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Charulata review: Satyajit Ray's interpretation adds meaning to Tagore's creation

Release Date: 17 Apr 1964 / Rated: U / 01hr 59min

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Shoma A Chatterji

Charulata stands out as the finest blend of the ideal and the pragmatic, the radical and the traditional, among all of Ray’s women. Tagore’s Charu was a woman ‘born’ much ahead of her time. Ray’s Charu reasserted this ‘reality’ decades after Tagore created her in Nastaneerh.

Charulata had its theatrical release on 17 April 1964. In 2013, Providence Journal announced the inclusion of Satyajit Ray’s film in a list of 20 features to be presented at Cannes Classics as part of the official selection that year, as a birthday gift to the late filmmaker. Among other awards, Ray had won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965 for Charulata.

Other than the Apu trilogy, Charulata is, perhaps, the most hotly debated, variedly interpreted, widely discussed and critically questioned of Ray’s films. And that debate continues to shed new light on the film.

“Where Charulata herself is concerned, Ray achieves that wonderful transparency in the objective correlative which represents the height of cinema. Every thought in her mind is clearly visible, every feeling,” wrote the celebrated critic, film historian and filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta in his book Talking About Films, published in 1981 by Orient Longman Limited.

Charu is conscious of her violation of a social taboo by falling in love with the young and handsome Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), a far cousin of her husband. But she does not shy away from expressing it. Nor does she care if the rest of the family, except husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), notices it.

Amal runs away from any possible contravention of the norms of morality. Charu's obliviousness to her husband’s dilemma also distances Amal from her. He is shocked that she is not disturbed when she learns that her brother has robbed her husband.

The cinematography is caressingly soft, blurring the blackness of black while taking care to soften the whiteness of white, in keeping with the greyness of the characters in the film. But the scene becomes harsh, sharp and grainy in the dramatic climax where the two hands of Charu and Bhupati do not meet while Braja (Bholanath Koyal), the silent servant, is a ‘frozen’ observer. Does Braja finally take the light to Charu’s room? Ray leaves us to draw our own conclusion.

Charu of Charulata, therefore, stands out as the finest blend of the ideal and the pragmatic, the radical and the traditional, among all of Ray’s women. Tagore’s Charu was a woman ‘born’ much ahead of her time. Ray’s Charu reasserts this ‘reality’, ages after Tagore created her in Nastaneerh.

Most of the debates centre on the question of Ray’s fidelity to the Tagore original, since Tagore and his works are considered too sacrosanct by many in Bengal to be subjected to a filmmaker’s interpretation.

Ray responded to attacks on his alleged distortion of the Tagore original through his article Charulata Prasange, published in the Bengali collection of his writings Bisay Chalachitra (Ananda Publishers Limited, Calcutta. First published February 1976).

The response was in the form of letters directed at Ashok Rudra, who attacked Ray for the diversions he made from the original. Ray’s final article was “a wonderful piece of literary criticism of the Tagore original in the then distinguished Bengali little magazine Parichay in 1964” (Dhruba Gupta: Ghare Bairey – From Novel into Film, in Cinewave, 7, October 1984–March 1985, Seagull Books, Calcutta, p52).

Ray’s Charulata (1964) is based on Nastaneerh (The Broken Nest), a novelette of around 80 pages written by Tagore in 1901. Its translator, Mary M Lago, described it as “one of Tagore’s best works of fiction” (Rabindranath Tagore: The Broken Nest (Nastaneerh), translated by Mary M Lago and Supriya Bari, MacMillan India, 1973).

The story takes place in 1879, when the Bengal Renaissance was at its height. Western thoughts of freedom and individuality were about to ruffle the age-old calm feathers of a feudal society. Thinking men were responding to it and some changes were already in motion. Women’s liberation was being talked about but not much beyond a few cases of widow remarriage and some education.

In Charu of Charulata, Ray probably discovered the crystallization of the Indian woman, poised between tradition and modernity. Intelligent, sensitive, graceful and serene, Charu was a traditional woman whose psyche imbibed unto itself waves from the world outside. It was changing, while, below, in the drawing room, her British-influenced husband Bhupati was celebrating the victory of the Liberals in Britain. Nineteenth century Western social philosophy and Rammohun Roy’s ideas were constantly working towards the liberation of women (Chidananda Dasgupta: Ibid, pp 36-37).

Satyajit Ray’s Charulata offers maximum choice to a Hindu, Bengali, married woman from an aristocratic family to explore herself through objects and cope with her loneliness, though the final choice is beyond her control, notwithstanding her independence of thought and emotions, beyond the scope of her social conditioning. All this is beautifully expressed through the ‘objects’ Charu uses herself or is surrounded by, concerned with, or placed against.

