8 May 2021

Charulata (1964)

Directed by Satyajit Ray
Music: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee,
Shyamal Ghosh, Sailen Mukherjee, Gitali Roy

I’ve mentioned the Criterion Channel a few times already. In honour of Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary, they curated several of Ray’s seminal films, available for viewing this month. The well-restored collection is giving us a chance to dive into the auteur’s body of work, and a trip down Ray’s oeuvre would be incomplete without Charulata. Considered by many to be Ray’s finest work, and admittedly Ray’s personal favourite from among his films, Charulata is a delicate drama that moves almost languidly through the period of Bengali Renaissance. Like many of his other films, Ray reflected the larger world through the perspective of an individual or group.

When we first meet Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), the eponymous heroine, she’s wandering aimlessly around her luxuriously appointed, tastefully decorated home. Decorated in the European style popular with the upper classes of the time, but combining Bengali sensibilities, the house is a fitting setting for the beautiful young woman.

Charu embroiders a monogrammed handkerchief, a present for her husband; picks up Kapala Kundala, a novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee from the well-stacked bookcase; wanders over to the window to peer through opera glasses at passing strangers… her face reflects her both restlessness and ennui.

Charu’s husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), is a wealthy Bengali intellectual with very outspoken political views. He is the owner/editor of a newspaper called The Sentinel which expresses Indian views of self-governance. He prints articles critical of the [British] government, and this keeps him busy. So busy, in fact, that he has no time for his beautiful young wife. 

Politics and his newspaper occupy his every waking moment, and even when he meets Charu at dinner, it is to try and impress his political views upon her. He is very obviously fond of Charu, but equally obviously, doesn’t share her taste in literature or understand her fascination with the arts. But he does realise, dimly, that Charu must be very lonely indeed, all alone in this big house all day. 

And so, he tells her, he has invited her brother Umapada (Syamal Ghosal) and his wife Mandakini (Gitali Roy) to come and stay. Umapada, though a lawyer by profession, is a bit of a wastrel, but perhaps he can help Bhupati run the newspaper. And Manda could alleviate Charu’s loneliness. Unfortunately, Charu has nothing in common with Manda, who is not only uneducated but given to gossip and playing cards. Neither of which interest Charu.

One day, they receive an unexpected visitor – Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati’s younger cousin, who has just finished his college exams. Bhupati, who is very fond of Amal, immediately drags him off to visit his pride and joy – his printing press – but Amal is completely uninterested. What Bhupati is doing could be termed sedition, he says, laughingly and begs to be let off any involvement with the newspaper. The two of them share a laugh, their fondness for each other evident in their teasing conversation.

But Bhupati is unaware that he stands on the brink of disaster – few people are willing to advertise in a political newspaper, says Umapada, with such a limited reach. His disinterest in his work is palpable. Bhupati, assuming that Umapada’s disinterest lies in his lack of responsibility, decides to put him in charge of the newspaper’s finances, and hands him the keys to the safe.

Meanwhile, Amal has been making himself at home, his open, friendly nature endearing him to both Charu and Manda. After dinner, during the course of a casual conversation, Bhupati speaks dismissively of a friend, Nishikanta, who said he couldn’t sleep for three days after he read one of Bankim’s novels.  He is shocked when Amal not only understands (and defends) Nishikanta’s feelings but compares that to Bhupati’s feelings for politics. 

Bhupati, realising that Amal not only loves literature, but intends to commit himself to ‘relaxing, writing and relaxing some more’, seizes on the chance to alleviate Charu’s loneliness. Mentor her, says Bhupati to Amal; Charu is a good writer herself, he insists.

Amal is not too happy, but the next day, he obediently goes off in search of Charu who, having finished embroidering the handkerchief [“Where do you find the time, Charu?” asks her incredulous husband, seemingly unaware that his wife seeks chores to fill her time] is now working on embroidering a pair of slippers for her husband. Idly, Amal brings up Bankim (when he first walks into their home, he’s quoting from the writer’s Anand Math] and Charu become animated. She then talks about how Bankim’s heroines make her uncomfortable because they are all so beautiful. She’s still busy with her embroidery though, so she doesn’t notice Amal has stopped beside a table holding her photograph and has turned to look incredulously at her.

As Manda, bored with the conversation, falls asleep. Charu drags Amal off to the garden. And as Amal sprawls on a mat in the shade of the trees, Charu provides him with a handmade notebook in which to pen his thoughts, inscribed with his name. 

Inspired, Amal begins to write. Above him, Charu swinging idly, resorts to her constant companion – the opera glasses with which she views the outside world – gazing around the garden until her gaze is caught by a woman and her baby in the neighbouring house and a hint of wistfulness crosses her expressive face. 

Then, back again, until the glasses rest on Amal, blissfully writing on, and a gentle smile lights up her face. A smile that lingers until she suddenly becomes aware that the person she’s smiling fondly at, is her ‘brother’-in-law.

