on to describe Edith as “insolent” and told Arati, “If you had brought this proposal to me, I know you’d have put it very politely, and there’d have been no argument.” Women (that is, Bengali women) taking on leadership roles is a fine thing, an admirable thing, his words suggest — but only if they’re not too pushy about it.
In putting on the lipstick before going to see Mr. Mukerjee, Arati seems to take on some of Edith’s so-called insolence; a less biased observer might call it courage in this case. He tells her that a raise would take two or three months, mocks her threat to explore other avenues, says that she’s too impulsive. She apologizes but doesn’t back down, and in the end, it’s Mr. Mukerjee who gives in. Subsequently, when Subrata chances upon the lipstick, Arati throws it out the window. It’s a way of showing him that their marriage is more important to her than anything else, but it also holds deeper significance. Her self-assurance has grown to the point where she no longer needs such superficial trappings to boost her confidence — a far cry from an earlier scene in which she fretted over not looking as fashionable as her fellow salesgirls.
If Arati really has come to pay no attention to appearances, Subrata is another case entirely. Supporting his wife while the job was a kind of abstraction, merely the logical solution to their problems, was one thing, but once Arati starts bringing money into the household — more than he earned at his first job — her success becomes a constant reminder of his own inadequacy. Despite his relatively progressive views on working women (at least in theory, or at least compared to those of his father), he’s a product of his environment. His culture dictates that it’s a man’s responsibility to support his family, and though times have changed, as he told his father, the old ideas still hold sway.
And so he tries to undermine his wife. When she declares that he wouldn’t recognize her on the job, he replies, “What about at home? Would I recognize you at home?” Passive aggression fails to dissuade her, so he orders her to quit, insisting that he’ll get a part-time job, that it’s for the good of the household and for her own good: “You’re looking thin. There are dark circles under your eyes.” Dismayed, Arati says, “I don’t feel bad. Even after working all day, I don’t feel tired.” Besides the fact that she’s helping the whole family — notably, her income allows Subrata’s teenage sister (Jaya Bhaduri) to stay in school — she genuinely enjoys what she does, and it’s with great reluctance that she agrees to hand in her resignation. Only the sudden closing of Subrata’s bank saves her.
Thus, Arati becomes the breadwinner, throwing Subrata’s once orderly, traditional world into complete disarray. Wherever he turns, he faces new humiliations, some related to gender roles, some not: people who lost money when the bank closed blame him for recommending it; his retired teacher father begs for money and other goods from former students, telling them that his son can’t support him. Moreover, his sense of failure draws him further and further away from an increasingly competent, powerful Arati, so that he feels he no longer knows her. One day, while passing his empty hours in a cafe, he spots Arati on the street, sporting sunglasses (another present from Edith) and talking to a man. They come inside and sit down in order to continue their conversation, unaware of his presence. Yet again, Ray uses Arati’s reflection to make a point, but this time it’s a reflection of the back of her head, an obscure, murky image on a pillar in the cafe. Subrata, this suggests, is no longer capable of seeing her clearly.
The irony is that the only sin Arati commits in this scene — if it is a sin — is lying about Subrata’s career. She tells the man, a wealthy friend’s husband (and a potential customer), that Subrata runs his own business and puts in twelve-hour days. “I insisted on working just for fun,” she says. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have let me. ‘If you work, people will say I don’t make enough.’ I said, ‘Why? Everyone knows how much you make.'” Does this stem from personal embarrassment or from a desire to protect Subrata from cruel gossip? While it’s difficult to be certain, and both may well play a role, there’s no doubt that she always has her loved ones’ welfare in mind, and Subrata’s most of all.
After receiving her first month’s pay, Arati had told her husband, “I’m still the same housewife.” She’s a complex woman, but there’s also a beautiful simplicity to her. Appearances don’t matter nearly as much as love and fairness and doing the right thing. When Mr. Mukerjee looks at Edith, for instance, he sees “that Anglo-Indian”; Arati, despite the ostensible barriers between them — language, culture, race — sees a friend. As such, it’s especially painful to her that Subrata, the center of her life, can’t look past the changes in her and in their situation and recognize what’s really important. “Do whatever you like,” she tells him after throwing away the lipstick, “but please don’t misunderstand me, darling.”