Charulata: “Calm Without, Fire Within”

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, composer, painter, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was the towering figure of the Bengali Renaissance. Among his lasting achievements was the founding in 1921 of his “world university,” Visva-Bharati, at Santiniketan, some 120 miles north of Kolkata. In 1940, the nineteen-year-old Satyajit Ray enrolled there to study arts.

Ray’s father, Sukumar—who died when his son was two—had been a close friend of Tagore’s. But by the time Ray arrived at Santiniketan, the Nobel Laureate had only a year to live, and the young student saw little of him, feeling daunted by his venerable status. Nonetheless, Ray always retained a deep regard for Tagore’s work, and when, in 1948, he was planning a career in the cinema, he collaborated with a friend on a screen adaptation of one of Tagore’s novels, Ghare baire (The Home and the World). The project fell through, and some years later, rereading the script, Ray found it “an amateurish, Hollywoodish effort which would have ruined our reputation and put an end to whatever thoughts I might have had about a film career.” (Ray eventually did film the novel, from a totally new script, in 1984.)

In 1961, now internationally established as a director, with The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room (1958), and Devi (1960) to his credit, Ray returned to Tagore, filming three of his stories as Three Daughters (Teen kanya) and a documentary, Rabindranath Tagore, to celebrate the centenary of the great man’s birth. Ray described the latter film, an official tribute to India’s national poet, as “a backbreaking chore.” But there wasn’t the least sense of a chore about Ray’s next engagement with Tagore’s work.

Charulata (1964), often rated the director’s finest film—and the one that, when pressed, he would name as his own personal favorite: “It’s the one with the fewest flaws”—is adapted from Tagore’s 1901 novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest). It’s widely believed that the story was inspired by Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, who committed suicide in 1884 for reasons that have never been fully explained. Kadambari, like Charulata, was beautiful, intelligent, and a gifted writer, and toward the end of his life, Tagore admitted that the hundreds of haunting portraits of women that he painted in his later years were inspired by memories of her.

Right from the outset of his career, with Pather panchali (1955), Ray had shown himself to be exceptionally skilled at conveying a whole world within a microcosm, focusing in on a small social group while still relating it to the wider picture. Virtually all of his finest films—The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room, Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), Distant Thunder (1973), The Middleman (1975)—achieve this double perspective. But of all his chamber dramas, Charulata is perhaps the subtlest and most delicate. The setting, as with so many of Ray’s movies, is his native Kolkata. It’s around 1880, and the intellectual ferment of the Bengali Renaissance is at its height. Among the educated middle classes, there’s talk of self-determination for India within the British Empire—perhaps even complete independence. Such ideas are often aired in the Sentinel, the liberal English-language weekly of which Bhupatinath Dutta (Shailen Mukherjee) is the owner and editor. A kindly man, but distracted by his all-absorbing political interests, he largely leaves his wife, the graceful and intelligent Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), to her own resources.

The visual elegance and fluidity that Ray achieves in Charulata are immediately evident in the long, all-but-wordless sequence that follows the credits and shows us Charu, trapped in the stuffy, brocaded cage of her house, trying to amuse herself. (At this period, no respectable middle-class Bengali wife could venture out into the city alone.) Having called to the servant to take Bhupati his tea, she leafs through a book lying on the bed, discards it, selects another from the bookshelf—then, hearing noises outside in the street, finds her opera glasses and flits birdlike from window to window, watching the passersby. A street musician with his monkey, a chanting group of porters trotting with a palanquin, a portly Brahman with his black umbrella, signifier of his dignified status—all these come under her scrutiny. When Bhupati wanders past, barely a couple of feet away but too engrossed in a book to notice her, she turns her glasses on him as well—just another strange specimen from the intriguing, unattainable outside world.

Throughout this sequence, Ray’s camera unobtrusively follows Charu as she roams restlessly around the house, framing and reframing her in a series of spaces—doorways, corridors, pillared galleries—that emphasize both the Victorian-Bengali luxury of her surroundings and her confinement within them. Though subjective shots are largely reserved for Charu’s glimpses of street life, the tracking shots that mirror her progress along the gallery, or move in behind her shoulder as she glides from window to window, likewise give us the sense of sharing her comfortable but trammeled life. The only deviation from this pattern comes after she’s retrieved the opera glasses. A fast lateral track keeps the glasses in close-up as she holds them by her side and hurries back to the windows, the camera sharing her impulsive eagerness.

