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Charulata (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on September 3, 2013

As I was trying to figure out what angle I would take in this review, I hit upon the idea of riffing on the first minutes.  Then I read the essay in Criterion’s Blu-Ray booklet and was disheartened to see that the author spent two paragraphs doing just that.  And furthermore, one of the supplements on the disc spends quite a bit of time dissecting the opening as well.  But to hell with it, I’m going ahead with it anyway.  There are no original ideas left anyway.

The opening credits are shown over the image of a pair of hands embroidering the letter “B” on a handkerchief.  We will later learn that this is for the title character’s husband, Bhupati.  He will receive the gift with delight, but wonder how his wife could find the time.  He is clearly out of touch with Charulata’s day-to-day living.  The scene also emphasizes the importance of the letter to the story, as writing plays a key role for all three of the major players, as well as defining their relationships to each other.

The credits stop and we see the hands belong to Charulata, played by Madhabi Mukherjee.  Besides being — in my opinion — one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen, Mukherjee is an incredibly expressive and restrained actress, saying volumes with her eyes.  It’s a shame that she did only three films with Satyajit Ray (all now, thankfully, beautifully restored in high-definition by Criterion).

Charulata calls out to Braja, a household servant.  Braja remains unseen throughout the opening, and it will be several minutes before Charu (“The Lonely Wife”, to use the film’s international title) shares space with anyone onscreen.  The presence of a servant establishes that this is a wealthy household, further solidified by a fluid tracking shot revealing more of the home as Charu goes looking for Braja.

In her travels through the house, we see a caged bird.  It’s not the most graceful of metaphors, but it’s used subtly and sparingly.

Charulata lays down her embroidery, and it’s clear that this was one of a series of unrewarding endeavors.  She picks up a book, leafs through it without interest, and goes to the library to fetch another one.  The shots expose more of the well-appointed estate.  She selects a novel by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, while singing his name (“Bankim… Bankim…”).  Bankim Chandra was a tremendously successful author of the time, and discussion of his romantic works later in the film will highlight the differing mindsets of the three principals.

The camera follows the back of her neck as she slowly walks, reading.  She arrives at the window and opens the slats.  The idea of people-watching immediately appeals to her, and she races to collect her opera glasses.  She returns to the windows.  The outline of the slats separates her from the outside world, except in the POV shots of her gaze at passersby.  She fixates on one particular gentleman and follows his progress from window to window.  Until he disappears out of her sight.

Bored and lonely again, her connection to humanity broken, she wanders around the room, absent-mindedly touching familiar objects.  It is here that we first hear the strains of her gorgeous theme, composed by Ray himself (and later incorporated into the soundtrack for Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited as the musical motif for the “Rita” character).  A circular, pulsing, rising and falling melody.

The music fades out as Charulata sits at the piano and half-heartedly strikes a pair of notes.  She hears creaking.  It is her husband, Bhupati, played by Shailen Mukherjee.  His head is down, lost in thought as walks past the room where Charu is sitting, oblivious to her presence.  This scene may seem to establish Bhupati as cold and indifferent, but Ray rarely portrays a character in such shallow dimensions.  As the film progresses, he will emerge as a very sympathetic character, aware of his neglect.

But for now, he is in his own world.  Charulata stands in the doorway and he walks past again, but his head is buried in a book and he doesn’t show her a hint of acknowledgement as he passes within inches of her.  She studies his back, and once again lifts the opera glasses to her eyes.  Another POV shot as he descends the stairs, vanishing out of her eyeline, as distant to her as a stranger on the street.  A closeup shot shows her lowering the glasses, her face a somewhat inscrutable mixture of indifference and dejection.  And in the most startling camerawork of the sequence, a rapid zoom out reveals her in full figure, arms crossed in front of her hips, quietly seething.  The promise of a break in her loneliness shattered.  Rating: Masterpiece (99)


2 Responses to “Charulata (rewatch)”

  1. […] 41. Charulata (1964, Satyajit Ray) […]

  2. […] 19. Charulata (1964, Satyajit Ray) […]

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