Pick of the Week: Charulata
On the 100th birth anniversary of the great Satyajit Ray, whose cinematic sensibilities and oeuvre have transcend borders and time, we revisit his poetic masterpiece Charulata.
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest), Satyajit Ray’s Charulata is probably one of the finest films ever made and, his personal favourite. He famously once said that this was a film he would make the exact same way, if given a chance to do so again; it had the least number of defects, according to him.
Madhabi Mukherjee stars in and as Charulata, the intelligent, educated and beautiful, albeit bored wife of Bhupati, a product of the Bengal renaissance and owner of The Sentinel newspaper, in which he unabashedly calls out the unfair policies of the British in India. Bhupati has very little time for his wife, but he loves her dearly and encourages her pursuit of her artistic talents, writing in particular, enabling it to flourish. When Bhupati’s cousin Amal arrives, having just completed his graduation in literature, it’s like a breath of fresh air and companionship for the lonely Charu, who slowly begins to fall for him.
Charu’s loneliness is brilliantly established by Ray in the opening sequence of the film. There’s a sense of stagnation as she moves around; we see her looking out the window at the world, but we never see her go outside. We see her giving orders and speaking to characters, but we don’t see the characters. Ray makes great use of negative space, framing the camera around Charu in a way that establishes the emptiness of the house and her surroundings towering over her, as an undisputed fact. In the first 6 minutes of the film, the director establishes its tone of how placid and monotonous her life is, despite its backdrop of aristocracy and opulence.
Charu and Amal (essayed to perfection by Soumitra Chatterjee) are of the same age and are more friends than brother and sister-in-law, having mutual respect and admiration for each other. Bhupati entrusts the fruition of Charu’s literary talents to Amal, because of which they end up spending the entire day together while Bhupati focuses on his printing press. Ray brings in the symbols of a forbidden relationship at various stages in the film, but the object that stands out most (and which made it to the film’s poster), is the pair of binoculars.
Charu uses the binoculars to look more closely at the outside world, a world that once she might have been connected to and a part of, but is now totally alienated from. In a scene, her husband walks past her without even acknowledging her presence, and in one of the most memorable shots of the film, she uses the binoculars to look at him, telling us that even as his wife, she’s still an outsider peeking into his life.
The camera movements change and become more rapid with Amal’s entry, because not only is he jovial, but his presence makes Charu come alive. There are a lot of dramatic movements which convey her restlessness and energy bubbling up in the house, of which we see a release in the scene when she’s gently swinging and Amal lies on the grass, reading.
The excellent production design coupled with memorable compositions by Ray himself (Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare, sung by the legend Kishore Kumar is a personal favourite), infuse a dreamlike quality to the film which transports us to the 19th century without losing the film's sense of timelessness. Words fall short when one tries to capture the cinematic elegance and beauty of Charulata, and the only way to preserve its ethereal, sophisticated simplicity and do it justice, is by dipping ourselves in it with as many viewings as possible.
Satyajit Ray, considered one of Indian cinema's most important filmmakers, was born on 2nd May 1921 in Kolkata. He was drawn into independent filmmaking after meeting French filmmaker Jean Renoir and viewing Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves, giving us masterpieces such as the Apu Trilogy, Devi, Aranyer Din Ratri, Nayak and Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Ray directed 36 films in total and received many awards in his film career, including 32 Indian National Film Awards, a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a Golden Bear and 2 Silver Bears at the Berlinale, and many others at international film festivals and ceremonies, including an Academy Honorary Award in 1992. The Government of India also honoured him with the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award, in 1992.