The Broken Nest: Satyajit Ray’s Charulata reassessed

With the recent restoration of Charulata appearing in cinemas, Yasmeen Khan takes the opportunity to review Satyajit Ray's work through the prism of his best known film

Of all Satyajit Ray’s films, his 1964 domestic drama Charulata (The Lonely Wife) was famously his personal favourite, the only one he would have made the same way again if he’d had the chance. Now, on its 50th anniversary, the BFI’s release of a newly restored Charulata offers an opportunity to rediscover Ray’s luminous masterpiece. Given his own preference for it, it also invites us to consider what Charulata can tell us about the rest of Ray’s oeuvre. No one film could be fully representational, of course – Ray was a polymath with an incredibly varied career. As well as the dramas he’s best known for, he produced documentaries, comedies, and genre films, as well as children’s literature, film criticism, art, music, calligraphy and graphic design. But Charulata, made at his peak, has all the quintessential elements that Ray’s known for – lyricism, ineffable beauty, pathos, wonderfully drawn characters – and exemplifies some important thematic strands, and so it makes a perfect lens through which to view some of the films he was, by his own account, less satisfied with.

Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) is frustrated by her role in life. Materially, she’s immensely privileged – as the wife of a wealthy man, she lives in luxury, waited on by servants, with nothing to do but embroider nice things for her kind, loving, but slightly absent husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee). But boredom has left her feeling like just another one of the lovely things that decorate her beautiful home. She catches tantalising glimpses of the world outside through her opera glasses, listening to birdsong and the voice of the kulfi seller, but these only fuel her loneliness and dissatisfaction. Bhupati, sensitive to his wife’s feelings but misguided to the point of naivety, invites his feckless but charming cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) into their home. All three are interested in writing, but it divides them. Bhupati runs a newspaper, he’s passionate about politics. To him, London means Gladstone and Parliament. But to student Amal, it signifies Shakespeare and Byron. Both he and Charu are those trademark Ray characters, poets and story writers, and it’s with Amal’s encouragement rather than Bhupati’s that Charu begins to actively pursue writing as a creative outlet. The simple but powerful drama that plays out can be compared to Ibsen, Henry James, EM Forster, Chekhov – it’s the endlessly recurring literary theme of the love triangle in its repressed, Victorian mode, and in this peaceful, lovely home, with its richly textured subtleties of atmosphere, Ray’s built the perfect container for it.

Charulata is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s 1901 novel Nastanirh (The Broken Nest). Ray decided to set Charulata earlier, in 1880. For a drama that takes place entirely in the home, you might wonder why he bothered, but Anglo-Indian politics of the time are essential, not only as fuel for Bhupati’s passion for newspaper publishing, but as context for Ray’s expression of his themes. It’s all very Victorian. Charu’s attraction to Amal is inevitable only because it’s the production of her circumstances, not because some kind of independent destiny is pushing them together, as modern romantic tropes would have it. And on some level, she knows this. Charu constructs an idealised version of Amal to fall in love with, rather than the slightly silly dreamer he really is. The drama plays out in a series of yearning looks, long garden afternoons and avoidance, and repressed desires are sublimated into writing, and social convention is almost all-powerful.

Charulata’s characters may be of their time, at least in a literary sense, but they are also indisputably Ray characters, variations on types he used over and over. Nowadays, writers worry about creating ‘strong female characters’, and sometimes even get as far as ‘female characters as complex as male ones can be’. Ray’s women are better than ‘strong’. They are complex, sad, conflicted, lonely, capricious, frustrated, egotistical. They are often submissive and confined to the home, but they’re creative and they push for change. It’s called the Apu Trilogy, but Apu’s mother Sarbajaya is the main character in Pather Panchali (1955) and arguably in Aparajito (1956) too – the films are as much about her grief and frustrated dreams as they are about Apu’s coming of age. Charu has a lot in common with Sarbajaya, as she does with Arati in Mahanagar (1963, also played by Madhabi Mukherjee) who upsets the status quo by deciding to take a job. Ray’s men – Bhupati, Amal, Apu and his father, Arati’s husband Subrata, Somnath in Jana Araya (1976) – are sensitive, passive, mild, empathetic, emotionally astute, sometimes naive, academic, charming, loving; good-natured dreamers, who don’t worry about material things, but find expression in work and creativity too. Crucially, they usually lack the inner dissatisfaction that drives his women. The sadness that dreamer Biswambhar Roy in Jalsaghar (1958) suffers is passive, not motivational. There’s extreme pathos in Ray’s portraits of men.

Charulata’s plot is polished, contained and beautiful in its elegant simplicity – it’s Ray stripped of superfluity and compromise, and the emotion, always present, is here more concentrated and distilled as a result. His trademark mastery of atmosphere is still present, of course, but here it’s in service of the plot, rather than being almost an end in itself as it was in many of his films. But in achieving the perfection and profundity of Charulata, Ray sacrificed something too. The charm the Apu films, Devi, Mahanagar and others find in children, elderly people and animals, that sense of playfulness, is absent. It’s part of the point that the film has no place for the sprawling, open feeling of discovering the world outside the home, be it the natural world of animals and birds and wide open spaces that infuses so much joy and wonder into Pather Panchali or the Kolkata of work and feminine camaraderie in Mahanagar. Charu’s garden is a richly magical place, her respite, where she dreams, but it’s also entirely enclosed.

Charulata also represents a paradox a modern audience for Ray must confront. His work feels intensely Indian, indeed, it contributes to how we construct ideas about 20th-century India; but there’s a huge amount of Western influence in it, and this is a political issue. Ray saw himself as “in a way, a kind of product of East and West”, and like Tagore before him, was very influential in bringing Indian culture to a Western audience. He made his first feature, Pather Panchali after seeing the films of Renoir and De Sica; Ravi Shankar, another great exponent of Indian culture, provided the wonderful music. European influence is woven throughout his work, in theme and imagery, music and detail, as inextricable as the mark it left on India as a whole.

Ray portrayed people of every class; the poor, the impoverished middle classes, the modern well-to-do, like the holidaymakers in Kanchenjunga (1962), and the rich, like the old-money estate owner and new-money businessman of Jalsaghar. But wealth is a complication in Charulata. Although Bhupati’s wealth is part of the bubble of Charu’s isolation, it also allows him the luxury of political opinions. Realistic portrayal of a poor country, or problematic post-colonial classism? Watching Charulata, the paradoxes in its “Indian-ness” may feel impossible to resolve – but perhaps the film offers its own answer in Bhupati’s speeches, suggesting that Indian views of Europe are as constructed as European ones of India, and that a work of art is allowed to be more than one thing.

Charulata’s emotional universality is simple, but in no way simplistic. Critics have bemoaned the slowness of Ray’s films, but it’s one of the best things about them. In allowing his stories their breathing space, Ray offers us the chance to feel at our own pace. This sensibility is by no means unique to Ray, of course, filmmakers everywhere have always done this, but each has their own peculiar context. A Ray pause has a different quality from an Ozu pause, say, or a Tarkovsky pause. It’s why his work is so worth discovering (or rediscovering). No one film can sum up his entire career, nor would you wish one to; but this new restoration of Charulata provides a perfect introduction to Ray’s work, and a fantastic opportunity to see this beautiful film on a big screen, as it deserves.

Charulata is in selected cinemas now

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