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Grade: A-Charulata (1964)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Stars: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Shailen Mukherjee

Release Company: Merchant Ivory Productions

MPAA Rating: NR

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Satyajit Ray: Charulata


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Satyajit Ray easily ranks as India’s premier cinematic auteur. Not only did Ray direct twenty-nine feature films, but he also wrote the scripts, composed much of the music, and participated directly in the art direction, casting, and cinematography. More than any other Indian director, Satyajit Ray reaches into the heart of his native country and gently pours out unsurpassed visual poems that convey India’s transition from traditional ways into twentieth century life. Like Orson Welles, his greatest work is his first project--actually the first three films known as the Apu trilogy that trace Apu's life from birth to manhood in the preeminent "coming of age" epic ever created on celluloid. Relatively prolific over his career, Ray directed 37 films and often referred to another film as his best—Charulata (The Lonely Wife), which is based on Rabindranath Tagore's novella, "The Broken Nest."

Ray steps back into Indian history for this film, setting Charulata in 1879 Calcutta to explore the seeds of India's early movement for independence from England and to examine the restrictions placed on educated Indian women. Through the opening credits sequence we see a pair of female hands embroidering a handkerchief—a shot that widens to reveal the central character Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) as a bored housewife. Silently the camera tracks her initial movements through her wealthy routine existence; she obviously enjoys reading and music and is a keen observer, often using opera glasses to peer through her shutters to view passers by. Her husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) is far less observant. Totally preoccupied with his political newspaper, he walks right past his wife without noticing her.

Oblivious to her needs, Bhupati thoughtlessly remarks "Where do you find the time?" when she gives him the handkerchief to which she dryly replies "Time is all I have." Failing to recognize her talents, he has no desire to read fiction or poetry and only wants to deal with political matters (just like his limited vision for his newspaper). He also highhandedly thinks that his role is to preach the proper political views to an uneducated populace of men, and similarly fails to communicate with Char. He at least recognizes that she's dreadfully lonely and bored, but he can't fathom how to meet her needs himself.

To solve the problem, Bhupati arranges for Char's sister and her husband to live with them, but Char has no desire to live the "idle rich" lifestyle of brainless card games that satisfy her sister. Char now continues her lonely, bored existence with company. This all changes during a dramatic thunderstorm with the arrival of Bhupati's cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee, who played Apu in the last of the trilogy). He conjures up the image of Shiva (creator and destroyer) with his entrance—holding his arms high just as the lightening strikes—and this describes his essential role in the film.

Just out of school, Amal wants to be a writer, but Bhupati has no position for him on his newspaper staff. Amal writes from the imagination, and Bhupati only finds space for scientific and political prose—he can't even comprehend the metaphoric reference in Amal's poetic title "Light of the Moonless Night." In contrast, Amal doesn't understand why his cousin is so obsessed with blasting the government, as he's non-political. Both of them greatly admire Raja Rammohun Roy, earliest leader of India's independence movement, and it turns out that both will become connected more profoundly through Charulata.

Although Bhupati thinks Amal needs to be practical and agree to an arranged marriage that will allow him to get schooled as a lawyer in England, he sees him as a means to help his wife ease her boredom during his temporary stay. He asks Amal to subtly encourage her to return to writing, as he recalls her great skills from the days that she wrote him love letters.

This sets off a series of events that result in Char's reawakening of her creative powers, along with unrequited love scenes between kindred spirits that rival those of Wong Kar Wai, a family betrayal that shakes Bhupati—all ending with a final freeze frame of a grieving Bhupati reaching for Char's hand that is subtitled "The Ruined Nest."

Told visually with great restraint, Ray's camera captures emotional moments as well as any director—moments that are emphasized unforgettably with Ray's original musical compositions. Subtitles become irrelevant during these times since the real content comes from the juxtapositions, the body postures, the side glances, and the facial expressions that he draws from his actors. On the surface a simple film, Charulata rises far above the commercial fare pumped out by modern Bollywood, as Ray continues to offer profound emotional truths that cannot be dismissed. It's a haunting portrait that clearly illustrates the transitory nature of legal bonds—both on a political and personal level.

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