Light Rays on Charulata

I agree with Satyajit Ray. Charulata (IMDB) is his best film. Period.

I did not have the courage to write about Charulata, because it is as if one is writing about the Mona Lisa. One is afraid, that one is not of ‘that’ level of an artistic connoisseur, and hence tends to keep mum about great art works. But since this Unquiet Mind keeps thinking about it, and the whole purpose of this blog is to keep expressing such Unquiet Thoughts, I decided to write…finally.

Ray was asked what he thought was his best film, and he answered, apparently without any hesitation, “Charulata”. He further said that if he were asked to remake his films all over again, Charulata was the one film in which he would not change even a single frame. That is a big statement coming from Ray. SatyajitRay

When Ray received the lifetime achievement award from the Oscar Academy, he was on his deathbed. And I was in tears. I cried.

There are many people like me who’ve been enamored by Ray’s magic in Apu’s Trilogy. Pather Panchali was a milestone in Indian cinema as it brought Indian cinema to the world. And shook it. I am myself a great admirer of Pather Panchali and the Apu Trilogy. But Charulata is in a class of its own. It is a study of a woman’s mind, and, a revealing study.

Charulata2The first sequence is like a tutorial in film-making. No words, no dialogue, no music. Charu is alone at home and her loneliness is captured by the camera in an exquisite fashion. Observe her as she engages in mundane activities at home, how the camera follows her about the home. No music in this introductory scene, and that establishes and emphasizes the loneliness. Finally, the climax occurs when she is looking at her husband through her binoculars walking down the gallery. She puts the binoculars down, and the camera zooms out. This is the climax. At once, you know, that you’re in a treat from a cameraman’s perspective.

The storm when her brother-in-law arrives is anticipatory of the storm he is going to bring into her lonesome, albeit married, life.

When she gets emotionally involved in her brother-in-law, it is not a typical script – thanks to Tagore. The script is based on Tagore’s Nastanirh (The Broken Nest), and there are several scholarly works exploring the relationship between Tagore’s Nashtanir and Ray’s Charulata. See here, here, and here for more scholarly information on this topic. I haven’t read Tagore, so I’ll restrict myself to my responses to the film.Charulata3

In spite of being a male, I find Charulata to be the greatest statement ever for a woman’s individuality. Not in the sense of feminism. No. In the sense of how a woman needs to be understood by her husband, in a marriage, and how a woman needs recognition of herself, of her creative abilities.

If one has never had a conversation with one’s lover’s eyes, without words, one need not see this film. This film is all about unspoken words. It is about expressions. The sequence of Charu on the swing is one of film-making’s greatest achievements ever. If you can communicate and converse without the need of words, you’ll understand why. One of the greatest scenes in film-making – Charu on a swing, looking at her brother-in-law on the ground writing poetry, and looking up with a thirst at a window showing a mother and child…it is one of the greatest moments in cinema. How the camera pans!

Madhabi Mukherjee was so highly regarded as Charulata…there are reports that when she used to visit Englishmen’s homes in the UK, there used to be huge posters of Charu on the walls, and she was highly embarrassed.

Look at her expressions in the film when she publishes her own story in the magazine. She hits the magazine onto Amal’s (brother-in-law’s) head and runs to the window. Look at her expressions of tears, and how she controls them. It is love, but constrained by her marriage. The way Madhabi Mukherjee conveys that, is indescribable. You need to see it to believe it.

Charulata1Also observe the period setting of the film. It was the 1850s, and the furniture, the sets, the music, the costumes, and the language had to suit the period. Ray was extremely meticulous and you can see it for yourself.

The ending of the film has spawned numerous interpretations and essays. It features the first freeze shots in Indian cinema. Charu and Bhupathi’s hands are extended towards each other, but they don’t touch. This sequence of freeze shots has been hailed as a masterpiece in filmmaking. Charulata’s tryst with independence is likened to India’s struggle for independence from the Euro-American powers after the war. Where else would you find such a compelling contrast?

I think I’ve expressed about 25% of my film appreciation of Charulata above, and I’ll end here. If you’re a serious film appreciation lover, write back, and we can learn still more from each other about this great genius. Thanks for reading. Comments about other films of Ray are also, obviously, welcome!

Further Reading: Strictly Film School, Epinions.com, Slant Magazine.

Photo Credits: Parabaas

This entry was posted in Arts, cinema, women. Bookmark the permalink.
  • I don’t remember Charulata clearly. I have never seen any of her films. Talent often gets obscured with time…it’s always nice when someone digs out some gold from the past.

  • Mahendra: Great post! And you are right to agree with the Maestro’s self-assessment. In London, there was a reprise of Satyajit Ray’s work a couple years ago. You will never believe the numbers that streamed in!

    “Charulata” is one of the few films of Satyajit Ray that is _not_ wall-to-wall portrayal of squalor. Madhabi Mukherjee is a class apart indeed. It would be interesting to find out what (films) swayed the Academy into giving him an honorary Oscar!

