Charulata (1964)

Charulata

Satyajit Ray, 1964
Runtime: 117 minutes
Language: Bengali, with some English
Starring: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sailen Mukherjee, Syamal Ghosal

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Synopsis from The Criterion Collection:
Satyajit Ray’s exquisite story of a woman’s artistic and romantic yearning takes place in late nineteenth-century, pre-independence India, in the gracious home of a liberal-minded, workaholic newspaper editor and his lonely wife, Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee). When her husband’s poet cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee) comes to stay with them, Charulata finds herself both creatively inspired and dangerously drawn to him. Based on a novella by the great Rabindranath Tagore, Charulata is a work of subtle textures, a delicate tale of a marriage in jeopardy and a woman taking the first steps toward establishing her own voice.

Lauren: There are a few reasons I wanted this to be the first film we watched together for the blog.

It’s appropriate to kick things off with a work by one of India’s most legendary filmmakers. I also wanted a film that, despite being made by a very famous director, does not yet share the fame or cultural import of a work like Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy [Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959)].

I also find it appealing that the titular character is a woman. Furthermore, I had seen Charulata once before. I wanted a chance to reflect on my feelings after a second viewing. Especially after gaining new insight from you. There is nuance and context there that isn’t going to be as immediate or obvious to me as it is to you.

You had a very strong reaction to the film.

Gaurav: I did.

For me this is a film about creation. About energy. And how in this world, in this time [ed: late 19th century Calcutta], men and women express it differently and the limits of that.

It’s about space. Space within the home.How these men and women occupy themselves and how they create and add to their environment. And subsequently how they are perceived in these spaces. How Britain views the Indian subject. How men view women and their role in society. And it gets so personal and narrow. In politics. In home. In husband/wife. In family. In poetry/business.

It’s like a Russian doll.

We see things get smaller and more constrained.

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Lauren: The film does take on a progressively tighter sensibility as it moves toward its conclusion. Not claustrophobic, but very nearly.

I’m curious how you feel about how the film presents the respective societal roles of Indian men and Indian women. As well as how Indian men and Indian women view each other. Do those values function differently – in the vacuum of the film as a work of pure Indian cinema – from how they might function beyond the scope of Indian cinema?

Gaurav: This film is very revolutionary. As you stated to me at one point, its protagonist is a married woman. She does not have children. And she is a writer.

Let’s use this idea of revolution.

Bhupati [Charulata’s husband, portrayed by Sailen Mukherjee] uses his writing – through the newspaper and printing press he runs out of his home – to preach liberal political ideas about India as a nation, as well as what it means to be an Indian subject.

This, to Bhupati, is revolution. But it’s complicated. On one hand, he desires freedom. On the other hand, he idealizes Britain. He loves the city of London and speaks of it longingly. You start to see that the freedom he desires is in fact a very white type of freedom. He wears western clothing. He looks to technology, like the printing press, as a tool in revolution.

That’s a big contrast to how others in the film fight revolution. Charulata and Amal [Bhupati’s cousin, played by Soumitra Chatterjee] occupy a more poetic space. Both look to pen and ink when they write.They express revolution through mediums like poetry and singing.

Charulata and Amal’s India seems more in touch with art than with politics. When we see how Charulata enters that revolutionary space through her art, as a woman, it’s very revolutionary. We see her daydream of the subjects that she eventually writes about: there are images of an older woman, which I perceive as a Mother India type of figure. We also see images of people working the fields; we see food; it’s rustic and bucolic. In a sense, it’s anti-technology or moreover, anti-colonial. Charulata’s India feels more like the India before imperialist Britain arrived with its technological trappings.

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Lauren: Bhupati, in contrast to Charulata and Amal, loves his printing press. He talks about it with affection. With more affection and more love than he talks about Charulata. Pen and paper are forms of technology, but the printing press’s origins are Western. That’s significant because the invention of the printing press is also what led to what the historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson coined “print capitalism.”

Print capitalism made books more accessible, brought ideas and symbolic knowledge and power to those who otherwise had no power at all, and accelerated the pace of literacy. Print capitalism, by its very nature, bled into every corner of the world. The imperialist implications go without saying. Those with access to a printing press had access to the means of creating and controlling information and therefore symbolic power. Likewise, anyone who is literate has access to information that would otherwise be nearly inaccessible if they were illiterate.

