Charulata (1964)

14 11 2014

In this, my second encounter with Satyajit Ray’s beloved Charulata, I’ve already stumbled upon more than a couple reviews that, although they praise the film, they also suggest a potential disconnect in the film’s historical context. There are indeed Indian literary references in the film that are guaranteed to confuse a western audience, but getting hung up on these specific references seems to miss what should already be apparent. Yes, Charulata is lyrical and mesmerizing but one can’t separate Charu’s personal turmoil from India’s political climate. I hesitate to call the film a meditation on the idea of “a modern woman” in India because it suggests a cold, detached framing of its protagonist. On the contrary, it is Ray’s nearly sentimental compassion for Charu that makes the film’s political insights all the more trenchant.

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Charu is married to Bhupati, a busy newspaper editor. In fact, he’s so busy that he has no time for his wife. She embroiders a handkerchief for him, and he is stunned that she has the time to do such a thing. In reality, Charu has plenty of time, but nothing in particular to do. Bhupati, finally sensing his wife’s unrest, recruits Manda, his sister-in-law, and Amal, his cousin, to keep her company. Amal and Charu, despite their initial reservations about each other, begin to bound over a mutual appreciation of literature. Their own writing becomes a foundation for a playful rivalry, which soon threatens to take a more romantic turn.

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While Charulata is a film about unrequited love, I think the viewer that sees the film as being primarily concerned with such emotions, is missing a lot. There is something beautiful in how Ray is able to ingrain a very instinctual, perhaps even melodramatic, love triangle into a film that is a political meditation. As seems to be a reoccurring theme on this blog, I find it a false move to suggest that the film’s political discourse can be viewed separately from its its discourse of passion. The two are inherently connected, constantly informing the suggestions of both. Without the potential for an affair, there is nothing about Charu’s own exclusion from a life of very serious and very literary-minded men.

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The connection seems like a reach but I thought of Alex Ross Perry’s recent film, Listen Up Philip, more than once here. That film, to be brief, is a self-critical approach to the construction of serious white men of literature. The men in Charulata are not actually white, of course, but they do aspire to whiteness. British politics is of far greater interest than Charu, herself. Bhupati tells Amal about an opportunity to study in England and Amal’s eyes become filled with childlike wonder. “The land of Shakespeare?” he asks Bhupati as if hypnotized by the artistic potential to be found in the truly modern, truly progressive western Europe.

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The irony of the above scene is immediately evident as we see Bhupati and Amal (both of whom, I think it is important to mention, are likable and sympathetic men) not just socially mobile but in an environment that encourages their creativity.  Charu, on the other hand, is in a more limited position. Yet, she seems to be just as creative and intelligent. She can never escape the halls of her exquisitely decorated house, though. This is an idea that Ray visualizes in the film’s nearly silent opening. She grabs a pair of opera glasses and observes men working outside, suggesting to us that she (and the film itself) has switched the gaze, completely reordering an important gender power dynamic. After that, though, she is lost. She can only gracefully float around the space she’s contained in and nothing more. Despite all the privilege and comfort that comes from being married to a middle class man, she is still a woman and she is still limited in her social movement.

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It’s hard to efficiently articulate all the ground that Ray covers in this film. This is perhaps his most beautiful film, even though it is bound entirely to a house that was constructed in a studio. At times, this seems like the logical visual progression of Renoir, simple rooms become overwhelming triumphs of architectural designs, beautiful compositions that despite the awe they inspire in us, also visually reinforce the idea that Charu still feels small. Maybe the film’s most important moment, to me at least, comes about thirty minutes in. Amal and Manda have both arrived to keep Charu company. Amal tries to begin a conversation on literature, one which Manda is not properly equipped. Instead of buying into Amal’s attempt to separate the two women by their perceived intelligence, Charu refuses his baiting of a “smart discussion” and instead offers up a writer who Amal finds pedestrian. “How original” he cries in protest, to which Charu replies “how can you expect me to be original?” Amal wants Charu as an “interesting and smart woman” in his own construction, he’s not able to accept her as an entire person, one who could perhaps surpass his intelligence. Just look at his response to Charu’s own writing. Charu stands in defiance to our western, white, and male framing of intelligence. She’s a marvel of a person, just as Ray’s film is a marvel to look at, but just as important, she is active political resistance with a tender heart, one that beats loudly and breaks violently.

