In an interview with Cineaste magazine, Satyajit Ray praised Charulata, saying, “[It’s] a film that I would make the same way if I had to do it again.” The film affords a dazzling view of Ray’s mastery of the medium and gives vital proof of his ability to explore universal themes without compromising his uniquely Bengali sensibilities. Charulata‘s single setting allowed him a chance to work in an entirely controlled environment—a far cry from the jungly countryside of Pather Panchali, the clamorous ghats of Aparajito, and the urban milieus of many of his subsequent films. Charulata was also the filmmaker’s second adaptation of a Rabindranath Tagore work (after 1961’s Teen Kanya) and, indeed, one senses a close affinity between Ray’s cinema and Tagore’s literature. Like his literary idol’s, Ray’s narratives are alive with the textures of nature, the rhythms of native Bengali life, and the nuances of human gesture and behavior.
Ray uses his setting, meticulously designed by Bansi Chandragupta, to underscore one woman’s listless, privileged imprisonment. The beautiful Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) idles her life away in the gilded cage of an opulent Victorian mansion, circa 1880, Calcutta. Her husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), isn’t some insensitive cad, as one might expect, who neglects his wife in favor of whiskey and other women. Rather, he’s a sincere and upstanding Bengali citizen. He loves Charu and he might make an ideal husband were it not for his newspaper. Bhupati is an armchair revolutionary, who rails against England’s colonial yoke, and, as the newspaper’s editor, he has no qualms about venting his rhetoric in his columns.
A drifting camera, following Charu around the mansion’s breezy corridors and apartments, opens the film. At one point, we see her flitting from window to window, peeking through her lorgnettes at the humdrum of street life below. Otherwise, she thumbs through old novels by Bengali romantics or plays cards with Manda (Gitali Roy), her earthier, saucier sister-in-law. Ray’s décor may be divertingly lovely, but he makes sure to include hints of Charu’s inner reality: The iron bars on the window and the birdcage poised in the corridor, for example, suggest all is not well. Suddenly, the light in the room darkens and the winds pick up, threatening the home’s blasé tranquility. The storm heralds the arrival of Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Charu’s brother-in-law, an idealist-poet with whom she will fall in love. True to Tagore, Ray marshals nature’s tantrums to foreshadow or punctuate turning points in his characters’ lives, and this is a particularly poignant moment because no one, least of all the happy-go-lucky Amal nor the dutiful Charu, expect the emotional storms to come.
Done with college, Amal settles into Bhupati and Charu’s home, eager to venture into his literary career. He spends his days chatting with the women, Charu and Manda, as they bemusedly humor and flirt with him. The bearded-and-gartered Bhupati, however, frowns at Amal’s literary dreams, at art and literature in general, believing them to be irrelevant distractions from the real issues. “Politics is different,” he says to Amal, “Politics is life.” In any case, concerned about his wife’s loneliness, he enlists the reluctant Amal into keeping her company and to find out if Charu truly has the creative talent that she fancies through her books. In truth, Bhupati is just as much a dreamer as Amal. He toils day after day in his newspaper office, holding aloft the torch of patriotism and the collective spirit of “Young Bengal,” but he never suspects the villain close at hand. For Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal), Charu’s brother and Manda’s husband, has been slowly siphoning money from the newspaper. The fate that Bhupati suffers in the course of the film is arguably far worse than Charu’s, owing to his naïve civic and marital trust.
Amal and Bhupati are both dreamers and full of contradictions. In one pivotal, wonderfully played out scene, Bhupati urges Amal to give up poetry and accept a marriage proposal that could send him to London to study law. As Bhupati spins his gossamer visions of snowy London and fabled Europe, Amal is, for a moment, taken in. It’s striking that Bhupati, a passionate revolutionary and Bengali stalwart, would be so enamored of Europe, the realm of his colonialist captors. Equally striking is that Amal, so easily swept away by visions of the Mediterranean, would so readily reject Bhupati’s offer. For all his poetic flights of fancy, Amal is rooted in the soil of Bengal, its literature and music. Observing this exchange in silence stands Charu, nursing her own conflicted feelings of love and bitterness, both over Amal, emotions that first surfaced in the film’s previous and most famous scene.
That scene, played out in the garden, is significant not only for what it reveals of Charu’s heart, but as a microcosm of Ray’s artistry. Pivoting the scene on Charu, he deliberately, even playfully, follows her observations, tracing the slow emergence of feelings she knows are forbidden. As she arcs back and forth on the swing, Ray switches from intimate close-ups of Charu singing her signature tune to her point of view, showing the reposed Amal flitting in and out of her view. The effect is of a chipping away, of Charu realizing that the walls that have heretofore kept her feelings at bay are being intruded upon and expressed visually by Amal’s jutting in and out of her point of view. This becomes devastatingly clear moments later—with Ray again using the optical point-of-view tactic—when she spies a mother and child through her lorgnettes and then turns her gaze to a preoccupied Amal. Ray cuts to a protracted close-up of Charo as the tides of regret—over her childless life, her yearning for romance—sweep across her face followed by a wave of sudden panic as her love for Amal dawns on her. It’s a quintessential Ray moment of slow, patient observation leading to an emotional wallop of a climax.
Ray’s script then gracefully follows the maturing of Charu’s artistic and feminine identity. When her story is published in a literary magazine, much to Amal’s awe and amazement, the bond between her and Amal strengthens into mutual admiration; that is, until Amal begins to feel uncomfortable. Blind to all but his own ideals, Bhupati is left to weather the fate of his business and his marriage. Charulata’s storylines weave and tighten all the way to its final seconds when Ray brings it to an abrupt and startling halt. In conveying in filmic terms Tagore’s closing message that Charu and Bhupati’s marriage is suspended forever in doubt, he brilliantly opts for a series of tableaus. The music, rising in crescendo, is strangled. The figures of Charu and Bhupati stand frozen across a series of still frames. She is reaching her hand out to him, pleadingly. He, tentatively, appears to want to take it. But, in spite of the lamp a servant is bringing, the corridor—the home, at large—looks haunted now by the spectre of marital discord. The appearance of the title, “The Broken Nest,” in Charulata‘s final shot underscores this. It’s Tagore’s original title for the story and, by placing it at the film’s end, Ray shrewdly endows it with a portentous quality.
This is only one reading of Charulata. Like any great work of art, it reveals more to the spectator each time it’s experienced. Charu’s grief, for instance, may seem at first born out of unrequited love, but it’s deeper than that. She is a symbol of all intelligent women who arrive at a place of self-discovery, only to be rebuffed by the strictures of tradition. Her cries transcend Amal and touch on the plight of anyone condemned to a place prescribed to them by an age-old patriarchy. The world is rigid but feelings are organic, and only a filmmaker tapped into the emotionally revealing possibilities of the medium could have told Charulata in such a masterfully nuanced manner. Aided by flawless performances from Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Sailen Mukherjee, a script (written by Ray) that delicately turns and builds on itself, music (composed by Ray), layered in motifs across the film, and, of course, Subrata Mitra’s heaven-lit cinematography, the film becomes a profoundly enriching experience. Though Charulata has been obscured in the Ray canon by a certain trilogy made at the outset of his career, it remains a singularly accomplished song to love, idealism, heartbreak and disillusionment.