Long considered a classic work of world cinema, Charulata is Satyajit Ray’s evocative portrait of a wealthy woman’s domestic life and her unfolding sense of purpose and desire in nineteenth century India.
Released during the 60s—a decade of revolutionary cinema in Europe and North America—this was not the jaunty and overtly political piece of cinema offered by Ray’s Western counterparts Jean Luc-Godard and Arthur Penn. Instead, Charulata is a subtle (but stirring) expression of what it means to be free in a world redrawing borders and shifting away from old social norms.
Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, (1964).
“ Charulata is a subtle, but stirring, expression of what it means to be free in a world redrawing borders and shifting away from old social norms.”
We’re gently introduced to the Calcutta estate of a newspaper publisher Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), his brother and business partner Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal), the various servants, and Bhupati’s seemingly aloof wife, Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee). They live and work in the same space, but it seems they are all operating separately to each other. Charu is particularly distant; her withdrawn body language suggests she barely knows her husband.
When Bhupati’s younger cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) comes to stay indefinitely, Charu looks at him with suspicion. Amal has been sent by Bhupati to keep Charu company while he focuses on the newspaper’s development. Amal floats around the house talking about literature and has a willingness to engage in open, aimless debate—the complete opposite to his politically-minded cousin, who wants to talk business and strategy. Charu sits somewhere in the middle: she is both dreamy and serious; unengaged with politics, but acutely aware of her place in society.
Amal announces his plan to start writing (something, anything) while he and Charu laze in the garden together. She’s puzzled by the announcement, but gifts him a notepad, curious to see what this cocksure man with a poetic sensibility can produce. He reads (almost performs) his flowery prose to Charu. She seems supportive, but is also awkwardly restless around him, like a teenager itching to break free and be reckless. A wide-eyed sense of trust and support brings them together. While Charu and Amal’s relationship deepens, Bhupati is wholly focused on the newspaper and its coverage of the upcoming British election. The gap between the emotional world of Charu and the professional world of her husband widens.
Soumitra Chatterjee as Amal (left) and Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata (right) in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, (1964).
Amal’s meandering essay ‘Dark of the Sun’ (a hilariously daft title, following his original essay ‘Light of the Moonless Night’) is, to everyone’s surprise, published in journal The Lotus. This motivates Charu to write her own piece, ‘My Village’. With a slow pan that begins with scrunched up paper and ends with her sitting on the garden swing—an Indian interpretation of Hollywood’s ‘writers’ block’ trope—her writing process is beautifully captured. The resulting story is published in an even more prestigious journal than The Lotus. Bhupati and Amal are shocked by her suddenly surfaced, secret talent.
Meanwhile, Umapada and his wife Manda leave Calcutta for alleged family reasons. Soon after, Bhupati discovers that his older brother has been defrauding the newspaper. The residual sense of betrayal from this compels Amal to leave; he feels guilty about his blossoming relationship with Charu. A sense of loss descends on the once buzzing household and newspaper.
As in Ray’s coming-of-age Apu trilogy, Charulata examines the Indian caste system and revisits the themes of family relationships and artistic aspiration. Amal, Bhupati and Charu are all bonded by location and family, but they all place value on entirely different things. Their lives within the confines of the household intersect, but they never click. Everyone is restricted by the societal expectations of place and era, especially Charu, who says she’ll never write again.
“Charulata is intricately crafted to reflect the complexities of the Indian people shaped by their own rich culture and the jarring effect of British rule.”
Every frame is dense with cultural and era-specific details—from the food to the books and décor. And these all add layers of complexity and contradiction to the central characters: Bhupati carries a pipe and wears a smoking jacket, channelling the Torie colonists who he opposes; Amal cites Emerson as a literary idol while also playfully referencing the Hindu deity Krishna. Charu’s interaction with the physical spaces in the sprawling house seem to echo the ‘idle rich’ term Bhupati uses at the beginning, a British-ism that people in the West would sooner associate with Austen than nineteenth century Calcutta. Charulata is intricately crafted to reflect the complexities of the Indian people shaped by their own rich culture and the jarring effect of British rule.
What draws you in more than the separate elements of sublime cinematography, haunting score and knowing dialogue is the composition of all parts working in a uniform rhythm. Ray shifts us between moods and moments so seamlessly; you are absorbed into this world until the final poignant freeze-frames, which lift you out of Ray’s narrative haze.
This fifty-five-year-old film about a household in colonial India feels as contemporary as any current TV drama and has understated emotional resonance that transcends language and era. You ache with the characters as they realise the true nature of the relationships around them and come to terms with what they’ve lost.
EVENT: The Beauty of the Bengali Renaissance: A Night in New York with Writer Fariha Róisín.
If you’re based in New York and would like to learn more about the films of Satyajit Ray, please join us for a special event on 3 June as writer Fariha Róisín speaks about the Bengali Renaissance in Mara Hoffman’s Manhattan studio. Book here.
If you can’t make it, you can read Fariha’s feature on the Bengali Renaissance in Lindsay Issue No. 3.