(Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)
In the Mood for Love
The talents of the great Satyajit Ray are innumerable in the vast history of cinema, thus it’s rather unfortunate that today he’s been mostly reduced to the director of the Apu Trilogy. To be clear, the three films that tell the story of Apu’s transition from boy to man represent some of the finest films of the medium – and Pather Panchali remains my favorite of Ray’s works – but the man would go on to do so many other great things than just champion neorealism for poverty-stricken Bengalis. Among his post-Apu highlights, Ray poignantly chronicled the effect of encroaching modernity on the holdouts of traditionalism (not to mention crafting one of the best films infused with the appreciation of music) with The Music Room, and then powerfully revealed that even with the progressiveness of the modern age, prejudice can and does still exist in society in The Big City. But, perhaps his greatest achievement in the few years following The World of Apu – one that has gone surprisingly unsung – is how he portrayed women in his films. If Arati rising to the challenge of becoming her family’s sole breadwinner in The Big City was his most obvious example, then the titular character learning to express herself and discover what she wants for herself in his masterstroke Charulata is easily his finest in a string of films lending a voice to women.
The strength in Charulata lies not only in its forward-thinking view of women in society, but also its delightfully unexpected density of narrative that manages to be an intimate chamber drama and a microcosm of Bengali history all at once. Adapting the beloved writer Rabindranath Tagore’s novella The Broken Nest, Ray’s film tells the story of the accomplished, yet lonely wife of a wealthy newspaper man in late 19th century Calcutta. It’s clear from the onset that Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) is a good man, but his preoccupation with his country’s future and the success of his newspaper keep him from being a good husband. Charulata (an exquisite Madhabi Mukherjee) remains bored and idle cooped up in her grand, but empty home with only the great authors of the past and present to keep her company. We meet the young woman alone in the elaborately decorated rooms of their mansion amusing herself by watching passersby on the streets below. The sight is not unlike a bird in a cage – a creature designed for uninhibited flight trapped by the confines of outside forces. There are no signs that Charu resents her husband for her situation in their early pleasant interactions, but it’s clear that Bhupati mostly remains ignorant of how his wife suffers from loneliness.
Though Bhupati invites Charu’s brother (Syamal Ghosal) and his wife to come stay with them for a while, her sister-in-law Manda (Gitali Roy) proves to be insufficient company, unable to match Charu’s level of intellect. But, when Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) unexpectedly comes to visit too, Charu’s prospects appear brighter. An aspiring writer himself with a penchant for reciting poetry and discussing great literature, he quickly becomes a suitable companion for this lonely housewife. Secretly, too, her husband enlists Amal to encourage his talented wife to put her pen to paper and begin writing herself. Thus, a deep friendship forms between the pair, one in full view – and with the approval – of the man of the house. Ray captures the emotional depth of their connection in a mid-film sequence that brings our protagonist outside the home for the first time. There are hints that these garden meetings take place over time – Charu promises to make Amal a notebook of his own, then the camera cuts to a shot of her plopping the finished notebook down on his mat – but Ray lumps them together in one enchanting sequence highlighting the rapidity with which their blossoming romance creeps up on them and allowing his audience to fill in the necessary gaps. In the film’s most beautiful moment, Ray’s camera wondrously captures Charu in sustained close-up as she sways back and forth on a tree swing, the camera dizzyingly swinging along with her. It’s an utterly intoxicating shot – a supreme feat of filmmaking – that fittingly conveys the unbridled joy this young woman experiences most likely for the first time.
This love, then, an outward symbol of a woman’s choice to act upon inward longing, leads Charu to begin writing just as Bhupati had hoped. She quite literally finds her own voice and even gets published in the journal that Amal only dreams of writing for. There’s both satisfaction and a bit of justified pride on Charu’s face as she points to her name in print to Amal before she hands him the copy to read. It’s a powerful moment of character development. She may have begun writing for him, but after seeing her own name in print, she becomes more confident in her own abilities – perhaps even willing to write in the future for none but herself. Meanwhile, Bhupati, oblivious to the love shared between his wife and his cousin, rejoices with his fellow colleagues when the Liberal party beats the Tories in a crucial election back in England. The newspaper man sees this as a triumph for India, perhaps a sign of increased autonomy in the nation’s future. His dedication to the idealism of Indian independence cleverly contrasts the much-needed independence for Indian women he fails to recognize within in his own home.
The growing bond between Charu and Amal inevitably comes to a grinding halt when the veil concealing trouble at work and at home is torn from Bhupati’s eyes. When he learns that his misplaced trust in Charu’s brother led the man steal from his company’s safe, he turns to Amal as the only man he can now trust. Amal’s loyalty to his cousin leads him to break ties with the one he’s grown to love and remove himself from the situation in the dead of night. His decision, though noble, doesn’t keep Bhupati from discovering their love. Devastated, Charu sobs at the side of her bed, but her husband silently witnesses her breakdown and suddenly realizes just how blind he’s been to the suffering of his lonely wife. As typical with Ray’s best work, the film, though utterly tragic in its realistic depiction of human emotion, ends with a ray of hope. Charu tears up the letter from Amal presumably allowing her heart to move on, Bhupati returns home, she invites him in extending her hand, and he reaches for hers. But, here, Ray ends his film with an initially jarring series of freeze frame shots. Their hands are outstretched – a sign that both are willing to begin repairing their broken nest. But, by freezing on the action, not allowing it completion within the shot, Ray also suggests that this healing will take longer than a typically neatly wrapped up ending conveys. Perhaps what’s most hopeful of all – amidst the love lost and trust broken – is that Charu’s position both in her home and society (with a superb writing credit to her name) may very well improve. This then is the greatest beauty of Ray’s impeccable Charulata.