No one can depict Calcutta with the same rawness as Satyajit Ray. Ray’s Calcutta is a city of opposites: in one city lies disappointment and hope, new possibilities and old temptations, major gulfs between poor and rich.
In the opening shot, a passenger on a moving tram is revealed to be the sad, lower-middle-class Subrata (Anil Chatterjee). He’s a poorly paid bank clerk with a degree and a wife, small son, teenage sister and elderly parents to support in a cramped flat. He gets by on his pride and his position of superiority to his handsome, uneducated wife Arati (the sensitively expressive Madhabi Mukherjee).
“A woman’s place is in the home – an old English proverb,” Subrata tells his wife in English. Yet, in growing need of financial security, Subrata finds his wife a job he deems her fit to do. As Arati becomes more successful and despite growing resentment, jealousy and diminishing control over his wife including quarrels over her choice to wear lipstick to work, Subrata is forced to encourage Arati to work after he loses his job.
It is powerful yet humorous to watch Arati subtly grow in confidence as the breadwinner of the family amidst her husband’s underlying jealousy and emasculation.
Ray neither glorifies nor antagonises his characters but rather offers a balanced understanding of their strengths and weaknesses in a factual and not romantic way. We see Arati flourish as internally as she gains a broader perspective of the world around her, and understand contrary to the “old English proverb” told by Subrata, she ultimately faces her own moral and social obligations outside the family circle.
It is because of this balanced portrayal of the family that Ray makes us really deeply care about his characters’ wellbeing, namely the financial stability of this family. We can see why it is necessary that the wife work, that the father be reconciled, that the husband and wife understand each other. It is precisely this reason that Ray’s films are not seen as “foreign” despite being about Indians; Ray’s characters have more in common with every human being than do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.