Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) in Satyajit Ray’s 1964 masterpiece ‘Charulata’
I could have watched Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece ‘Charulata’ any time since I came of age some 35 years ago. I am getting around to doing it only now. There was no reason not to watch it all these years just as there is no particular provocation to watch it now. It just happened.
My film connoisseur friends tell me that they first watched it with considerable trepidation because it has been described as Ray’s most complete film. It has also been called a textbook film in that those aspiring to learn filmmaking should watch it before they let their foolhardiness about the medium of cinema make them do something rash. I had no such trepidation because a) I have no trepidation and b) I am quite artlessly unaware of greatness.
It is not my intention to review ‘Charulata’ because I see no point in reviewing anything. An artist has created something and that’s that. I do, however, want to make a few observations. In keeping with my weakness for the useless I have to get this bit out of my system. Of course, it has zero impact on Ray’s artistry generally and the film’s near perfection particularly. Early on in the film as Ray establishes Charulata’s (Madhabi Mukherjee) sense of loneliness, there is a scene where she is walking through one of her mansion’s many rooms. When she goes through this particular room (See the picture above), my eye caught a trivial detail. The chair’s upholstery and the wallpaper seem to have the same design.
In fact, I am 93.7 percent certain that they are the same design and perhaps even the same fabric. (The fabric part, I am 46.85 percent sure). My reaction was that of a judge on HGTV’s reality show ‘Design Star’. That alone should disqualify me from further writing about a movie, let alone ‘Charulata.’ My point is I do notice everything.
The chair’s upholstery and the wallpaper
Coming back to the film which I watched on Hulu as part of their Criterion collection, I am watching it in bits and pieces as an experiment. A sort of juxtaposition of my 21st century existence against the 19th century ambience. Ray does a superb job of capturing Charu’s life tethered to loneliness as she tries various ways to free herself.
Her husband, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), is a passionate newspaper editor and publisher of ‘The Sentinel’ during the height of the British Raj in the 1870s. His infectious faith in the power of the newspaper feels charming in the current environment when newspapers get snapped up by tech billionaires with spare change. Not that there is anything wrong with it. There is a scene where Bhupati tells his brother-in-law Umapada (Shyamlal Ghoshal) that the newspaper is his mistress, “Your sister’s rival” but he should not tell her that. Who could imagine in this day and age that a newspaper could trump a beautiful woman?
Left, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) with Umapada (Shyamlal Ghoshal)
A device that Ray uses to portray Charu’s loneliness is her field glasses in early scenes. There is a lovely, if somewhat contrived, unfolding of street life as seen through her mansion’s many windows using the field glasses. There is the inevitable monkey man, a street performer with a couple of moderately trained monkeys that you still in Indian towns, whom she looks at with mild amusement. Moments later she trains the field glasses on her husband who walks past her utterly preoccupied with his newspaper and does not even notice her. As she looks at him through the field glasses we still hear the monkey man playing his drum (called damroo). Far be it for me to second-guess Ray but I believe the symbolism of that shot has to do with how distant and unconnected he is from her, quite like the street performer and his two simian companions. (Or I could be spectacularly wrong about the whole symbolism).
I have so far watched about 40 minutes of the film spread over a few hours. This morning before writing this post I saw a scene in the unkempt garden of the mansion where Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati’s fetchingly free spirited cousin brother-in-law whose help he seeks to mentor Charu, and Charu are. Charu is on a swing and asks Amal to give her a push. “Just once and then I can manage alone” says the subtitle. “New woman, this is going too far,” says Amal in mock disapproval as if she is being too forward by asking another man to push the swing. “What’s the harm in a push?” she says. You can experience the nascence of the subtle attraction between the two.
So far it has been an exquisite experience watching this languidly unfolding story. It does transport you to the late 19th century. I did slow down to 20 percent of my normal speed to sync myself with the film’s mood. That’s a good thing.
Let me close with a tangential connection that I discovered soon after the film started. I had seen only two Ray films until now. ‘Sadgati’ and ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi.’ I watch ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ from time to time because I like it enough to do so. In that film there is a song that Awadh’s (Lucknow’s) poet-nawab Wajid Ali Shah sings gently. It goes “Hum chhod chale Lucknow nagri…” I was pleasantly surprised to hear the character of Amal singing the same song in ‘Charulata’ as well. There is a gap of 13 years between ‘Charulata’ (1964) and ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ (1977). Of course, this means nothing in particular. For me though, it completes a circle.