When we first see Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), she’s the embodiment of the good Bengali wife, embroidering a B (for her husband, Bhupati) on a handkerchief, her workbasket next to her, making sure the servant serves tea on time. But as she goes to return a book to the shelf and take another one – the birdcage in the background echoes the fact that she, too, is caged in her beautiful, traditional Calcutta home.
As she hums – she is humming “Bankim, Bankim” – a reference to the writer whose book she eventually pulls from the shelf: Kapalkundala, a famous Bengali romance novel from the writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (who wrote India’s national song “Vande Mataram”, a prase to the motherland that inspired those in the Indian independence movement). The novel tells the story of a young girl from the forest, Kapalkundala, who falls in love with Nabakumar – they marry, and he takes her away to the city, Saptagram (a port town whose decline saw the eventual rise of Kolkota). Kapalkundala, however, finds herself unable to adapt to life in the city. The story is also one of infidelity and betrayal, as Kapalkundala’s father and the first wife of Nabakumar plot to separate Kapalkundala from her husband, by making Nabakumar believe that his wife is unfaithful to him, and interested in another man.
And, thus, in the first five minutes, Ray masterfully, yet subtly, establishes the themes he will explore throughout the rest of the film. Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) is a wealthy intellectual with an interest in politics and in India’s freedom movement in particular. His wife, Charulata, is intelligent and interested in literature, in poetry, in the arts, but as Bhupati has no time for her, she ends up as the bored and lonely wife of the film’s English title (The Lonely Wife). When Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) comes to visit, he and Charulata end up developing an intimate relationship based on intellectual companionship.
Bhupati ends up bankrupted when Charulata’s brother and and sister-in-law swindle him out of his money, and his despair at this betrayal causes Amal, meanwhile, to realize that he has betrayed his own cousin, too, because of the feelings and the intellect that he has nurtured in Charulata. Amal decides he must leave, but when he later sends a letter to Bhupati, who shares it with Charulata, finally reveals that she is heartbroken at his departure. She attempts to hide these feelings from Bhupati, but he discovers her feelings for Amal, and is himself, in turn, betrayed and bewildered at what is happening.
I’m a fan of Indian cinema from its most mass-y commercial output to its brilliant arthouse films, but even for me, Satyajit Ray’s films stand apart. Ray’s films are breathtaking in their beauty and brilliance, in their thoughtful construction and talented technical and artistic creation. And yet, I rarely write about Ray’s films. This is, partly, because so much has been written at a scholarly and critical level that I wonder if there is anything left to say about them.
This, of course, is ridiculous. The wonderful thing about art – all art, including cinema – is that each person has their own particular way of engaging with the work. What I see in Ray’s films may, in part, match what you see in them, too. But my experience, my worldview will allow me to engage with the film in a way that might be quite different from you, too.
For me, Ray’s films never get old, never become boring. I can watch them over and over again, and each time get something a little different out of them. Sometimes I just watch how the camera moves. Sometimes, I’m entranced by the lighting. Sometimes, I let the acting wash over me with its brilliance. Or I look for the little details, the things that deepen and enrich the experience of the film.
As I re-watched Charulata for the purposes of this blogathon, I couldn’t help being distracted – no, that’s not the right word – let’s say “attracted”. Attracted by those extra details, the things Ray adds to emphasize his ideas, to make them understood without having to tell us anything. Show, don’t tell, is one of those maxims writers are often given, and though it’s almost trite to say it, it’s also a powerful way to tell a story. In that vein, let me just share a few of the things I adored in my latest viewing of Charulata.
Amal's entrance is heralded by the sudden windstorm, which has everyone scrambling to close shutters and gather things in. Amal bursts through the door with the wind, and his entrance just blows right over Charulata. In one fraction of a moment, Ray tells us everything we need to know about this relationship. If we weren't sure, the reference to Krishna might be a help, as Krishna is often used as shorthand for a man who will prove charming to women. Amal is, indeed, playful and charming.
The Heart-Shaped Paan Box
Is this a symbol of Charulata offering her heart to Amal -- actually, more than offering, insisting he take it? Up until now, Charulata's sister-in-law made paan for Amal, and Amal refuses to take paan from Charulata when she offers it to him. At this moment, though, Charulata takes the paan box from her sister-in-law, making up the excuse that she puts too much lime in it, and prepares paan for Amal.
Charulata's Opera Glasses
The opera glasses are Charulata's way of connecting with the wider world, a world that she is isolated from. I love as she flits from window to window, opening and closing the shutters, in order to watch passers-by outside. But there's also a moment where she turns the glasses on her husband, further emphasising the distance between them as Bhupati works tirelessly on his newspaper (which he jokingly refers to as Charulata's rival).
The Embroidered Slippers
If any object demonstrates the transfer of emotion from husband to cousin, it's the slippers. In the film's opening scenes, Charulata embroiders a handkerchief for her husband, but promises that she will embroider him a pair of slippers, and we later see her working on them. But in the end, it is Amal who is given the slippers, not Bhupati.
Oh, I defy anyone not to fall totally and completely under the sway of Soumitra Chatterjee. His Amal is intelligent, playful, and thoughtful, and Chatterjee is a brilliant actor. There is a series of moments in Charulata that are simply breathtaking to watch. Bhupati has learned of the betrayal by his brother-in-law, and talks to Amal about it, moments after Amal has realized the full force of Charulata's feelings for him. Bhupati speaks about betrayal in general terms -- the material losses he can survive, but what about the human losses? How do we go on, asks Bhupati, when the people we put our trust in don't even respect us enough to return that trust, or to live up to it? Amal watches in the background, and his face changes with each phrase Bhupati utters, revealing the force of those words on Amal as he realizes his own betrayal of trust.
The Broken Nest
"The Broken Nest" is, of course, the title of the Tagore novella that Ray based his film on. In the film's final moments, Bhupati realizes Charulata's betrayal of him. She realizes that her husband has heard her weeping for Amal. But she gathers herself together, and offers him her hand, which he takes, not looking at her. A copy of Bhupati's newspaper lies on the floor. So much is left unsaid, and yet we understand everything just in this one moment.
This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, a week-long celebration of all things Criterion Collection! Be sure to check out the entire blog roster, there are some amazing films being written about.