Charulata: Satyajit Ray's brilliant re-telling of Tagore's classic story of a lonely young wife
When asked by interviewers which was his personal favourite among all the films he had made in his 40-year long career, Satyajit Ray always said, 'Charulata' (The Lonely Wife) — based on Rabindranath Tagore's short story | #FirstCulture
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was in May 2017), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
When asked by interviewers which was his personal favourite among all the films he had made in his 40-year-long career, Satyajit Ray always said, 'Charulata' (The Lonely Wife). For Ray, this was the film with the least number of defects, the one film which he would make in exactly the same way, if asked to again. Today, it is Charulata — along with the Apu Trilogy — that acts as a representative of Ray's entire body of work.
The film is an adaptation of a novella titled Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest) written by Rabindranath Tagore. Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of a young, intelligent, educated and beautiful woman named Charulata. She is the wife of an affluent, upper class Bengali gentleman named Bhupati. A product of the renaissance of Bengal, Bhupati is an out-and-out liberal, and runs an English language newspaper named ‘The Sentinel’ — aimed at criticising the unfair practices of the British government in India. Bhupati and Charu’s marriage is a childless one, and the man has very little time for his wife. However, he loves his wife dearly, encouraging her inherent artistic talents to flourish. Charu spends her days reading and supervising domestic chores.
Amidst this scene, arrives like a hurricane (quite literally) Bhupati’s cousin Amal — a jovial, free-spirited young man, fresh out of college, with no ambition in life other than the pursuit of his literary aspirations. Bhupati entrusts his cousin with the responsibility of nurturing Charu’s artistic talents. Amal and Charu, both of the same age, and more friends than relatives, begin to spend time together. But as the days go by, Charu begins to fall in love with Amal. Sensing this, and unwilling to betray his brother’s trust, Amal distances himself from Charu and leaves the city. Charu is shocked and dejected, and seeing her lament the void that Amal has left behind in her life, Bhupati realises the truth. The man and his wife are now left behind to reconcile — to pick up the pieces and rebuild the broken nest.
It is virtually impossible to place a finger on one thing that makes Charulata one of Ray’s finest films. With so many elements coming together to elevate the film to the height that it has achieved today, one can only say that it is a miracle, along with the sublime acumen of a visionary director like Ray that created such a fine piece of cinema. Consider the visual storytelling, for instance:
In the opening scene of the film, Ray establishes two important facts of the story with admirable finesse, and remarkable understatement. We see Charu moving from one room of the house to the other, watching passers-by on the street down below from the windows. And then, she loiters around in a room, meandering through a maze of furniture with a book in hand, her fingers gently caressing the edge of a table, as she absent-mindedly hums a tune to herself. We instantly know two things about her. First, that she is a woman confined to the interiors of her house, much like the myna in the cage seen later in the film. And second, that she is bored — reading the same books over and over again, wandering around in her own home, not knowing where to go. Not a single word of dialogue is spoken, there’s no narration, and yet — with such elegance, Ray sets up the mood for the rest of the story.
The rest of the film is filled with such marvellous examples of visual storytelling. Charu standing at the doorway of her bedroom and Bhupati passing by without so much as noticing her, and she immediately raising her opera glasses to her eyes in a symbolic bid to bring her husband closer to herself. Charu swaying gently in a swing in the garden as Amal lies on a mat under a tree, soaking in the play of light and shade — a moment of liberation for both of them, beautifully poised to turn into a moment of coming together. The attraction here is not sexual in nature, although the sexual tension does exist in the latter half of the film. But here, it is just the freeing of the spirit, under the open sky.
If the moving images are not enough, consider the brilliance of Ray’s background music, for instance. Understated to the extent that it almost becomes an integral part of the image on screen, Ray uses a mix of Tagore’s songs and his own compositions to gently hover around the setting, giving the scenes a magical, dream-like quality. Coupled with the beautiful and well-researched set design by his art director Bansi Chandragupta and an excellent sound design, these scenes transport one to the inner world of a late 19th century upper class household.
And then, of course, there’re the performances. That the three central characters of the film give their career best performances in the same film speaks volumes about this aspect of the film. Sailen Mukherjee — a veteran actor of the stage — accepts the tutelage of his director and plays each scene assigned to him with perfection. His Bhupati is so consumed by the ideas of liberalism that he cannot see the plight of his wife even when she is in his arms. When he finds out the true feelings of his wife, he is shattered, and wanders aimlessly through the streets of the city, weeping silently. The ebullient Amal, played beautifully by Soumitra Chatterjee, steals your heart right from the scene in which he enters the household unannounced and unexpected in the middle of a typical Bengal Kalboishakhi (a sudden and violent pre-monsoon storm), reciting the lines from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel at the top of his voice. Notice the ease with which he walks into his brother’s office, offers him a quick pranaam and casually points towards the desk, asking — ‘Who’s that tea for?’ — gulping it down in an instant the very next moment. His scenes with his bouthaan (sister-in-law) are elegant and the camaraderie is visible as they look at each other with affection and admiration.
From the opening scene all the way to the last though, the film is completely owned by Madhabi Mukherjee, who becomes Charulata – blood, bone and soul. Bored beyond redemption, and languishing in the company of a rustic sister-in-law, with whom she cannot have a single meaningful conversation, she is much like the myna she herself cages. Mukherjee plays Charu with a deep understanding of the character, and a visible sense of empathy for her. It has often been seen that while lending shades of grey to the protagonist of a film, an actor tends to bring in a semblance of justification, which tends to simmer just under the surface of the character she or he is playing, thus forcing the character to just fall short of being real. But Madhabi Mukherjee is too intelligent an actress to make that mistake. She brings to Charu an alarming degree of envy, an unrestrained attraction towards a man she knows she must not desire and an almost invisible suspension of her loyalty towards her husband — thus making Charulata one of the finest examples of a female character ever assayed on Indian screen.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.
Naga Chaitanya, Sai Pallavi's film Love Story, directed by Sekhar Kammula, will release in theatres on 24 September
Minnal Murali was set to release theatrically in 2020 but the film was postponed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Netflix is yet to announce a release date for the movie.
Bullets Over Bombay is quite an immersive treatise on Satya because it does not just detail the making of the movie, but also gives a sense of what the real world was like back then, in the not-so-nice '90s.