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

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  • 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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