Charu, thrown together with Amal by circumstances, soon realises her nascent attraction to him. [In one crucial scene, Charu breaks down weeping, her arms reaching for Amal and his discomfort is palpable; it is possibly the first time that he’s realised her feelings for him.] The only other person who is aware of these undercurrents – on a subliminal level – is Manda. 

Charulata is less a 'love-triangle' than a lonely woman's journey towards self-realisation. Ray filled the scenes with socio-political, cultural and literary allusions that ground the scenes in its native ethos and lend them a depth that is often missing in such films. While based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest), it is Tagore’s predecessor Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who is the link between the two youngsters who, thrown together by circumstances, find a common link in their shared love of art, music and literature.

The emotional underpinnings of the film are emphasized by an almost-lyrical eroticism in the garden scene – an intellectually-stimulated Charu, all sparkling eyes and wide smiles, swings above a supine Amal, as he seeks the inspiration to write.

Madhabi Mukherjee’s exquisite performance lends her Charulata a delicate vulnerability, as she tries to process emotions that she has never known before. There’s her happiness at meeting a like-minded soul, there’s the strange attraction she feels to a young man close to her own age, there’s the intellectual stimulation of their conversation that mingles literary allusions and alliterative word play, there’s the resentment at his sharing the news of his literary success with Manda first...

Her emotional turbulence is only hinted at, though – betrayed through a quick glance, a fleeting half-smile, a quizzing look.  

It’s her jealousy that shows itself more openly – when Amal refuses the paan she's made, her resentment is openly visible. When she realises that the published article is one that Amal had written in her notebook – when she had told him that what was written there should remain within it – she’s livid. So livid in fact, that she not only writes an article herself, but gets it published in a more prestigious periodical. 

That anger also shows itself in her brittle laughter when Bhupati tells her of a proposal that’s come for Amal. Madhabi’s Charu is both strong and vulnerable, introspective yet playful, intellectual yet sensual.

When we first meet Amal, it's during a storm. Prophetic, since he whips up a storm in Charu's life. 

Soumitra Chatterjee makes Amal come alive – a tad arrogant, a little audacious, a touch impulsive. Intelligent, creative, flirtatious… not realising at first that his beautiful sister-in-law is harbouring an attraction towards him; thrown into guilt and turmoil when he realizes the danger of that attraction; the slight dent in his ego when he realises that the intellect that he nurtured is more powerful than his… while his is a more 'verbal' part, Soumitra complements the verbosity with infinitesimal changes of expression that sometimes bely what he's saying. 

Both he and Madhabi form the heart of Charulata, and both deliver, saying as much by their silences as they do in words.

Forming the third ‘angle’ is Shailen Mukherjee as Bhupati – idealistic, na├»ve, too engrossed in his work to realise either his wife’s discontent, or her growing attraction for his young cousin. Betrayed by his brother-in-law and seeking the support of his younger brother as the only person he can trust, he’s a broken man when he grasps the final betrayal. 

Mukherjee infused Bhupati with a vulnerability that forces you to sympathize with his plight.

Shyamal Ghoshal and Gitali Roy, who play Umapada Ghosh and Mandakini, Charu’s brother and sister-in-law are likewise characters of depth, even if unlikeable. Manda, particularly, is aware of her lack of intelligence and education and admiring of both Charu’s and Amal’s literary bent of mind. She fries singhadas for Amal and prepares his paan, while Amal treats her quite the same way he treats Charu - like an older sibling, though he often pokes fun at her.

She has a native intelligence, however, and a certain sense of integrity – when she cannot bring herself to lie for her husband, he offers to do it himself; only, she should be complicit in her silence. Finally, when she’s about to leave, she requests Amal to show her his article [she had helped him choose the magazine he should send it to]; she would be able to read his name, at least. The wistful sadness in Gitali’s expression makes you feel for her.

Charulata is the first film in which Satyajit Ray took over the cinematography along with direction and music. And the shots are framed beautifully. Apart from the scene in the garden, there’s a shot of Charu as she leans back on her bed, Ray’s camera capturing both her stillness and her loneliness. He also frames her against the window shutters, again and again, the bands of light throwing parts of her face into relief, while also emphasising the 'prison' effect.

The other shot that stayed with me, well after the film was over, was the shot of Amal walking down a shadowy corridor and swinging open the glass-panelled doors as he leaves his cousin’s home in the middle of the night.

Set in the late 1800s, Ray spent nearly a year researching the period. Long-time collaborator Bansi Chandragupta constructed the interior locations based on Ray’s own detailed sketches. As always, the music of the film was composed by Ray himself, and he mingled Rabindra Sangeet with original compositions to layer the film with both depth and nuance. An unexpectedly pleasant surprise was hearing Kishore Kumar lend his voice to Soumitra Chatterjee for Ami chini go chini tomare. [I hadn’t known/remembered Kishore singing for this film.]

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