Up in the air, and down

Josephine Grahl revisits Satiyajit Ray’s favourite of his own films, Charulata

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The lonely and aimless young wife, the well-meaning but emotionally absent husband, the charming young man who brings a new spark into the wife’s life: these are familiar themes since Arthurian tragedy, through Tolstoy, Flaubert and Ibsen. They’re re-examined beautifully in what Satiyajit Ray described as his favourite of his own films, Charulata (1964).

Based on the novella The Broken Nest by the Bengal author Rabindranath Tagore, Ray’s film tells the story of Charulata (played by Madhabi Mukherjee), the young wife of Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), the editor of a liberal newspaper The Sentinel, in late nineteenth-century Bengal. Concerned that his wife is lonely, Bhupati encourages his young cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to befriend her and encourage her in her literary interests. Charu responds to the interest Amal shows not just with affection and excitement, but also by starting to write herself. Despite their growing attraction, Amal and Charulata restrain themselves from taking the relationship further.

Bhupati is then swindled by  Charu’s brother, whom he has engaged as the manager of his newspaper. Unwilling to see Bhupati betrayed any further, Amal leaves. Heartbroken, Charu reveals her grief at his departure to her husband. Both humiliated, they are left to each other; in the final scene their hands reach for each other but never quite touch.

The beauty and genius of the film is in the way that Ray visually establishes the limitations of Charu’s life. Her aimless, drifting progress through the well-appointed house is marked by the visual rhythms of the ornate balustrades and window bars which cage her. Charu’s only entertainment in the early part of the film is to peer out through the shutters, following the passers-by on the streets with her opera glasses. It’s an astonishing sense of the limitations of her life as a middle-class wife in the late 19th century, which is never heavy-handed, although we’re constantly being reminded of the shuttered windows and doors which confine Charu to her home. At one moment, Charu pauses in the hallway and her husband walks past her, absorbed in a book, completely oblivious to her presence.

The emotional climax of the film, the swing scene, is the only scene in which Charulata is not indoors. Charulata and Amal go to the garden; she wants to go on the swing (‘Just one push!’ she demands of him) and as she swings he sings a love song. For the first few minutes of the scene the back-and-forth motion of the swing is always somewhere in the shot, and then finally the camera swings with Charulata, lifting off the ground in a perfect expression of her emotional excitement and intellectual awakening.

While it appears to be one scene, the timeframe is clearly more extended than the viewer first realises. When it begins, Amal opens a notebook; Charu then gives him a notebook she has made for him; he begins to write in it and at the close of the scene declares “It’s full up!”

It’s interesting to note that the tender, flirtatious (but completely non-sexual) relationship between a woman and her younger brother-in-law was an accepted cultural norm in 19th-century Bengal. This gives a better understanding of Charu and Amal’s relationship. Otherwise one is slightly surprised at the extent to which Charulata and Amal seem to be flirting right from the off.

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Beautiful and subtle though Madhabi Mukherjee’s performance is, for me there’s something absent in her Charulata. Reviews (mostly by men) describe her as a perfect (gracious, artistic, refined, intelligent, beautiful…) wife whom Bhupati is not fully able to appreciate; but the blankness of Mukherjee’s performance allows another interpretation: that as a child bride living an enormously circumscribed existence.

Charulata may have an intellectual life of sorts, but she has been deprived of a meaningful social life – her only companion until Amal arrives being her rather shallow sister-in-law. Bhupati is astonished when his political friends tell him of the publication of Charu’s essay, and the flashbacks to her village life which we see when she starts to write about her experiences give us a strong clue. Unlike her more privileged husband and his cousin, her options have always been fairly limited. The final scene of the film is no message of hope for the revitalising of Charu and Bhupati’s marriage, but one of much greater ambiguity.

Charulata is available now on Blu-ray from Criterion.

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