A scene from Charulata (1964)

Though Charulata, the film, is distanced from Nastaneerh, it does not move away completely from the essence of Tagore's story. Amitabha Chattopadhyay in his work Chalchitra, Samaj O Satyajit Ray (Films, Society and Satyajit Ray), has disputed Ray’s loyalty to the essence of Tagore’s original story. But when one considers the relocation of the story by Ray over 60 years after Tagore wrote it, one begins to understand the perspective of a filmmaker ‘looking’ at a story penned by a different person (Tagore) in 1901, about five characters in 1879, through his ‘cinematic’ vision which is — and has to be — distanced from Tagore’s literary vision.

Yet, there is this sense of ‘reverence’ for the master litterateur that Ray expresses through other visual components. The recreation of the period to create the mise en scène and the setting is an example. The European-style haveli with its heavy, ornate furniture is made into a gilded cage for Charu. Long corridors, rooms seen through vistas, shuttered windows, dark wallpaper, all combine to create an overpowering presence of being enclosed in a confined space, while, at the same time, offer glimpses of dappled sunlight filtering through the central courtyard or in the garden. They also elaborate silently on the loneliness and boredom that define Charu’s life, who fills up these ‘empty’ spaces by moving around the balcony, from one room to another, picking up a book, peeping through the slats in the windows, and so on.

To quote from Chidananda Dasgupta, “The exquisite period flavour is Ray’s own, and distinguishes the film from the story which Tagore takes for granted. The sunlit garden, the swing, the embroidery, the floral motifs on the doors and walls, the horse-drawn carriage, the evocative settings created by [Ray's art director] Bansi Chandragupta are, however, more than exquisite decorations; they frame the action and set it at a distance — the distance of contemplation” (The Cinema of Sayajit Ray, p39).

But it is this very ‘distance of contemplation’ that marks one ‘process of transportation’ which makes Charulata a creative cinematic expression that stands independent of its original source, as much as it takes the original Tagore story a bit further ahead in time.

Tagore’s original story finds Bhupati departing in the end, leaving the wife to her grief. Ray opts for a more realistic solution of bringing them together again to live forever in a state of suspended animation (Chidananda Dasgupta: Ibid, p37).

Siegfried Kracauer, in his Theory of Film, explains the impact of resorting to motionlessness by the director. Kracauer writes, “Dovzhenko has known how to make this metamorphosis benefit his penetrations of reality. The immobile lovers in Earth become transparent; the deep happiness which is moving them turns inside out. And the spectator on his part grasps their inward agitation because the cessation of external motion moves him all the more intensely to commune with them.”

(In Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, New York, Oxford University Press, 1960, Kracauer explains how Alexander Dovzhenko in both Arsenal and Earth frequently stops the action to resume it after a brief lull. The first phase of this procedure — characters or parts of them abruptly ceasing to move — produces a shock effect, as if all of a sudden we had found ourselves in a vacuum. The immediate consequence is that we acutely realize the significance of movement as an integral element of the external world as well as film. Accordingly, when the people in Arsenal or Earth are shown in the form of stills, the suspended movement, nevertheless, perpetuates itself by changing from outer motion into inner motion.)

Had Tagore written his story in 1964, when Ray made the film, who is to say if he would not have closed his story along similar lines? The same logic would apply to Ray’s strong visual statement intensifying and highlighting the loneliness of Charu, which was understated in the original story. Charulata, the film, takes the argument of a young married woman’s loneliness and subsequent attraction for her brother-in-law Amal further, to fit into the social realities of the 1960s, without changing the framework of the time and place in the Tagore story.

In an interview about his celluloid interpretation of Premchand’s famous story Kafan and the changes he put into it, filmmaker Mrinal Sen had said: “For a writer like Premchand, as a filmmaker, I feel one needs to invest it with contemporary sensitivity.” It would not be wrong to apply this argument to Ray.

Charu switches over from the embroidery frame to the lorgnette, to a pack of cards or the paan-box to writing for a magazine. Charu peeping out from behind the bedpost at Amal when Bhupati is unfolding the story of the theft to Amal; Charu swinging away to daydream and discover a subject to write on; Charu unrolling the straw mat out in the garden; Charu crumbling up pieces of paper of her ‘rough’ work and throwing these away; Charu hitting Amal with the magazine her article is published in; Charu reprimanding Mandakini for small lapses, are tiny details that are complete in themselves, yet weave out to form a single ‘theme’ reflecting Charu’s exploration, creation, transcending of objects that surround her and objects she possesses and uses that mean much more than their physical reality implies.

She is the only one among the three major characters who has no crisis of conscience (Chidananda Dasgupta. Ibid, p38). Bhupati feels guilty for not having devoted enough time to her, and blames himself more than others for his predicament. Amal realizes he was about to betray his cousin’s faith in him and runs away. It is Charu alone who does not turn away from her passion. In her reconciliation with her husband, there is no sense of guilt. Nor is there any arrogance or pride. All that is left, is a recognition of reality.

Charu of Charulata, therefore, stands out as the finest blend of the ideal and the pragmatic, the radical and the traditional, among all of Ray’s women. Tagore’s Charu was a woman ‘born’ much ahead of her time. Ray’s Charu reasserts this literary 'reality' ages after Tagore created her in Nastaneerh. If Tagore gave life to Charu, Ray added meaning to the character.

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