Five decades of Ray's Charulata - A Tribute!
harulata, perhaps, is the most hotly debated, variedly interpreted, widely discussed and critically questioned among Satyajit Ray’s films. They continue to shed new light on the film. Ray’s Charulata (1964) is based on Nastaneer (The Broken Nest) a novelette of around 80 pages, written by Tagore in 1901.
Its translator, Mary M. Lago, describes it as “one of Tagore’s best works of fiction." The story of the film and the original literary piece takes place in 1879, at a time when the Bengal Renaissance was almost at its peak.. In Charu of Charulata, Ray probably discovered the crystallization of the Indian woman, poised between tradition and modernity. Intelligent, sensitive, graceful and serene, Charu was a traditional woman whose psyche imbibed unto itself, waves from the world outside.
It was changing, and below, in the drawing room, her British-influenced husband Bhupati was celebrating the victory of the Liberals in Britain. Nineteenth Century Western social philosophy and Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas were constantly working towards the liberation of women.
In his writings, Ray has stressed the visual essence of cinema. In one of the more familiar passages, he claims that he looks for visual transitions between shots rather than speech or sound connections. While defending his adaptations of classics, he comes back to this question to explain the liberties taken with literary texts. In Charulata Prasange, Ray gives a minutely detailed account of the processes a literary narrative must go through if one is to acknowledge the specificities of the film medium.
For Charu, writing covers a wide horizon of spaces, as follows:
- She explores the cerebral spaces of her intellect and her creativity through the very act of writing;
- She explores the emotional spaces of time and memory through her choice of subject – “My Village;
- She transcends the geographical and social spaces a housewife like her is confined to – by sending off her article to a prestigious publication like Biswabandhu;
- She appropriates her own space in a completely different time, place and social setting without leaving her original time-place-social world – with her article and her byline printed in the pages of Biswabandhu;
- She demonstrates complete control over this self-created space by declaring that she will never write again.
The film almost wallows in the proliferation of references to authors of all kinds – Taraknath Gangopadhyay, Rammohan Roy, Shakespeare, Byron, Steele, Emerson. It also introduces the author Tagore himself into the story – through his songs –constantly hummed, sung, or played in the background. On the last freeze shot, the name of the original story is superimposed in one corner of the frame, - Nastaneer, Does this suggest that the ‘broken nest’ will take on from this point because it appears where other films have the “The End” sign? Is it a suggestion of the ‘end’ of Charulata and the ‘beginning’ of Nastaneer? Where the ‘woman’ ends and the breaking of her ‘nest’ begins? There is this clear picture of the process in which the literary sign actually produces the visual instead of the word being used to ‘explain’ the image, either before, or during, or after the image flashes on screen.
“Charu in Charulata, was, like Ray, her own person. Her behaviour was divested of all sordidness,” said Shyam Benegal. The opening sequence of the film, where Charu searches desultorily in her parlour for a book to read, is quickly distracted by a sound from the street. She amuses herself with watching the scene below through her opera glasses – a fat man waddle past under her window. Ray deftly, with his trademark economy – described the whole of her cloistered existence..
In Charulata, Ray uses a whole array of ‘feminine’ objects and turns them around to mean different things at different times. The handkerchief with the delicately embroidered ‘B’ and the pair of slippers Charu was embroidering for Bhupati (but later presented to Amal) are ironical comments on the hypocrisy within a feudal marriage by negotiation where the man and woman are totally unmatched. The lorgnette’s use has been explained in detail already. The paan and the paan-box reveal Charu’s fiercely possessive feelings for Amal and offer her an excuse to ‘touch’ him by stuffing his mouth with paan. The swing too, generally associated with women during the time-place setting of the film, is heavy with meaning and yet, never appears loaded. It connotes a change in pace, rhythm and movement in Charu’s life. Later, when she sits on the swing alone, she uses it as her ‘thinking-prop’ so to say, as she draws from childhood memories to write her first – and last – article.
Ray introduces the ‘wind’ in the form of a storm, three times in the film, each time, linking it in some way, to Charu and Amal. From afar, one can hear the shattering of glass somewhere, when Amal arrives, and again in the end, when Charu reads the letter and breaks down. And nothing is the same any more. Not for Charu alone. But for all of us who identify with her pain knowing fully well that it is not our own.