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Shindo: Zempen Akemi no maki / The New Road (1936)

10 11 2014

By nature of the accepted and limited discourse on Japanese film in the 1930s, this wonderful effort from Heinosuke Gosho becomes a film about modernity. This sounds like bad judgement on my part, situating the conversation on the film in something I identify to be the problem. However, there is something crucial in how the western world constructs an idea of modernity, especially when its averting its gaze on a country like Japan. As recently discussed in a post on Yasujiro Shimazu’s So Goes My Lovethe conversation on modernity is informed by an almost willful disregard for historical context, an engagement that only sees the modernity of a character as charismatic and exciting as Kinuyo Tanaka’s Akemi as society’s exception. She is “progressive” but further inspection shows us that she is not progressive in a way that would help inform a rhetoric of colonial intervention.

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Akemi is the oldest daughter of a rural but well-off family. She receives some pressure to continue dating a rather dull businessman, but as she hopelessly carries that doomed relationship, she’s really focusing on Ippei. The two enjoy long hikes in the mountains, an activity affordable for Ippei because he’s a business owner and part-time pilot. Meanwhile, Akemi’s cousin, Utako is busy harboring a crush of her own, an attractive young artist named Toru. He offers her a life that would escape her traditional upbringing, by moving the couple to the city and providing opportunities for visits to France. Toru’s own cosmopolitan schedule creates distance between the two, but Akemi is able to spot these developments as Toru taking advantage of Utako.

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It would be a mistake to talk about The New Road without bringing up the power of Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance as Akemi. Tanaka’s entire career is punctuated with roles that could be described in a similar way, but Gosho and screenwriter Kogo Noda (who frequently collaborated with Ozu, of course) cast her in an entirely new light. Instead of the suffering mother or the transcendent martyr who catapults the pain of Mizoguchi’s work. She’s bubbly here, full of energy, and her life, similarly, seems to be limitless. Of course, here’s where the reality of her character comes into play. Gosho’s world  seems to be populated by comfortably middle-class youths, the lack of perceived “melodramatic” elements here might be a function of Akemi’s own privilege. And yet, like Oharu, Tamaki, or any other Mizoguchi protagonist, Akemi still manages to wrestle with her place in society. Sure, she’s elevated by her economic standing, but within that, she is ignored by men who she intellectually towers over.

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To clarify, this is not a film about a smart woman casually accepting her place in the middle of dumb men maintaining their power. Everyone here, perhaps benefiting from their social standing, is  well-educated. More importantly, Akemi never falls into the structure of a conventional heterosexual relationship. Sure, she longs for and has feelings for Ippei, but even if one qualifies their interactions as dating, they’d have a hard time passing it off as typical courting. This is not Hollywood’s type of romantic comedy, where the woman, for whatever reason, has to use her wits to get an oaf to fall for her. Instead of becoming Japan’s Jean Arthur, Tanaka delivers a performance that is something new entirely. Within the two relationships depicted, she somehow manages to gain control. At the risk of selling Gosho’s visuals short, this is entirely Tanaka’s film and it is fueled by her excitement.

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Even as the witty woman, the one who has a leg up on the fellas, Akemi resists many of the cues of the modern woman. In truth, modernity can mean any number of incredibly vague things but critically, there is a preference to see these hints visually. Akemi doesn’t inhabit this limited construction of modernity because she’s not interested in the city, in the academic pursuits of her male peers, or the pictures of European actresses on the wall. In the film’s most memorable sequence, she scoffs and is genuinely unimpressed by a European woman whose framed visage is Ippei’s most prized decoration. Within seconds, she both embodies and perfectly dismisses the discourse that the west chooses to attach to their engagement with women in Japanese film. She doesn’t need to be like the west, the white, the “modern” she’s already above all of those things.

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