Satiyjit Ray was never really associated with the mainstream of any kind commercial cinema. In fact, it would be wrong to label him an Indian film maker at all as this would mean unfairly and inappropriately categorising him alongside a group of mediocre directors. His consistently broad and enriching oeuvre repeatedly showed a unique fascination with his own region and culture, representing a warm and complex depiction of an indigenous Bengali identity. Ray above all was a Bengali film maker who made films that were culturally specific in terms of social milieu yet he also dealt with universal concerns identifiable in most societies and cultures. Heralding from an ancestry who were all to some degree involved with arts and humanities, it is of little surprise to see a noticeable literary tradition in a body of work that was indebted to the humble talents of another iconic Bengali artist, Rabindranath Tagore.
Released in 1964, ‘Charulata’, was the second collaboration with the stunning Bengali actress, Madhabi Mukherjee, who had previously starred in ‘Mahangar’ as the independently minded housewife who is forced to find work so that she can support her reluctant husband and children. ‘Charulata’ was regarded by Ray as his personal favourite out of the many films he directed, and it is undoubtedly a staggering achievement. Some have referred to ‘Charulata’ as a creative high point, but such a discriminatory statement does not really do justice to Ray’s remarkable consistency as an artist – look at his films and it is rare that you encounter any kind of troubled period or downturn in terms of directorial form. Even in the 90s, Ray worked tirelessly, directing a series of films that grappled with the anxieties of growing old. Artificial Eye, a vitally important world cinema distributor, have acquitted themselves superbly in helping to make available many of Ray’s key films on DVD, but the extras on many of the DVDs have been notably extraneous and devoid of any kind of informed commentary tracks.
The availability of Ray’s films on DVD has been a slow and gradual process, mainly due to the deterioration of original prints and the pain staking efforts that has gone into salvaging much of his timeless work. Key films like ‘The Music Room’, ‘Distant Thunder’ and much of his work from the 80s and 90s is still sadly unavailable on both DVD and VHS. Though it is possible to import much of his work from outside the UK, the quality of the transfer varies quite considerably and many of the subtitles have been poorly translated. How strange it is then that Ray’s most commercially successful and widely seen film in India, ‘Abhijan’ (The Expedition/The Adventure), is the one film that has been released by Eureka in a generous DVD package including some worthwhile extras. Originally Ray had not intended to direct ‘Abhijan’ but his appearances on set, offering advice to a novice director overseeing the production gradually led to him visualising the possibilities of making a film that could silence those of his critics who regularly accused him of being unable to meet the demands of commercial cinema. Eureka's 'masters of cinema' collection of world cinema DVDs must be praised for their incredible consummate commitment to ensuring both picture and sound quality are of the highest possible standards.
‘Charulata’ is based on the short story by Rabindranath Tagore, titled ‘The Broken Nest’. It is a magnificently directed and performed Bengali melodrama that is characterised by a typically understated style which avoids any kind of reliance on sentimentality, endorsing an embrace for authenticity and conviction. One never questions the integrity and honesty of Ray’s framing; it is always linked to validating human emotions and relationships. It is the absence of superficiality that makes Ray’s film so pure and if you were looking for somewhat of a contemporary equivalent of such unpretentious cinema then you need not look further than the Iranian new wave in the 90s. The universe Ray’s characters occupy is full of imperfections and remarkable contradictions that offer an unparalleled social commentary unseen in much of Indian cinema. The story of ‘Charulata’ takes place in 1870s Calcutta amongst the wealthy, aristocratic household of an estranged husband and wife. Ray’s sombre study of ‘Charu’, a bored housewife was very much about the feminine ambitions and identity of women in a rapidly transforming Bengali society.
When we first encounter the vulnerable Charu, she is seen wandering aimlessly through the fortress like home, poetry book in one hand and a pair of delicate binoculars in the other. She seems trapped by the baroque antiques curated by her eager husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), and using the binoculars, eavesdrops like a voyeur at the innocuous details of daily life unfolding outside. Charu is obviously separated from reality, spending her time waiting upon her husband who becomes consumed by his anti government newspaper that he publishes with such religious like vigour. In an attempt to placate the disenchanted feelings of his wife, Bhupati invites his cousin and loyal friend, Amal, the ever dependable Soumitra Chatterjee, to his home, assigning him the task of tutoring his wife and encouraging her to pursue an inner ambition of writing short stories. Bhupati is represented as a man of real conviction and one who is revealed to be amazingly naive and perhaps a little too trustworthy of those closest to him as it becomes despairingly apparent by the end of this tragedy that betrayal destroys everything dear to him including his newspaper. One cannot help sympathise with Bhupati’s sense of sadness at having lost both his wife and newspaper, but at the same time it is the neglect of Charu that ultimately seals his fate.
The tender relationship between Amal and Charu is beautifully observed; Charu’s affections for Amal are underlined by the symbolic appearance of a lovingly crafted pair of slippers, a signature of affection that hauntingly reappear in the final moments of the film as Charu is unable to hide her true feelings for Aamal from her benign husband. Upon his arrival, Amal seems to be possessed by an incredible zest for life. Having only graduated, Amal is undecided about what he wants from life and the mutual relationship he develops with Charu is both invigorating but heart breaking when it dawns upon them that what they both secretly desire is a near impossibility. It would effectively mean them being made outcasts by the unreasonable forces of tradition and also having to live with the painful consequence of turning Bhupati, a man of real convictions, into an enemy.
When Amal succeeds in publishing his short story in a popular literary journal, he inadvertently ignites a vein of competitiveness within Charu. She responds by succeeding in publishing her own story, disapprovingly bashing Amal over the head with the journal so to celebrate her personal triumph and eliminate any innate feelings of superiority that he may be harbouring about her literary talents. It is an uncontrolled moment of feminine anger, externalising Charu’s sense of constant belittlement and humiliation by both Amal and Bhupati who assume she is not capable of much. Amal is played by the ever reliable Soumitra Chatterjee, a regular Ray collaborator and one of the finest Bengali actors of his generation. Chatterjee played an amazingly broad range of roles and his characteristic trademark in terms of performance was his emboldened, distinctly expressive eyes. Like so many of the great actors, Chatterjee conveyed a great deal of anguish solely through the agonising manipulation of a few side way glances.
Bhupati considers himself somewhat of an aging aristocrat with fine literary tastes and is particularly proud of using his newspaper to criticise the government and its policies. In this sense, he is somewhat of a liberal critic and politician, publicising his political opinions with a fearlessness over which he has little control. The trust Bhupati places in the hands of his editor leads to his destruction and ruin but his startling decency seems at odds with the ulterior motives of those around him. Though Bhupati returns home to Charu, envious and heart broken over Charu and Amal’s intimacy, any hope of reconciliation is cut short by Ray’s decision to freeze the poignant image of husband and wife reaching out to one another; it is an incomplete gesture, tainted with sadness. ‘Charulata’ is one of Ray’s best films and offers an unflinchingly vivid portrayal of unrequited love and painful marital compromises.