Charulata opens with a woman seemingly imprisoned, albeit in the most ornate cell you’ve ever seen. The housewife of the title (Madhabi Mukherjee) pauses from her sewing to peek out of the shutters at the world far below. She follows a man from one window to the next until he’s out of sight. Wandering to another room, she picks up a book. She sighs. It isn’t until nine minutes into the film that another person appears in the same space as her, a bearded man who walks by without taking any notice.
We eventually learn that this is Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), her husband. He cares for Charulata, though perhaps a bit less than he cares for the political newspaper he publishes from their home. He certainly considers politics more worthwhile than the artistic endeavors she enjoys – singing songs, reading literature. When his younger cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), an aspiring writer, arrives for a visit, Bhupati passes Charulata off to him to indulge her literary sensibilities. Of course the temptation to indulge more inevitably arises.
Given the social and personal structures that prevent these two from acting on their desires, Charulata in some ways resembles Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Though perhaps the films of Max Ophuls are a better comparison. Charulata is written and directed by Satyajit Ray, who is most famous for his predominantly rural Apu trilogy. Yet here and in a film like The Music Room, he also shows an understanding of the romanticism of opulence, which is what Ophuls specialized in. Like The Earrings of Madame de…, Ophuls’ masterpiece, Charulata captures the tremors of illicit emotion that lie just below gilded surfaces.
Mukherjee can conduct a three-act drama in a single close-up.
Madhabi Mukherjee, so wonderful in Ray’s The Big City, once again proves she’s capable of conducting a three-act drama in a single close-up. There is a scene in a garden in which Charulata watches Amal while she sits on a swing. As Ray provides suggestive insert shots – of the leaves on a bush, a neighbor woman with her child, Amal – Mukherjee’s expression takes us on a journey from thoughtfulness to excitability to possibility to hesitation, all without a word.
If Charulata doesn’t have quite the aching power of The Earrings of Madame de… or In the Mood for Love, it’s because of Chatterjee as the object of affection. Although he is endearingly romantic in Ray’s The World of Apu, here he plays Amal as a bit of a goof. We can understand Charulata’s attraction, but not necessarily the devotion that follows.
Charulata is also a bit overwrought compared to Ray’s other films, with its melodramatic plotting and overt symbolism (Amal and Bhupati literally arm wrestle at one point). And it ends in a dramatic flourish of freeze frame shots that feels off in terms of tone and narrative. Yet the movie still stands as an elegant example of mid-century film feminism, as well as further proof that Ray was a pioneer in the field.