Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), or “Charu” as she is affectionately called, lives the privileged life of the Bengali upper class in the late nineteenth century. She is highly intelligent and creative, but her social status limits her opportunities for personal growth, and she is left with empty diversions that provide little challenge: embroidering handkerchiefs, managing the servants, observing people in the street through a pair of opera glasses. Her husband, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), an idealistic intellectual, is adoring and supportive, but is consumed by the publication of his new political newspaper – his “second wife” – and is unable to spend more time at home to be with her. In a deceptively innocuous scene, Satyajit Ray subtly exposes Bhupati’s marital complacency when he literally passes by Charulata twice without noticing her. Charulata, disappointed by his unintentional snub, watches him walk down the hallway through the opera glasses. The camera zooms out, as if to reflect the growing distance between them. In an attempt to keep Charulata occupied, Bhupati sends his sister-in-law, Manda (Gitali Roy), who is content with passing the time by playing card games and engaging in idle chatter. When Bhupati’s younger cousin, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), a recent college graduate and aspiring writer, comes to visit, Bhupati enlists him to help cultivate Charulata’s interest in literature. Charulata has an immediate connection with Amal, seeing him as an intellectual peer who shares a common love for the arts, and encourages Amal to pursue his writing. The two become inseparable, spending their afternoons in the garden – Amal writing in his journal, and Charulata playing on the swing. In an understated, yet emotionally revealing scene, Charulata teasingly spots a spelling error on Amal’s writing with her opera glasses, turns away to see a mother and child at a window, then solemnly looks back to observe Amal’s profile. Figuratively, she sees Amal from a different perspective, and realizes the impossibility of the situation.
Charulata is an exquisitely shot, sublimely haunting, and emotionally complex film on the nature of human relationships. At the heart of the conflict are three well-intentioned, sympathetic protagonists – Bhupati, Charulata, and Amal – who clearly love and respect each other, but realize that their individual actions have led to an unforeseeable, yet inevitable emotional betrayal. Satyajit Ray does not dilute the gravity of the situation with an act of adultery or violence, but with the subtle gaze of crushing realization and the heartbreaking weight of consequence: Charulata’s concealed apprehension at Amal’s arranged marriage proposal; Amal’s guilt-ridden, sideways glance to Charulata as Bhupati reveals his business problems involving a relative; Bhupati’s lone carriage ride. In the remarkable final shot (inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) of Bhupati and Charulata’s hands frozen in mid grasp, the words “The Ruined Nest” appear: the title of Rabindranath Tagore’s short novel on which the film was based. It is a poignant reminder that life cannot continue as before – that something has been irretrievably lost from the relationship – and all that can be salvaged are the fragments of human decency that remain… the polite gesture.
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