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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.