Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Of his directorial efforts, Satyajit Ray has considered the 1964 film Charulata his favorite. The film opens with Charulata (Madbabi Mukherjee), a lonely housewife who keeps herself busy meandering around a large vacant home. Her daily activities are quite plain, that of a person who craves more from life. One notable excitement is spying on passerby’s with her binoculars, notably including a poor beggar. Another curiosity is her time spent playing cards with a friend. Clearly these activities are all very thrilling. When her husband arrives home, he doesn’t notice her much until dinner. Shailen is a devoted newspaper owner and editor that works long, hard hours to achieve as much success as possible. This passion is tied to his passionate political beliefs, which are present in the film on numerous occasions. At dinner, he is kind to her but not particularly observant or interested in her deeper self. The interaction is quite shallow. He’s more focused on the newspaper; she is the woman at home that serves him.
Compared to Mahanagar, a Ray film of similar themes, Charulata is more patient, caring and effective with its images.
The plot thickens as Amal, Shailen’s cousin, enters the fray. Amal is staying with them straight from college. Shailen instructs him to secretly aid Charu with her personal writing. As this scene transpires, one’s attention may drift away. In Ray’s vision of this household, everyone seems relatively simple compared to the complex Charu. Madhabi Mukherjee’s performance is simply electric. Brought alive by Mukherjee, she is not the note of a story or social commentary but a fully realized human being.
After almost half the film, Charu finally leaves the physical home setting. Suddenly the camera’s frame is startlingly open in a beautiful garden where Charu and Amal reside. As unofficial lessons transpire, tensions build between Charu and Amal as attraction creeps beyond the familiar. This scene outdoors conveys that transition most clearly, as Charu sings beautifully with a pinch of eroticism while Amal lies nearby on the ground with his eyes closed. The actions are perfectly innocent but the billowing feelings become apparent. The standout filmic flaw in this new relationship is the relative dullness of Amal who feels so uninteresting next to Charu. One may wonder why she falls for her cousin-in-law whose internal complexity seems to be much lower than hers.
The affectingly personal nature of Ray’s images, combined with Mukherjee’s acting, makes this film remarkable and memorable.
However, the intrigue of Charulata is not the film’s relationships but Charu’s internal self and the private moments, which reveal her. This effective portrayal is a product of both Mukherjee and Ray’s observant camera, which stays with her patiently and allows vulnerable moments to occur on screen. Compared to Mahanagar, a Ray film of similar themes, Charulata is more patient, caring and effective with its images. There’s a moment when Charu’s binoculars look upon nature, instead of beggars like at the beginning of the film. Rather than being mentally trapped into the expectations of cruel, manmade society and its separation of classes, she is freed by the more liberal order of nature. After gazing upon different life in nature, Charu’s binoculars end on a father with his baby, reminding the viewer of the impact of our actions on future generations. The affectingly personal nature of Ray’s images, combined with Mukherjee’s acting, makes this film remarkable and memorable.
Satyajit Ray considers Charulata his favorite of his own films and with good reason; it’s an affecting portrayal of a lonely housewife’s attempt to feelsomething beyond her monotonous existence. Madbabi Mukherjee’s acting and Ray’s patient, considerate camera make Charu a fully realized human being worth spending two hours with.