Saturday, January 2, 2016


Charulata (1964), directed by Satyajit Ray, screenplay by Ray based on Nashtanir (The Broken Nest, 1901) by Rabindranath Tagore.
I know now that he who hopes to be universal in his art must plant in his own soil. Great art is like a tree which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.
—Diego Rivera [1]
We often speak of art as being a universal language. Perhaps, but it generally isn't one that can be read without a dictionary. Art is created within, and refers to, a social and cultural context. The more we understand about that context the more fully we can perceive a particular work's meanings.

Satyajit Ray's Charulata is set during the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th century, and is filled with allusions to political leaders such as Raja Rammohan Roy and Surendranath Banerjee, and writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay). For help in decoding some of the film's allusions I recommend watching some of the extra features included on the 2013 Criterion DVD reissue—in particular, the interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee, and the scholars Moinak Biswas and Supriya Chaudhuri—and reading the extensive booklet essay by Philip Kemp. There is also at least one workmanlike if not particularly elegant English translation of Tagore's brilliant Nashtanir [2] (which differs in several significant details from Ray's scenario). All were helpful as I attempted to understand some of the nuances of Ray's great film.

Charulata is a portrait of the marriage of Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) and Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee). Bhupati is well-meaning, but completely consumed by his political interests. His absorption by events in the larger world has left him oblivious to those happening in his own home, particularly Charu's feelings of exclusion and neglect:

The outlet for Bhupati's political passions is a self-financed English-language newspaper promoting Indian autonomy, The Sentinel, which he edits and publishes. Bhupati's paper also supports his shiftless brother-in-law, Umapada (Shyamal Ghosal), and Umapada's wife Mandakini (Gitali Roy), whose utter conventionality makes her a poor companion for Charu.

Be careful what you ask...
Charu is left to spend her days embroidering, spying on passers-by, playing cards, and re-reading novels. We frequently see her peering through a pair of opera glasses at the passing world, emphasizing her enforced role as observer instead of actor:

Early in the film she pulls a copy of Bankim's Kapalkundala off the shelf. It's a novel about a young girl, a "child of nature" whose free spirit is shackled when she marries; the story ends tragically when Kapalkundala is (unjustly) suspected by her husband of infidelity. It will turn out that Bankim's story will have multiple points of connection to Charu's experience.

Charu is bored, lonely and frustrated—until Bhupati's handsome cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) arrives for an extended stay. He enters as a storm is blowing up (metaphor alert!), and his first utterance is a quote from Ananda Math, another novel by Bankim, signalling his affinity with Charu.

Amal steps into the role of debar, a Bengali term which usually refers to a husband's younger brother. A debar's interactions with his sister-in-law are relaxed, intimate and playful, even a bit flirtatious. And in the case of Amal and Charu, they are heightened by their shared interest in literature and music. At Bhupati's urging, they begin to spend time together out in the neglected garden (symbolism alert!), and each encourages the other to write.

Speaking of symbolism, note Amal's Krishna-flute.
Charu soon begins to feel jealous whenever Amal offers his attention to Mandakini, and she insists on monopolizing all the little domestic—almost wifely—favors the women perform for Amal, such as paan-making. Just as Charu is barred from the political world of her husband, so she tries to exclude Manda from the intimate artistic world she shares with Amal.

Amal has a story published in the literary journal Sharoruha (The Lotus). Charulata is upset at Amal's sharing his writing outside their circle of two, but her sense of hurt spurs her creativity. She soon finds her subject, and her style, in memories of her native village. When her piece is published in another, more prestigious journal, Visvabandhu (The Philanthrope), Amal is stunned, but recognizes that her talent is greater than his own:

When he urges her never to stop writing, Charu bursts into tears:

Her sudden upsurge of emotion stuns and embarrasses them both. It's clear that an emotional storm is indeed brewing. If Bhupati's tragedy is that he does not comprehend others' feelings, Charu's tragedy is that she doesn't fully understand her own.

If you haven't yet seen Charulata, be forewarned that spoilers follow.

When Bhupati discovers that his brother-in-law Umapada has been embezzling funds from The Sentinel, he is devastated: his faith in solidarity is shattered, and he shuts down the paper. When he complains bitterly to Amal of Umapada's betrayal, Amal feels a twinge of conscience. He recognizes that he and Charu have grown too close, and are on the verge of another betrayal. That night Amal leaves the house, and Kolkata, without notice.

To try to forget about the immediate past, Bhupati takes Charulata on a trip to the seaside. He despairs about The Sentinel, but Charulata suggests reviving and expanding the paper: he can continue to publish political essays in English, while she will act as editor for literary writing in Bengali. Bhupati is struck by the brilliance and simplicity of Charulata's solution, and this new idea seems to bring them closer together. They return to Kolkata to carry out her plan.

When they enter their house, a letter from Amal is waiting for them. Charu, thinking she's alone, is unable to prevent her supressed emotions from surfacing. She breaks down in tears, sobbing hysterically and crying out to the absent Amal, "Why did you leave?"

Charu doesn't realize, though, that Bhupati is a witness to her grief. He is suddenly confronted with the unwelcome knowledge of his wife's love for another man—and of his own role in her emotional infidelity. It is a moment as stunning and profound as that in the final paragraphs of James Joyce's "The Dead."

The film ends with a series of freeze-frames, as Charu and Bhupati tentatively reach out to each other, but before their hands touch. Ray later said in an interview that the freeze-frame was his attempt to find a visual equivalent for Charu's final utterance in Tagore's novel: "Thak" (translated by Lago and Sen as "Let it be" [3]). Ray said, "I have the feeling that the really crucial moments in film should be wordless." [4]

The freeze-frame ends the film on an ambiguous note: will the couple reconcile, or will Bhupati's stark awareness of Charulata's love for Amal (perhaps symbolized by the harsh illumination of the servant's lamp) prevent them from finding a new basis for their relationship? The answer is deliberately left open; however, in Tagore's novella it is clear that the couple will separate, perhaps permanently. Charu may be facing not only the end of her marriage, but, without the inspiration of Amal or the outlet of The Sentinel, the closing off of her means of self-expression.

—End of spoilers—

Charulata is the middle film of Ray's trilogy featuring Madhabi Mukherjee (it followed the previous year's Mahanagar). After the following year's Kapurush (The Coward), a relative financial failure, she and Ray never again worked together. Their artistic separation is to be regretted; Charulata is perhaps her greatest performance and one of Ray's finest films.

  1. Diego Rivera, My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. Dover Publications, 1991, p. 31
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, The Broken Nest, translated by Mary M. Lago and Supriya Sen, University of Missouri Press, 1971.
  3. Tagore, p. 90.
  4. "Ray on 'Charulata': An interview with Andrew Robinson," Criterion DVD booklet, p. 27.

No comments :

Post a Comment