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Charulata
Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray (based on the story “Nastaneer” by Rabindranath Tagore)
Stars: Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata), Shailen Mukherjee (Bhupati), Soumitra Chatterjee (Amal), Shyamal Ghosal (Umapada), Gitali Roy (Mandakini), Bholanath Koyal (Braja), Suku Mukherjee (Nishikanta), Dilip Bose (Sasanka, celebration host), Subrata Sen (Motilal, celebration guest), Nilatpal Dey (Joydeb, singer at celebration), Bankim Ghosh (Jagannath, moneylender)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: India
Charulata Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Charulata During the opening credits of Satyajit Ray’s masterfully subtle drama Charulata, we watch a static close-up of the hands of the eponymous character (Madhabi Mukherjee) stitching a handkerchief, an action that is both narratively practical in conveying the types of domestic activities that fill her days and deeply symbolic in reflecting her social limitations as a woman in India in the late 19th century. Following The Big City (1963), his emotionally affecting take on the complexities surrounding women’s place in modern Indian culture that also starred Mukjherjee, Ray returned to a historical context, as he had with most of his previous films, although his overall thematic concern remains staunchly tied to the pressing issue of gender politics.

A sensitive and humane director, Ray clearly recognized the problems with India’s orthodox, historically patriarchal culture, which he lays bare without being demeaning or moralizing. There is no true villain here, no easy target for outrage, but rather a nuanced tapestry of experience in which each character acts out his or her virtues and flaws in roughly equal measure, which tends to be the hallmark of Ray’s lyrical humanism. In Charulata, Ray has essentially made a chamber drama (virtually every scene in the film takes place either inside Charulata’s home or in the garden just outside) that poses the question: “What happens to an intelligent, independently minded woman in a culture that does not recognize her existence?”

The handkerchief Charulata is stitching during the opening credits is to be a gift for her husband, a wealthy intellectual named Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) whose passion for politics has led him to start up an English-language newspaper that he refers to as his “second wife.” “First wife” would be more accurate, as he devotes far more time to nurturing his burgeoning business than his relationship with Charulata, a state of affairs that is deftly illustrated in the opening moments when he walks past her twice while reading, so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t just ignore her, but is completely unaware of her presence. She watches him walk away through a pair of opera glasses she uses to watch people outside her window, thus confirming that there is a great distance between them—physical and emotional distance effectively collapsed into each other. Charulata’s place—a beautiful bird in a gilded cage—works both emotionally and ideologically, reminding us that her interpersonal isolation from her husband is a function of the larger social imperative that women stay home and tend to their husband’s needs while ignoring their own.

Despite his immersion in his work, Bhupati is a fundamentally good man—an idealist, in fact, who genuinely believes that his newspaper can make the world a better place—and Mukherjee conveys the character’s decency with earnest, shaggy charm. You can sense him trying and completely failing to compliment Charulata when she gives him the handkerchief by asking her where she finds the time when, really, time is all she has. His attempt to be sweet only reveals how little he knows about her. Nevertheless, Bhupati does recognize that Charulata is lonely and bored, so he invites his brother Umapada (Shyamal Ghosal) and his wife Mandakini (Gitali Roy) to come stay with them and to provide some company for Charulata.

Mandakini is the “ideal” bourgeois wife, as she is more than content to wile away the day playing cards, an activity that clearly bores Charulata, who is drawn instead to Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati’s cousin who has just graduated from college and comes to live with them while he focuses on studying literature and developing his burgeoning career as a writer. Like Bhupati, Amal is an idealist, an aspiring poet who has the luxury of not needing to earn a living while finding his voice on the page, and perhaps because he is young and unattached, he is able to devote attention to Charulata—not just emotionally, but intellectually, as he encourages her own writing, a gift of which her husband is completely unaware. Thus emerges the beginning of a love triangle, as Charulata finds herself increasingly drawn to Amal, who sees her for what she is, even as she continues to be devoted to her husband, who does not.

The film critic Pauline Kael, who was a great admirer of Ray’s, probably best summarized his work in writing that the apparent “simplicity” of his films “is a simplicity arrived at, achieved, a master’s distillation from his experience … simplicity to which we must respond with feeling.” There is nothing particularly complicated about Charulata: the characters are clearly drawn, the narrative direct and easy to follow, the camerawork and overall visual aesthetic unpretentious and largely transparent (with the exception of a few rapid zooms and a fixed camera on Charulata while she swings and sings, which is a bit self-conscious). Yet, when the film is over, you feel that you have seen something incredibly complex and moving, having been taken through a situation involving a trio of decent, sympathetic characters who are torn in different directions with no easy answer or fulfilling solution.

In its simplest terms, Charulata is about the threat of an extramarital affair, but there is no moralizing against Charulata for being drawn to another man, demeaning of Bhupati for driving her into that man’s arms, or chiding of Amal for potentially being that “other man.” Rather, Ray encourages us to see the film from each of these character’s perspectives, so that we understand Charulata’s intense loneliness and need for appreciation, Bhupati’s driving professional idealism and commitment to his politics, and Amal’s youthful optimism. The fact that all three characters become aware of the situation and respond admirably in their own way is testament to Ray’s abiding faith in humanity and its potential for decency. To quote Kael again, “We see his characters not in terms of good or bad, but as we see ourselves, in terms of failures and weaknesses and strength and, above all, as part of a human continuum.”

Ray was inspired by the final frame of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) to end the film on a series of still images that suggest the potential for reconciliation and the mending of wounded hearts. Yet, he tempers the film’s apparent optimism by superimposing over the final image the title of the short story by Nobel Prize-winning Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore from which the film is taken: “Broken Nest.” The exact implication of this is left vague, and Ray allows us to draw our own conclusions: Is he simply asserting that the bond between Charulata and Bhupati is broken and must now be repaired, or is he suggesting that it is beyond repair? Given the rest of his films, I tend to lean more toward the former interpretation, as Ray’s art has consistently encouraged a worldview of hope and optimism, albeit without ignoring or downplaying the uglier parts of life. One of the greatest joys of watching Ray’s best films—a category of which Charulata is clearly a member—is the way he uses the “simplicity” of his cinematic style to convey the deepest of human emotions and leave us with a sense that the world might someday become a better place.

Charulata Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Big City is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio Hindi/English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video interview with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee
  • Adapting Tagore, a new interview program featuring Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas and Bengali cultural historian Supriya Chaudhuri
  • Archival audio interview with director Satyajit Ray, conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp and a 1980s interview with Ray by biographer Andrew Robinson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateAugust 20, 2013

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Charulata boasts a beautifully restored 2K digital film transfer. The restoration was undertaken by RDB Entertainments, working from the original 35mm camera negative with a few bits of replacement sections taken from a safety fine-grain print held by the Academy Film Archive. The resulting image is quite impressive, with great detail and contrast. Film grain is clearly, pleasantly visible, and the only possible complaint is that some shots feel a little bit heavier on the contrast than others, but that is a minor quibble. The lossless monaural soundtrack was transferred from the original sound negative and is quite pleasant, with good clarity and even a hint of depth.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements include a new 20-minute video interview with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee (who played Charulata and Amal, respectively), in which they discuss their work with Ray on both Charulata and other films. Adapting Tagore is a new interview program that features Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas and Bengali cultural historian Supriya Chaudhuri discussing Ray’s various adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s works. Finally, the disc includes a 13-minute archival audio interview with director Satyajit Ray, conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann, while the insert booklet features an essay by critic Philip Kemp and a 1980s interview with Ray by biographer Andrew Robinson.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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