    At the risk of lowering the tone of the discussion, I like ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne” 🙂

  • Nita: You should see Charulata again if you don’t remember it! 🙂

    Shefaly: Thanks! Somehow Ray is more ‘popular’ outside India than within…:-(

    I know that it was Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg that influenced the Academy into awarding Ray the lifetime Oscar…

  • was too young when i even saw pp
    will definitely attempt to see ray movies esp charulata
    in my free time that is if they are available

  • on ur comment it is indeed sad
    most moive channels focus on pop cinema and most movie viewers loose on the the classics both desi and videshi

  • I re-read my comment and I realised it sounded very confusing, as if I thought Charulata was a person. It’s very gracious of you Mahendra not to comment on that. 🙂 What happens often when I am writing a comment that my thoughts run ahead of my pen and I never re-read my comment. I re-read it in the My Comments section and realised what a fool I must be sounding! the first sentence referred to the film (i don’t remember it beign released) and the second to the star.

  • lovely indeed as ever; now I wd like to ‘read’ you smday, :-)reviewing ‘Kanchenjunga'(thats my fav Ray film, he liked it too), AND ‘Mr&MrsIyyer’…am curious to see what unquiet wd say.I like watching ‘Aguntuk’over and over again smhow

  • Nita: I perfectly understood what you were saying, and that your mind outpaced your typing. Isn’t this what happens when you’ve read so much of a ‘Writer’s’ works, that you understand inspite of any mistyping? Don’t we ignore spelling errors and still understand? 🙂

    Trisha: Thanks. This is the first time someone is requesting or is curious about my thoughts about specific films! So I am grateful! I will try. Mr & Mrs Iyer is interesting to write about. Let’s see!

    Prax: Do see Charulata, especially if you want to learn film appreciation. The DVD is now available at Crosswords stores – though they run out of it pretty fast, so you’ve to make regular trips to catch a copy.

    Shefaly: //Charulata is one of the few films of Satyajit Ray that is _not_ wall-to-wall portrayal of squalor.//
    I completely disagree. Check out Ray’s filmography and see for yourself how many films are portrayals of squalor and how many are not anything of the kind. It is just that foreign audiences (till recently) liked to see the ‘elephant, bullock-cart, and snake-charmer India’ than the progressive India. So Ray’s squalor films were appreciated and highlighted throughout the world. And us Indian folk don’t understand how to appreciate our own creativity, so we blindly praise what foreigners praise. That’s how Ray’s squalor films have gained the spotlight. Sad.

  • trisha

    kanchenjungha and aguntuk.aguntuk bec it was his last…

  • If anyone watches the Apu trilogy and thinks “squalor” or “showcasing India’s poverty” IMO they’ve missed the boat. 🙂

  • Trisha: Agantuk, yes, I’ve seen it but I need to see it again, before I write about it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

    Amit: Cheers! 🙂

  • bendtherulz

    I was a kid when I saw Pather Panchali – and all i remembered was the train scene bellowing smoke….!!saw the movie again and then picked up the books – (english translation 🙁 )
    There was a movie festival showing all the movies of Ray (bad timing – for me )missed all.
    However the way you have protrayed above,will check out if these movies come again.

    when did you see this movie ??

    Tk care ~

    ps – hope you are weathering well over the rough seas….!!!!

  • sharmila

    well, charulata is my story…it is a story of every indian woman…trapped within her commitments…looking for those wings…to fly out…in the open sky…

  • This post reminds me my early post about Satyajit Ray, it had got its first real comment from you. Here: http://alchemistpoonam.wordpress.com/2007/03/06/satyajit-ray-speaking-of-films/

  • good to read about ray from ray’s fan n about my favorite film

  • umi nadziroh

    could you please send me the script of this film? I am really need it to do my project in pragmatics. thanks for your attention.

  • Really loved the way you expressed your appreciation for this masterpiece.

  • hey Mahendra, r u writing under some other name? hve u shfted to some other place or wht? someone who enjoys blogging, is an award winning blogger cant be NOT writing atleast for 5 mins once in a while?so whr r u doing it?

  • posting it?

  • @ shefaly,today came back to re-read this artice n ur cmmnts, out o thirty six ,only 8 cd really said to b abt ‘wall-to-wall-squalor'(thts a lovely exprssn btw),th rest seem normal/organic stuff of life and living, seen wth an artist’s perspective n he was trained in fine arts

  • hey Mahendra, tired of reading inane,devoid-of-insight, mindless, loveless film reviews re, why dont you come the hell out and write somethng re? wht r u hibernatng or been jailed or under muchleka or smthng? u been forbidden to write again, smbdy beat u up or what?

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  • Dev

    That was a very nice write up on Charulata. I have read that Ray was very much influenced by Neo Realistic cinema of Italy and also by people such as Bergman and Fellini. The symbolism present in every frame of Charulata, as described beautifully by you through various examples, is a proof of that. I had also enjoyed the film very much, infact more than Pather Panchali. I have always liked his those films more which were set in urban middle class/working class Bengal. And man, Madhubina Mukherjee was so gorgeous that she could give all present day actresses run for their money. Who said that art film heroines could not be very beautiful! She was awesome in Mahanagar too, in case you saw that.

  • Dev

    For some reason, I cannot post links to my posts under comment section of your bergman post. I have posted them now under comment section of my filmmaking workshop page where you earlier commented.

  • Dev

    Ok, that’s cool. But I think you can surely start with A to Z film meme post. I also tag you for that..it will be interesting to read your list of favorite films..
    That post(two parts)is under film reviews category on my blog..

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