Previously at the Wellington Film Society: a tale of creative and romantic liberation from Bengali master Satyajit Ray.
The year after making The Big City, Satyajit Ray turned his attention to another tale of domestic urban entrapment, this time told from a point of view that would appear both familiar while also distanced from its predecessor. Charulata, or The Lonely Wife, was based on the 1901 novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) by the Grandmaster of Bengali poetry, literature, art, music, and just about everything else creative, Rabindranath Tagore. For the 43-year-old Ray to attempt an adaptation of work by the great polymath showed an incredible confidence in his abilities, presumably bolstered by the success of The Big City on the international art-house circuit. He was awarded a bigger budget and a much longer completion deadline, and so found himself with more autonomy than in any previous production. This space gave him the opportunity to research freely, and he chose to delve back into Bengali history, whilst at the same time making use of traits from contemporary experimental cinema practiced in Western Europe. The result is a sumptuous, richly toned, yet simple traditional story that gives the impression of being extremely free in form, all the while remaining steadfastly in the control of a bourgeoning auteur.
At this point in his career Ray was the only Indian filmmaker to find such levels of critical success outside of his homeland, and although Charulata was rejected by Cannes that year, he was awarded his second Silver Bear in as many years by the Berlin International Film Festival, and by circumstance rather than design, soon found himself in the position of spokesman for the Bengali people he still lived amongst.
The story is set in 1879, during the days of the British Raj, and follows Charulata, the young, unfulfilled wife to Bhupati, as she spends her days idly wandering around the huge family home, reading popular fiction, spying on her neighbours and playing tedious card games with her sister-in-law. Bhupati is from money, and so as not to appear idle busies himself with running his English language newspaper—‘The Sentinel’—a passion project failing as an enterprise, but one which he considers holds the position of a second wife. But Bhupati is not so self-obsessed that he does not see that Charulata is unfulfilled, and so he seizes the opportunity of a visit from his cousin, the work-shy writer Amal (played by one of Indian art-house cinema’s most prolific actors, Soumitra Chatterjee, who has more than 160 screen credits to his name in a career that so far spans seven decades), to employ the much younger man as a companion and tutor to his wife in the ways of literature. It seems though that both men underestimate Charulata’s intelligence and Amal in fact finds himself tutored in self-discipline and perseverance, and with her guidance soon finishes his first novel. As the pair spend more and more time together, the incredibly self-aware Charulata begins to develop feelings toward her husband’s cousin that, if acted upon, could bring shame and dishonour to the whole family.
Charulata is played by the 22-year-old Madhabi Mukherjee, who would have been familiar to audiences in 1964 from her centre stage role in The Big City. Comparisons between the two films were therefore inevitable, but it becomes clear on viewing, that this was in fact Ray’s intention. Similar themes permeate both films, but key differences are also highlighted, enhancing the focus on both. If the caustic claustrophobia in the cramped over crowded spaces of The Big City reflected her character’s turmoil, here it is the distance and stillness of Charulata’s vast city mansion that reflect her own state of mind and sense of self. She is not always alone physically, but she is most certainly distanced emotionally from those few that surround her, including her repressive husband, her simple sister-in-law and eventually the man she comes to fall for.
Again, Ray uses the mechanics of cinema to expose his protagonist’s inner conflict, and to cement his—by now—trademark of marrying experimental filmmaking techniques with traditional storytelling. For nearly the whole first ten minutes of the film Charulata is totally on her own, wandering from room to room, reading, humming, so bored she is unable to focus on anything for long. Unnoticed, she watches passers-by through her opera glasses, and so we begin to see a character forced into a passive state of isolated voyeurism, merely watching life as it passes her by. As she idles from room to room we cut awkwardly between close up to long shot, highlighting her sense of isolation further. The stillness strains every sense, and the clip-clopping of Bhupti’s shoes as he makes his way past her rooms—so distracted he fails to notice her—seems intensified to an almost absurd level. All Charulata can do is lift her opera glasses to peer down the long hall at the fading figure of her husband as he walks away.
Then later on, when she sits on a swing the camera swings with her, firstly focusing on her face as a warm smile slowly begins to break, and then eventually cutting to a still swinging point of view shot that shows Amal, reclining on the grass. The viewer is invited to feel the same level of contentment that Charulata finally feels. She is no longer alone. How on earth Ray and his DOP Subrata Mitra managed to fix a 35mm camera to the tiny Madhabi Mukherjee as she swings back and forth on the swing though, is just one of the many secret moments of mastery affixed to Ray’s filmmaking process.
While The Big City could be read as having duel protagonists, there is no doubt who holds the focus in Charulata, and the taboo nature of the subject matter too shows us again how forward thinking Ray was as a storyteller. We believe that the sixties were a time of forward thinking, rebellion against the old ways and the beginning of sexual equality in the West, and that India was far behind Europe and America in this respect. This was after all the year of, Bande à part, Dr Strangelove, and A Hard Day’s Night. But perhaps the whole world was not as forward thinking as we might think—1964 was also the year of such establishment favourites as My Fair Lady, Goldfinger, and Zorba the Greek. Charulata is the work of a filmmaker finding influence from both camps, whilst remaining honourable to both his source material and to the nation and world he inhabits. The magic of cinema meant that national borders no longer separated the world, that it was possible to peer into each other’s worlds and take a look at how others were living half a world away, and the enduring appeal of Satyajit Ray and his films stands as a testament to this.