Charulata: Criterion Collection
August 20, 2013
Often regarded as Satyajit Ray’s greatest film, Charulata (1964) is an adaptation of his mentor Rabindranath Tagore’s 1901 novella Nastawirth (The Broken Nest), a story inspired by the author’s relationship with his sister-in-law who mysteriously committed suicide. Ray had been a student of Tagore’s during the last year of the man’s life and considered the novella a personal favorite and making the film a labor of love.
Set in 1880s Kolkata, the Bengali Renaissance is peaking with the educated middle class seeking India’s independence from the British Empire. These notions are examined in a liberal English-language weekly newspaper called the Sentinel. It is owned and edited by a kind man named Bhupatinath Dutta (Shailen Mukherjee). However, his commitment to political causes (and the newspaper) comes at the expense of his beautiful and intelligent wife Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee).
Ray does an excellent job of introducing Charu and her privileged, but routine world in a nearly dialogue-free first ten minutes. He tells us so much through visual storytelling, which is just one of the reasons why he’s considered an important filmmaker. She’s lonely, but resigned herself to it, knowing how important her husband’s work is to him. He’s really not a bad guy and does truly love his wife.
Sensing her restlessness, Bhupati invites Charu’s brother Umpada (Ghosal) and his wife Mandakini (Roy) to keep her company. He’s the black sheep of her family and his wife does not hold Charu’s interest. It isn’t until the unexpected arrival of Bhupati’s young cousin Amal (Chatterjee) shows up, that she is pleasantly rescued from her tedious, day-to-day existence. He’s an aspiring poet and a colorful character as well as Charu’s intellectual equal. Naturally, an attraction develops between them.
Charulata provides fascinating insight into the lives of India’s middle class and explores their desire to be free of British rule. However, this is merely the backdrop to the relationships between the various characters, most poignantly, Amal and Charu. The cast is uniformly excellent with Madhabi Mukherjee particularly memorable as the titular character. She brings an engaging intelligence to the role as well as a beauty that makes it easy to see why Amal is drawn to Charu. Ray has created an intriguing love triangle and populated it with characters that tell us as much about their culture as themselves.
“Interviews with the Actors” features Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee giving their impressions of Ray – how much they respected him as an artist – and how they got involved in the film. Naturally, they talk at length about their respective characters.
“Adapting Tagore” features Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas and Bengali cultural historian Supriya Chaudhuri examine Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s novella. They provide a brief background on Ray’s roots in cinema and Tagore’s role in Indian culture. This extra provides fascinating insights into the film.
Finally, there is “Satyajit Ray on Progress,” a 1966 audio interview that features Ray talking about the recurring theme of progress in his films, specifically Charulata.