Ray’s CHARULATA … Poetry in motion
Director: Satyajit Ray 1964
Writers: Satyajit Ray (script), Rabindranath Tagore (original story, the film is an adaptation of Tagore’s Nashtanir)
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Shailen Mukherjee, and others.
Charulata is considered by many connoisseurs, definitely including me, to be Ray’s finest film. Often described as “poetry in motion” or “poetry on celluloid”, the film leaves everyone, Bengali, and non Bengali, Indian and world citizen, in an awestruck and spellbound state. The warm golden haze of the great film experience ranks right up there with the greatest films worldwide.
The screenplay is an intelligent and sensitive adaptation of the Tagore short story “nashtanir,” which dissects the cause and effect, the ebb and pull, of many social forces on one small, closely-knit family unit. The three main characters are an educated and intellectual much-older husband; a lovely, good-natured, but not too erudite wife, and an interesting, lively; and young brother-in-law, each doomed to play their unavoidable and inevitable role in the growing spiral of misunderstandings, and natural attractions, until their family, their little nest, is scattered forever.
Charulata, or Charu, is an ordinary 19th century Bengali woman brought up in the ordinary way, with ordinary expectations from marriage and husband. Coming from a place of expecting a big household, a busy life, and many kids, she finds herself left mostly alone and virtually ignored, by her much older, studious, and intellectual husband. The husband has his own set of constraints and limitations. He does care for his young wife in his own way, but is too busy trying to get his publishing business on its feet than to have much time for her. Also, she is no match, both mentally and intellectually, for his superior level of erudition. One also gets the feeling that maybe he has never seen mental companionship and compatibility as a very important aspect of marriage. There are no children, adding to Charu’s loneliness and isolation, and maybe adding to the disconnect with Bhupati. After all, children bring a necessary level of communication and connection between parents.
Into this already volatile mix, where something seems on the verge of giving, is thrown the husband’s young cousin. Amal is not only closer to Charu’s age, creating a natural bond of the similarly youthful, he also has the time and the attention that she craves but cannot get from her husband. He is a happy, bubbly, talented, interesting young man, who has nothing but time on his hands, and concentrated attention for his “bouthan”, and no force on earth can keep the inevitable from happening. And by the time any of them realise what they are falling into, it is too late, and none of the relationships can be redeemed. Bhupati realises his shortcomings as the husband of a young, beautiful, and talented (she writes, and is adept at the more homely arts like embroidery etc) wife only when it is too late to salvage the relationship and she is already in love with another. Amal and Charu realise how far their friendship and comfort level has gone in their own ways, when Amal realises that Charu’s dependence on him is beyond the usual. And Charu? Her well ordered “nir” her nest, is devastated when she realises she has crossed over from affection for her brother in law into something deeper, something much more devastating for her.
In the social milieu of the time, and the loyalties and ethics of the three, it is an irredeemable situation. Bhupati loves his wife, and now realises he must spend more time and attention on her, but it is too late for him. Amal removes himself from the equation, and the house, knowing he is devastating Charu, but not seeing any other option to ethically deal with what can become an explosive and murky situation. And Charu is devastated by Amal’s abandonment, wanting to be happy in her husband’s newfound attention but unable to, and pining for something, and someone, she can never have. Each player is stuck in a catch-22 of their own.
The greatness of the vision of Satyajit Ray lies in successfully bringing the subtle depth and the sensitiveness of the original short story to brilliant three dimensional, celluloid life. The characterization is vibrant and so real that one could meet such people any day of the week. As for the cinematic excellence of Ray’s camera and vision…. par excellence as always. It is amazing how Ray manages, in a few frames, to show the loneliness of the wife, with no dialogues, no long winded rhetoric and no elaborate cinematic devices.
The key scene of the film, in fact the scene which has come to be the instantly recognizable vignette, is where the woman goes from window to window, and room to room, with a pair of opera glasses, following a street vendor just for something to do. The scene, and in fact the whole film, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is clear, instinctively and from the beginning, that none of the characters is “bad”. These are not evil people setting out to ruin someone’s life. What you have instead is a bunch of decent human beings, caught in a strange and uncontrollable situation. The subtle growth of growing attractions, the tug of war of loyalty and misunderstandings; makes the film a must watch. Along with his sheer mastery of the form, Ray is also a virtuoso of the craft. Light and shade, camera angles, sets, cinematography, editing, every element of the craft of film-making balances perfectly in the film to make it a true masterpiece of world cinema.