Director: Satyajit Ray
Calcutta, the 1870s. A housewife, Charu, lives a secluded, unoccupied life of leisure. Her husband, Bhupati, runs an English language newspaper, The Sentinel and devotes more time to this than his increasingly lonely wife, although Charu doesn’t complain, recognising how well he provides for them both. Concerned that she is lonely, Bhupati invites his cousin, Amal, to visit and to keep Charu company. The Sentinel struggles with sales but Bhupati refuses to compromise the integrity of the newspaper by engaging in gossip and scandal.
Amal, an aspiring writer, enjoys Charu’s company, and encourages her own writing, although they agree not to publish hers. As they spend more time together, Charu develops tender feelings for Amal. He is offered a proposal of marriage from a good family and Bhupati encourages him to accept as it would allow him to receive an education in Europe. Amal leaves, causing Charu great upset and discomfort. Bhupati learns that a colleague has borrowed money against his name and absconded, risking the future of The Sentinel. Bhupati realises that he has neglected Charu for too long and seeks to change. During a storm, Charu breaks down in tears, asking why Amal had to leave? Bhupati thinks he has lost his wife but she beckons him back; they are reunited.
“I told you not to push”
The pivotal exchange in Ray’s moving melodrama, the Silver Bear winning film at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival. Charu screams these words in frustration in a case of mistaken identity, confusing the man with whom she’s fallen in love with her husband. Until this point, her husband had provided a life of great wealth but had neglected the needs of his wife. Only at this crucial moment does he realise what he might have lost and what he must regain.
The eminently gifted Ray, who not only wrote and directed ‘Charulata’ but also provided the hypnotic score that was appropriated by Wes Anderson for his recent ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ made an immediate impression with the Apu Trilogy in the mid to late 1950s, but many of his most ardent admirers discuss several of the following films with just as much appreciation. ‘Charulata’ is rightly considered one of his finest; a melodrama that respects its source, Rabindranath Tagore’s (who you might recall as one of the names mentioned in the memory game in Ray’s later ‘Days and Nights in the Forest’) novella, but is never overcome by it. Ray uses it as the basis of an examination of complex human emotions and relationships.
Although it’s a three hander with a woman torn between two men, it’s not a classic film about emotional betrayal. There’s no act of adultery. We’re unsure of the extent to which Charu’s feelings are even reciprocated. The emotional dynamic of the relationship between her and Amal that develops is more or less shown entirely from her perspective, captured in one specific moment, when she uses her opera glasses to zoom in on Amal as he sits on a swing. At this moment, she knows how she feels and how irretrievable the circumstances are.
The three protagonists are considerately drawn out. They act compassionately and with the best intentions but can’t always appreciate what the consequences of their actions are. Bhupati is a loving, if neglectful husband whose desire to make a success of his English language newspaper becomes a major preoccupation for him. Crucially during the early scenes of the film, he walks by her twice without noticing, yet it’s not a deliberate snub, but it reveals his complacency. Bhupati notices her loneliness, which is why he asks for Amal to visit, to keep her company. Had Charu, who never once complains about this, said something then perhaps he might not have been so distracted, but his myopia is to an extent understandable.
Amal, on the other hand, probably fails to realise the effect he’s having on Charu. A young and handsome man, quite the antithesis of her husband, who encourages her writing, it’s natural she’d respond favourably. Perhaps he doesn’t overtly encourage her romantic feelings but neither does he sense the potential consequences of their closeness, nor does he really understand what the impact of his departure might mean for her. Despite the complex emotional turmoil that develops from the unforseen actions of the three main protagonists, Ray is reluctant to attach blame or question their motives. His method of characterisation is subtle, as if the shift in the dynamic in the relationships between the three. It’s never built up to seismic levels, just something that naturally develops and feels right and believable.
‘Charulata’ was one of the first Ray films to demonstrate the obvious influence of Western cinema. Never was this more overt in the final sequence, which acts as a homage to ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. As Bhupati and Charu are reunited, their hands touch, more or less the first act of intimate contact we’ve noticed between them, before Ray closes with a freeze-frame. It points to an uncertain future, where perhaps neither Bhupati nor Charu know exactly where they’ll go from here, but their marriage remains intact and there’s work to be done.
Yet Ray uses his own inspired methods of storytelling. The opening scenes pass by almost without dialogue, which would be superflouous since the images Ray presents and the mood he creates tell us everything. Ray’s camera pursues Charu as we observe her life of leisure but ultimately boredom. Charu watches the world with great curiosity through her opera glasses, indicating the distance between herself and what’s outside the virtual prison of her opulent mansion. The use of storms within the film seems like an obvious metaphor to capture the emotional state of Charu at the time and the difficulty of untangling the knots the characters find themselves in, but it’s not a lazy one. Ray himself described this as his favourite of all his films, the most perfectly realised project he ever embarked upon. It’s difficult to disagree with him in many ways. ‘Charulata’ is the work of a mature film maker, comfortable with the emotions he’s working with, sensitive to his protagonists and his source material.