Under the credits, we’ve seen Charu embroidering a wreathed B on a handkerchief as a gift for her husband. When she presents it to him, Bhupati is delighted but asks, “When do you find the time, Charu?” Evidently, it’s never occurred to him that she might feel herself at a loose end. But now, becoming vaguely aware of Charu’s discontent and fearing she may be lonely, he invites her ne’er-do-well brother Umapada and his wife, Mandakini, to stay, offering Umapada employment as manager of the Sentinel’s finances. Manda, a featherheaded chatterbox, proves poor company for her sister-in-law. Then Bhupati’s young cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) unexpectedly arrives for a visit. Lively, enthusiastic, cultured, an aspiring writer, he establishes an immediate rapport with Charu that on both sides drifts insensibly toward love.

“Calm Without, Fire Within,” the title of Ray’s essay on the Japanese cinema, could apply equally well to Charulata (as the Bengali critic Chidananda Das Gupta has noted). The emotional turbulence that underlies the film is conveyed in hints and sidelong gestures, in a fleeting glance or a snatch of song, often betraying feelings only half recognized by the person experiencing them. In a key scene set in the sunlit garden (with more than a nod to Fragonard), Amal lies on his back on a mat, seeking inspiration, while Charu swings herself high above him, reveling in the ecstasy of her newfound intellectual and erotic stimulation. Ray, as the critic Robin Wood observed, “is one of the cinema’s great masters of interrelatedness.”

This garden scene, which runs some ten minutes, finds Ray at his most intimately lyrical. It’s the first time the action has escaped from the house, and the sense of freedom and release is infectious. From internal evidence, it’s clear that the scene involves more than one occasion (Charu promises Amal a personally designed notebook for his writings, she presents it to him, he declares that he’s filled it), but it’s cut together to give the impression of a single, continuous event, a seamless emotional crescendo. Two moments in particular attain a level of rapt intensity rarely equaled in Ray’s work, both underscored by music. The first is when Charu, having just exhorted Amal to write, swings back and forth, singing softly; Ray’s camera swings with her, holding her face in close-up, for nearly a minute. Then, when Amal finds inspiration, we get a montage of the Bengali writing filling his notebook, line superimposed upon line in a series of cross-fades, while sitar and shehnai gently hail his creativity.

In an article in Sight & Sound in 1982, Ray suggested that, to Western audiences, Charulata, with its triangle plot and Europeanized, Victorian ambience, might seem familiar territory, but that “beneath the veneer of familiarity, the film is chockablock with details to which [the Western viewer] has no access. Snatches of song, literary allusions, domestic details, an entire scene where Charu and her beloved Amal talk in alliterations . . . all give the film a density missed by the Western viewer in his preoccupation with plot, character, the moral and philosophical aspects of the story, and the apparent meaning of the images.”

Among the details that might elude the average Western viewer are the recurrent allusions to the nineteenth-century novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94). A key figure of Bengali literature in the generation before Tagore, Bankim Chandra (sometimes referred to as “the Scott of Bengal”) wrote a series of romantic, nationalistic novels and actively fostered the young Tagore’s career. In the opening sequence, it’s one of Bankim Chandra’s novels that Charu takes down from the bookshelf, while singing his name to herself; and when, not long afterward, Amal makes his dramatic first entry, arriving damp-haired and windblown on the wings of a summer storm, he’s declaiming a well-known line of the writer’s. The coincidence points up the affinity between them; by contrast, when Bhupati recalls incredulously that a friend couldn’t sleep for three nights after reading a Bankim Chandra novel (“I told him, ‘You must be crazy!’”), it emphasizes the empathetic gulf between him and his wife.

Music, too, is used to express underlying sympathies: Both Charu and Amal are given to breaking spontaneously into song, and two of Tagore’s compositions act as leitmotifs. We hear the tune of one of them, “Mama cite” (“Who dances in my heart?”), played over the opening images, and Amal sings another, “Phule phule” (“Every bud and every blossom sways and nods in the gentle breeze”), that Charu later takes up in the garden scene as they grow ever closer emotionally. (Manda, who has observed the pair together in the garden, afterward slyly sings a line of this song to Amal.) Ray weaves variations on both songs into his score. Another that Amal sings for Charu was composed by Tagore’s older brother Jyotirindranath, the husband of Kadambari Devi.

