Cine-East Film Club Presents #58: 1964, Charulata (Satyajit Ray)

by George_East on November 16, 2014

Bhupati: ‘Charu, where do you find the time?’

Charulata: ‘you think I don’t have time?

When I did my review of the first 50 films to have featured in the Cine-East Film Club a few months back, I mentioned that there had been no films yet from the two most populous countries in the world: China and India. This is somewhat embarrassing to me as I promised when the Club first started that I would present great films from all periods of film history and from all over the world.

(Of course, there are three whole continents, which have also not yet been represented South America, Africa and Australasia – and yes I know in respect of the last I am on a promise to regular commentor Eddy Kaye – it is very much in the pipeline.)

Anyway, this week’s Cine-East Film Club presentation is the first time a film from India has been featured and what a beautiful heart-wrenching film it is.   In the popular imagination Indian cinema conjures up images of 3 hour, all singing, all dancing fantastical Bollywood epics.     Charulata is about as far removed from that kind of cinema as can be imagined (though it does have a couple of songs in it).

Satyajit Ray is, along with Jean Renoir, perhaps cinema’s greatest humanist. Making films in Calcutta not Bombay (I use their old names as those were still current at the time that Charaluta was made) and in his native Bengali not Hindi, his cinema was as geographically and culturally removed from Bollywood, as his style.

Charulata is an adaptation of a 1901 novel (‘The Broken Nest’) by the towering figure of the Bengal Renaissance, Rabindranath Tagore.   It is like its wonderful immediate predecessor, The Big City, a quietly feminist film and like that film, its central character is played by the great Madhabi Mukherjee.   In Charulata Mukherjee has the title role, playing the wife of a self-important though well meaning wealthy newspaper proprietor, Bhupati Duta (Shailen Mukherjee). The film is set between 1879 and 1880.

Charulata is sometimes shown in this country under the title The Lonely Wife (I think it is currently released on DVD under that title too) and that gives some hint as to its themes. However, it might be better transposed as The Lonely and Talented Wife.

Ray tells us an enormous amount about the relationship between Bhupati and Charulata in the almost wordless opening scene (the only words passing are between Charulata and a servant), in which the camera follows Charulata around the couple’s enormous house as she aimlessly spends another day. At one point she hears sounds from the street outside and walks to a desk in the drawing room and removes some opera glasses to get a better view from the window, indicating her curiosity and desire to be more involved in the outside world – however it is just a street entertainer with two monkeys.   Bhupati leaves his study and walks around the internal balcony in the house. He passes Charulata without even noticing she is there as his nose is ensconsed in a book, and walks into another room.

Charulata is then curious, lonely, bored and of little obvious interest to her husband.   Yet she clearly adores her husband and wants him to show her more attention – the very first shot we see is Charulata embroidering the letter B onto a handkerchief as a surprise present for him.   When she gives him this gift, the exchange at the head of this post will take place.   Bhupati is so absorbed (indeed self-absorbed) in what he considers to be the political matters of great import covered by his newspaper, The Sentinel, that he hasn’t even noticed that his wife has all the time in the world, on her own rattling around their Calcutta mansion. We will later discover his lack of appreciation of his wife’s intelligence and abilities goes far further than this.

Ray though, like Renoir, likes his characters. He does not create ciphers or caricatures.   As that great French master famously said, ‘everyone has his reasons’.   And so it is Charulata.   Bhupati is not a bad man. A vain man, perhaps. But certainly not a bad man. It is his own generosity and trusting nature that will be in part the cause of his undoing – as he offers to help out Charulata’s brother, Umapada, whose legal practice is financially struggling, by appointing him the manager of The Sentinel and placing him in charge of its financial affairs.   Umapada will end up running off with Bhupati’s money and failing to pay bills that The Sentinel needs to pay to keep running.

However, it is Bhupati’s offer to his younger brother, the boyish Amal (Ray stalwart Soumitra Chatterjee) just out of university, to come to stay with them that will set up the film’s primary story arc. Amal wants to be a writer (though his family are keen on him going to England to become a barrister). He is interested in poetry and literature, rather than the politics that fascinate his older brother.   Bhupati admits to Amal that The Sentinel is a rival in his affections for Charulata – the reality is, of course, that Charu barely gets a look in.

As well as taking a not particularly taxing proof reading job on The Sentinel Bhupati asks Amal to ‘guide’ Charulata in her interest in literature. This request reflects how Bhupati views Charulata, as little more than a child, who is incapable of finding her own way.   The two of them will become close and although nothing overt ever happens (this is one of the most chaste love affairs you are ever likely to see in cinema) fall in love.

The impression Ray gives is that this is just as much caused by the fact that Amal actually spends time with Charulata and takes her seriously as anything else. Charulata will encourage Amal to write (she makes him a beautiful personalised note pad).   Yet it is when Charulata herself decides to try to write and after a false start sends a piece about the village she grew up in (the writing process being wonderfully depicted by a montage sequence of the images in her mind about her childhood) to a literary magazine

When Bhupati is informed by his friends of his wife’s publishing success, at a party to celebrate the victory of Gladstone’s Liberals in the 1880 British General Election, they assume he must already know and be proud, but instead he is utterly bewildered.   Not only did he not know but it was clearly beyond his conception that she could even have such a talent.

Even after the Sentinel has gone under and Amal has left (realising that his relationship with Charulata may have stepped over the line and not wanting to cause his older brother any further pain) and Charulata suggests to Bhupati that they together start a new Bengali publication, with Bhupati writing about politics and Charulata writing fiction, Bhupati’s initial enthusiasm develops into an idea to bring in his former colleague on The Sentinel as a partner. Without any words being directly expressed to this effect he still just cannot view his wife as his equal.

In fact subtly Ray indicates that it is Charulata who is the greater talent. There is the sense throughout that The Sentinel is a vanity project. Umapada (before he conceives of the scheme to run off with the money) points out that they do not have many subscribers and the advertising rates are just too high.   The paper is written in English and aimed at a tiny audience of fellow Bengali liberals just about beginning to find their way along the long route which would ultimately lead to Indian independence (Amal feigns shock at the editorial that criticises the government, ‘sedition!’).   Yet the reaction to Charulata’s published piece from all who read it is genuine shocked admiration. Amal recognises immediately its simple beauty compared to his own undergraduate florid prose (which he reads out without awareness to Charulata at a couple of points in the film).

What then it seems to me the film is about, even more than the love triangle chamber piece that it appears to be on the surface and as true as this is (the scene where Charulata finds that Amal has left and is disturbed by Bhupati, as she weeps in her bedroom, is utterly devastating), is the place of women in India – directed as much to the time it was made as to the late Victorian period in which it its set.

The ending of the film is one of the most hotly debated in cinema. As husband and wife appear to be about to tentatively reconcile, the screen freezes before they touch.   Is it intended to say that they cannot ever really reconcile whatever the appearances – there will always be this distance between them? I think so. The message that the marriage is in truth irreconciliable appears to be underlined by the final words that appear on the screen over the frozen image: not the usual ‘The End’ but rather the name of the Tagore source novel, The Broken Nest. Devastating indeed.

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