Written and directed by Satyajit Ray
Adopting an understated approach, Satyajit Ray tells the story of Charulata the young and beautiful wife of an older man, Bhupati Dutta, who is the editor of a political newspaper. Centered on her restless days and introspective nature, the film takes place almost exclusively within the walls of the couple’s Victorian Calcutta home. The interior private space of the home will come to reflect the interior private space of the woman. The film’s great incident is the arrival of the husband’s younger cousin, Amal, who is urged to keep company with Charulata. Charulata and the cousin bond over a love of art and their friendship disrupt the fragile comfort of Charaluta’s loneliness.
To call Charulata a film without great incident would betray the internal transformations of the characters and to understate the experience of most women. In many ways, this feels like a small film; the world is small with almost all the action taking place within or just beyond the walls of the Calcutta home in which the characters live. Though there are many rooms, the ritualized and restless movement that Charulata makes through the space – in particular during the opening sequence emphasize how small it really is. Wordlessly and almost ritually, Charulata moves through the space of her home. The only interruption of her movement comes when she grabs some theatre binoculars to peek outside her window. She is careful to shield her actions, peering through Venetian style panels. These moments, however brief, reveal a large and expansive world beyond her walls. This moment suggests that the arrival of the cousin is not the impetus for Charulata’s conflict, but merely a catalyst for it.
The power of Charulata as a film is that it does not suggest that Charulata is a woman without agency, love or comfort. She is well-educated, passionate and her husband adores her. Ray’s careful touch reveals that the nuance of human relationships and social structures often transcend “good” and “bad” and are compounded by a multiplicity of influences and intentions. Let us take, for example, Bhupati Dutta’s desire to encourage Charulata’s writing. This is both a progressive and authoritative move. It shows compassion and love in his respect for her intelligence and passion for writing, but on the other hand, it also becomes another tool of control and further demonstrates the rift that exists between the couple. As he pushes the cousin to be her “educator”, he is at once suggesting that he himself does not have the time to be occupied with such “trivialities” but his particular approach insinuates that Charulata must be deceived: ultimately she is treated as a precocious child rather than an adult.
The visual and auditory clues to the restless and frustrated interior world of Charulata propel the film’s tension. Sound and music in particular become powerful indicators of power and space. Doors open and close, cutting off and muting sound. Music becomes an act of communal expression and a tool of potentially dangerous intimacy. The sound of Charulata’s jewelry announces both her presence and her delicacy, a wordless expression of her loneliness and an auditory signal of her beauty. Much of the film is shot in long and medium shots as well, serving to enlarge the space between characters. Close-ups become windows to the characters interior world and as a result are used sparingly.
There exist important breaks in this rhythm and style that serve to reveal Charulata’s expansive inner world. These sequences emphasize movement, close-ups and utilize superimposition to suggest an emotional experience. In many ways, they harken to Jean Epstein’s theory of photogénie. Photogénie seeks to come to the essence of cinema, in particular through the use of close-up, movement and temporality to express a sort of cosmic truth about humanity. Epstein explains though,
I now specify: only mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction. This mobility should be understood in the widest sense, implying all directions perceptible to the mind.
This takes on special meaning during the impressionistic sequence that takes place in the garden between Charulata and the cousin. This is perhaps the first moment in which Charulata allows herself to feel, it is the first time we as an audience see her outside, and it is in this sequence that her mind and spirit are freed. The layers of movement are almost overwhelming: the micro-movements of the leaves on the trees, Charulata on the swing, the quick cuts to her feet, the change in perspective from wide shots to close-ups and the use of music and sound. The sequence heavily utilizes point of view shots as well, to further emphasize that this is an expression of Charulata’s internal world.
While these sequences perhaps best exemplify the concept of photogénie, one could also argue the spare plot and emphasis on emotional trajectories rather than plot in Ray’s film also embody the spirit Epstein’s theory. Later on in the film, we revisit the swing in a sequence under different circumstances. This sequence takes on powerful emotional emphasis as we understand that even Charulata’s presence within this space is one of imagination. It re-enforces the earlier sequence by suggesting its importance to her and through extreme close-ups and superimposition expresses an emotional liberation for the character.
However just as good and bad don’t have any real bearings on our liberation, freedom is relative and often fleeting. This moment of creative expression does not necessarily liberate Charulata and perhaps even serves to entrap her further. The fact that this emotion does not serve as an impetus for physical movement, whether socially or romantically, suggests something powerful about our understanding of narrative – in particular in relation to the women. This brings new relevancy to the debates within the film putting value on politics over art, while also suggesting that perhaps the most radical changes that happen to us are the internal ones. The way that Ray consistently undermines narrative actions such as the almost non-issue of the robbery, further suggest that these external conflicts pale in comparison to the internal tumult of the characters.
Narratives about or surrounding women are often relegate to internal spaces both literal and figurative. They are also consistently undermined as “unimportant”. Ray is sympathetic to this and utilizes several meta-textual devices to emphasis this important conflict for Charulata, who ultimately lacks autonomy over her life and actions – in spite of the perceived freedom of an education and a high social class. The most obvious is the important relationship that Charulata has with literature. The books that she reads always speak of beautiful women, impossible romances… they are meaningful to her however, and mirror the actions of the film, and are quickly and consistently dismissed by her husband as worthless.
With Charulata, Ray creates a powerful portrait of a woman’s internal world and her transformation. Madhabi Mukherjee’s in the title role is nothing short of a revelation. She brings impeccable dignity and nuance to her performance. She displays enormous control and empathy, her face drawing in the audience as much with her beauty as with her subtlety. The success of the film weighs heavily on her shoulders and with poetry and grace she embodies the role with incredible totality.
Charulata will be screened with an introduction by University of Toronto lecturer Kathleen O’Connell on July 11th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of their retrospective on Satyajit Ray’s work. The comprehensive retrospective on his career, The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray, will be running from July 3rd to August 17th. For a complete schedule and more information, click here.