The Sublime Magic of Charulata

Having finally found the motivation to write, and considering the absolutely depressing situation in the world today, I decided not to add to the gloom with an apocalyptic piece. Instead, a more enriching topic has presented itself.

Earlier this month, the 2nd of May marked the birth centenary of the celebrated Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, whom I—and many other film enthusiasts—consider to be the greatest filmmaker in the history of Indian cinema.

An Indian stamp dated 1994, commemorating Ray (d. 1992)
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Satyajit Ray’s impact on the film world was immense, to say the least. His first film, Pather Panchali, today considered to be one of the World’s Greatest Films ever made, earned him scores of national and international awards and set him up as a sort of inspirational figure for generations of filmmakers to come. It was groundbreaking for presenting India to the world in a new light: previous depictions had always been presented through the lens of colonialists. His films were displayed in many film festivals such as Cannes and the Venice Film Festival, earning critical acclaim, awards, and rave responses, an achievement that was and remains unparalleled in Indian Cinema to date. His contemporaries adored him: Ingmar Bergman and David Lean admired his work and vouched for him at Cannes; Jean-Luc Godard mentioned Ray’s Charulata as an “all-time favourite”; Jean Renoir revered him; and Akira Kurosawa once remarked that, “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon”. Martin Scorsese noted Ray as being one of his inspirations, saying that the latter’s work “took his breath away”, and that Ray’s films need to be “seen and re-seen, again and again”. Little wonder then that Ray became the first and only Indian to date to have been awarded an Honorary Oscar for his “Lifetime Achievement” and “Contribution to the field of Cinema”.

The Original 1964 Theatrical Release Poster for “Charulata”.
Ray was also a masterful designer, artist and font-creator; he designed most of his films’ posters himself.

One of Ray’s most mature and sublime films—and one of my personal favourites—is the absolutely magnificent Charulata. The piece, shot in 1964, and based on Rabindranath Tagore’s 1901 novella Nastanirh (meaning “The Broken Nest”), is considered a seminal film for any cinema enthusiast, and a kind of Bible for cinematographers. It remains one of Ray’s most venerated films and was also the film he was most proud of.

The film captures the life of a lonely Bengali housewife, Charulata. Charu is beautiful and educated, with an innate sophistication and love for literature and art. Her well-meaning but much older and perpetually busy husband Bhupati, the editor of a news journal, neglects her, focusing his attention instead on his printing press and his paper, “The Sentinel”. Charulata’s life is dull—much like any other Bengali housewife of the intellectual elite in the 19th century—and she tries to kill her time by embroidering handkerchiefs and jooties for her husband, absently surfing the books in her shelf, fidgeting with the piano, and—in a series of iconic shots—looking eagerly at the world outside, from her window with a pair of opera glasses. All this is very beautifully enacted and photographed: the first eleven minutes of the film have no dialogue, and, with a series dynamic camera motions and long shots, wonderfully capture Charu’s boredom and the monotony of her life as she moves from one activity to another to pass the time on a drowsy summer’s afternoon.

A shot of a bored and frustrated Charulata
Image Courtesy:

Bhupati senses his wife’s boredom but is unable to give her time himself. He decides to invite Charulata’s good-for-nothing brother and sister-in-law to stay with them, hoping that the former would help in the printing press, and the latter would provide companionship to the lonely Charu. Alas, Mandakini, the illiterate, crude, and unsophisticated sister-in-law, is no match for the sensitive, aesthetic, literary and intelligent Charulata.

Then one stormy evening, unannounced, Amal, Bhupati’s young cousin, bursts into the house like a hurricane. Amal is loud and cheerful, handsome and young, around Charulata’s age, and shares her interests in literature and art. He pursues his ambitions to become a published writer while encouraging Charulata to explore her own talents with ink, rather than simply reading…

The two form a delightful and playful bond, along with a mischievous rivalry in their writing. Gradually, the emotionally neglected Charulata develops deeper feelings for her young cousin-in-law, which she masks through her literary aspirations. The underlying desires and silent, unexpressed emotions lurk delicately but dangerously below the surface (this being the restrained Victorian society of 19th century India), without an outlet, lingering faintly in the air…

The film is stunning in its subtlety: not once is there even the slightest physical contact between the two leads, not once is their desire openly suggested. It is filled with longing gazes through binoculars, playful teasing, frowns and tears, grimaces, and mundane discussions about books, authors, and flowers. Yet, these manage to convey everything that needs to be said.

The cinematography of the film is nothing short of transcendent. Incisive and dynamic camera movements transport the audience into the inner recesses of a lonely wife’s mind. The lighting, the angles, the movements, and the attention to detail are achievements that Indian art films aspire to even today. The entire cinema is one iconic shot after another: the first eleven minutes capturing Charulata’s boredom; a scene in the garden where Charulata sits on a swing, singing a Bengali song, while Amal lays upon a mat on the grass and writes; the moment when Charu reminiscences her childhood village as she looks for ideas for a story; an outing to the seashore; and the ultimate masterstroke, a freeze shot of two hands outstretched towards one another, frozen in the air and in time in a tentative gesture: an emotionally spectacular finale.

An iconic scene at the swing
Image Courtesy: The Criterion Collection
A scene depicting a delicate rivalry between Charu and Amal
Image Courtesy:

The two leads essay stellar performances: the dashing young Soumitra Chatterjee is perfect as the artistic, cheerful and boisterous Amal, and Madhabi Mukherjee, playing Charulata, shines with a restrained but sublime performance as a lonely aesthete in a gilded cage: her expressive eyes say all there is to say even in the quietest of scenes.

I, a mediocre human being, am simply not suited to rate this star-studded masterpiece of diffused emotions and unexpressed passions. But if I had to, this gem of cinema would receive a full five stars on five, if not more. It is a film that will keep lingering in the minds of general audiences and great filmmakers alike, leaving a silent aftertaste of longing that will make one return to the story of “The Lonely Wife” again and again.

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