Director: Satyajit Ray
In colonial Calcutta in 1879 a young married woman named Charulata lives the sheltered, pampered life of the idle rich. She spends her days in an opulent house—a traditional two-story dwelling built around an open courtyard but furnished in the style of Victorian Britain—playing cards, doing embroidery, and reading romantic novels, her needs seen to by servants. Her husband, Bhupati, who is several years older than Charu, is completely occupied with publishing his political newspaper. Charu's boredom and loneliness and the distance between her and her husband are established in the first sequence of the film as she listens attentively to the street noises outside for signs that he is returning home. Each time she hears someone passing, she runs to the window, flicks open the shutters, and peers at the passerby through a pair of opera glasses. Finally Bhupati arrives home—and goes directly to his study with a book in his hand while Charu looks on in silence from down the corridor. Later that evening he tells her that a young cousin who has recently graduated from university, a relative so close that Bhupati calls him "Brother," is coming to stay and asks her, "You feel lonely, don't you, Charu?" "I've got used to it," she answers.
The lonely Charu finds the playful, high-spirited cousin, 23-year old Amal, a poet and musician and student of literature, a fascinating antidote to her sober, unimaginative husband. Basking in the attention Amal shows her—discussing poetry, music, and literature with her, singing to her, sitting with her in the garden while he writes poetry, encouraging her to take up writing—she soon develops a romantic passion for him, which she believes he secretly returns. When he reveals that Bhupati is paying him to "educate" her, she is crushed. Then when his poetry is accepted for publication, she is devastated by the prospect that he might be lured away from the household by literary ambition and in frustration takes up his suggestion that she write about events from her life. So good is her writing that Amal begins to see her in a new light, finding himself attracted to her.
Adapted by Ray from a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Charulata shows Ray's decidedly literary approach to cinema, with a carefully engineered plot, characters of great complexity, and clearly delineated themes. All three main characters are memorably conceived and interpreted, but this is really Charu's story, a sort of pre-Women's Lib feminist tale of an unfulfilled young woman's initiation into consciousness. By the end of the film, Charu has experienced liberation of her emotions and her creative impulse and has reached a new understanding with her husband, each now more aware, and respectful, of the other's needs. Encircling this story is Ray's perennial fascination with the dialectic of opposing forces in life—politics and art, intellect and emotions, the outside world and the inner lives of individuals. At one point Amal turns philosophical: "Birth and death. Day and night. Joy and sadness. Unification and separation." Each of these things exists, he tells Charu, because of its opposite. That idea seems to sum up Ray's humanistic view of the way the oppositions in life, and the oppositions of human personalities, play against each other but in the end inevitably reach a state of equilibrium, each complementing and sustaining its opposite.
In Charulata Ray takes his style further into experimentation than one might expect from his earlier work. At one point, Charu comes into the room to find Amal sitting at the piano playing and singing a tender love song that begins, "I know you, I know you, O foreigner." Within a few moments the scene has become a dreamy musical interlude, the piano replaced with an offscreen orchestra, and Amal singing directly to Charu, ending the song with a spontaneous alteration of the opening line of the lyric: "I know you, I know you, O sister-in-law." Charu reacts to Amal's performance with the rapture of a woman being serenaded by her beloved. In this stylized sequence, a directorial flight of fancy in an otherwise realistic film, Ray seems to enter into Charu's mind, showing an embellished version of reality colored by her romantic longings.
Ray also experiments with photography and editing. The camera seems to move and track a great deal. Several times Ray discreetly zooms toward or away from an object. When Charu is sitting in a swing in the garden, the camera swings back and forth with her. He also uses the subjective camera at a couple of conspicuous points, one time when the characters are looking through a kaleidoscope and again during that love song when Amal is stepping towards Charu in rhythm to the song and we briefly see her from his point of view, the camera jarring at each step. And when Charu finally sits down to write her autobiographical story, superimposed over her face is a brief montage of scenes from her childhood, scenes that suggest a more rural and less privileged background than that of her husband.
Twenty years later Ray returned to the same themes in The Home and the World (1984), a movie with many similarities to Charulata and also adapted from a novel by Tagore. (Soumitra Chatterjee, who plays Amal in Charulata, would take the role of the neglectful older husband in the later film.) As much as I like The Home and the World, I have to admit that Charulata strikes me as a more passionate, adventurous, and emotionally involving film, one of the best I've ever seen by Ray, very close in quality and appeal to Pather Panchali, one of my favorite movies of all time. (One caveat: although the version I got from Netflix, released by Bollywood Films Ltd., has an adequate film transfer, there are many annoying shortcomings in the subtitles—the most amusing of which is calling the Liberal Party the Libel Party—that you have to be prepared to bear with.)
For more about the life and films of Satyajit Ray, see the website Satyajit Ray World.