The film’s underlying theme of pent-up emotions trembling on the verge of expression is counterpointed both on a political level—Bhupati and his friends see in the Liberal victory at Westminster in April 1880 the chance of greater self-determination for India—and in the situation of Charulata herself, a gifted, sensitive woman yearning toward emancipation but slipping unconsciously toward a betrayal of her husband. To Western eyes, all three members of the triangle might seem willfully obtuse or impossibly naive. This again would be a misapprehension born of unfamiliarity with Bengali society, where, as Ray pointed out, a husband’s younger brother—in this case, a close cousin, which is much the same in Bengali custom and terms—is traditionally entitled to a privileged relationship with his sister-in-law. This relationship, playfully flirtatious, “sweet but chaste,” between a wife and her debar, is accepted and even encouraged. Charu and Amal simply stray, half unknowingly, across an ill-defined social border.

Ray was always known as a skilled and sympathetic director of actors. Saeed Jaffrey, who starred in The Chess Players (1977), bracketed him and John Huston as “gardener directors, who have selected the flowers, know exactly how much light and sun and water the flowers need, and then let them grow.” Soumitra Chatterjee, who made his screen debut when Ray cast him in the title role of the third film of The Apu Trilogy, The World of Apu (1959), gives perhaps the finest of his fifteen performances in Ray’s films as Amal—young, impulsive, a touch ridiculous in his irrepressible showing off, bursting with the joy of exploring life in its fullness after his release from the drab confines of a student hostel. He’s superbly matched by the graceful Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu, her expressive features alive with the ever-changing play of unaccustomed emotions that she scarcely knows how to identify, let alone deal with. She had starred in Ray’s previous film, The Big City (1963); he described her as “a wonderfully sensitive actress who made my work very easy for me.”

The other three main actors had also appeared in The Big City, though in minor roles. Shailen Mukherjee, playing Bhupati, was principally a stage actor; this was his first major screen role. Despite his professed inexperience (Ray recalled him saying, “Manikda [Ray’s nickname], I know nothing about film acting. I’ll be your pupil, you teach me”), he succeeds in making Bhupati a thoroughly likable if remote figure, well-intentioned but far too idealistic and trusting for his own good. Gitali Roy’s occasional veiled glances hint that Mandakini isn’t, perhaps, quite as empty-headed as Charu supposes; she certainly isn’t above flirting with Amal on her own account. As her husband, Umapada, Shyamal Ghosal expresses with his whole body language his envy and resentment of Bhupati—signals that his brother-in-law of course completely fails to pick up on.

Ray rarely used locations for interiors, preferring whenever possible to create them in the studio, though so subtly are the sets constructed and lit that we’re rarely aware of the artifice. Charulata includes few exterior scenes; almost all the action takes place in the lavishly furnished setting of Bhupati’s house. As always, Ray worked closely with his regular art director, Bansi Chandragupta, providing him with an exact layout of the rooms and detailed sketches of the main setups, and accompanying him on trips to the bazaars to find suitable furniture, decorations, and props. The result feels convincingly authentic, evoking a strong sense of period and of a class that ordered their lives, as critic Penelope Houston has put it, by “a conscious compromise between Eastern grace and Western decorum.”

Though he readily acknowledged the contributions of his collaborators, Ray came as close as any director within mainstream cinema to being a complete auteur. Besides scripting, storyboarding, casting, and directing his films, he composed the scores (from Three Daughters on) and even designed the credit titles and publicity posters. Starting with Charulata, he took control of yet another filmmaking function by operating his own camera. “I realized,” he explained, “that working with new actors, they are more confident if they don’t see me; they are less tense. I remain behind the camera. And I see better and get the exact frame.”

Charulata was the best received of all Ray’s films to date, both in Bengal and abroad. In Bengal, it was generally agreed that he had done full justice to the revered Tagore—even if some people still harbored reservations about the implicitly adulterous subject matter. After seeing the film at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear for best director, Richard Roud noted that it was “distinguished by a degree of technical invention that one hasn’t encountered before in Ray’s films,” but that “all the same, it is not for his technique that one admires Ray so much: no enumeration of gems of mise-en-scène would convey the richness of characterization and that breathless grace and radiance he manages to draw from his actors.”

From its lyrical high point in the garden scene, the mood of Charulata gradually if imperceptibly darkens, moving toward emotional conflict and, eventually, desolation—a process reflected in the restriction of camera movement and in the lighting, which grows more shadowy and somber as Bhupati sees his trust betrayed and Charu realizes what she’s lost. Inspired, as he readily admitted, by the final shot of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Ray ends the film on a freeze-frame—or rather, a series of freeze-frames. Two hands, Charu’s and Bhupati’s, reaching tentatively out to each other, close but not yet joined. Ray’s tanpura score rises in a plangent crescendo. On the screen appears the title of Tagore’s story: “The Broken Nest.” Irretrievably broken? Ray, subtle and unprescriptive as ever, leaves that for us to decide.

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