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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Also 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!
Photo Credits: Parabaas