But literacy, reading, writing… those things don’t require a printing press. Like with Amal and Charulata, you can still express ideas and spread revolution without relying on imperialist technology.  Amal and Charulata, therefore, are more aligned with populism. Bhupati may think he is a populist revolutionary, but it’s not evident in the way he operates. Bhupati = imperialism, capitalism, the ruling class. Amal/Charulata = art, poetry, populism, the everyperson.

I still don’t even think the split is that basic. But it’s a contrast in the film that you can’t really overlook. For example, when Bhupati descries to Charulata in one of the film’s early moments: “The idle rich. I intend to prove them wrong – just having money doesn’t make you lazy, does it?”

Who is the ‘them’? Who does Bhupati feel is mocking him as being a member of the idle rich? Is he talking about people who might relate more to Amal and Charulata‘s use of art as revolution? I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Gaurav: I think this is a class sentiment that is not just specific to whiteness or the people of India who live under imperialism, it’s something that even before Britain was a thing within the caste system. And we see it play out in subtle ways, like with the other wife [Charulata’s sister-in-law Manda] who cannot read and who also has no interest in politics. But is interested in power and money. We see how revolution plays out within the home, marital discord, corruption from within.

Lauren: Yes. Charulata’s sister in law, Manda. She sticks out to me. Like when Amal asks her, “Manda, are you a traditional woman or a modern woman?” Manda ignores his question and informs Amal that if he doesn’t want to play a card game with her, he should leave.

Gaurav: Bhupati is trying to prove his relevance. To establish his position in society, in the home, with his peers, with Britain. It’s him living under imperialism and working within those constraints with his class privilege.

Say what you will about all his other faults when it comes to marriage, he is trying to do something with his wealth. Bhupati does have a vision. It’s just a misguided vision. It’s narrow and oriented to the wrong place.

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Lauren: What do you think Bhupati’s endgame is?

Liberation for India? Or approval, by both other Indians and the British? Doesn’t there seem to be vanity at the center of what he does? Despite his words trying to describe something to the contrary? That it’s about politics and revolution?

It seems like the only politics, for Bhupati, are the politics of being respected and renowned by those in power.

Gaurav: I don’t think it’s vanity. I think it’s pride.

I feel like at his core, Bhupati is a man who knows what tools he has at his disposal and he’s using them as he sees fit. He has this wealth, he has these ideas, he sees a space for him to carve out his own revolutionary theory, he’s influenced heavily by these other writers. We see that in the early scenes where he and Charulata are discussing art, poetry, fiction and non-fiction books. This goes back to him using, at his core, imperialism and capitalism to fight revolution.

Yet it’s a fight against himself. And against India.

We see this again when Charulata’s brother in law steals Bhupati’s money.

That theft is symbolic of India to me. It’s symbolic of imperialism. Rottenness as its core. Greed and division intersecting at home, at business, in marriage.

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Lauren: So, we don’t see where Bhupati is from. But we can assume, from how he speaks, that he has only ever known wealth. This is also where I’d like some of your input on the caste system.

We do see Charulata, at one point, playing with a kaleidoscope. We later see her daydreaming on the swing. And a riot of images that go back to what we assume are her childhood- a village, celebrations, a much older woman who may be Charulata’s mother or grandmother. (The riot of images reminds me of the riot of shapes we see in the kaleidoscope. I appreciated the parallel imagery, as if to show that Charulata’s mind is a living and breathing organ of ever shifting visions and memory.)

Charulata seems to know a humble past that Bhupati doesn’t; a life that isn’t caged in by four marble walls.

I can’t remember, but, intermarriage between castes? Can you help me out here? Women can marry up, was always how I understood it.

Gaurav: Yes, exactly, she can marry up, and this is a time where dowry is still very relevant.

But I get a sense that she is close to his wealth. She’s educated, she is comfortable with that wealth.

Lauren: Well, we know she’s educated. But there is a modest, pastoral beginning there. Or am I misunderstanding her childhood in the village?

Gaurav: I feel like that might be her childhood but it might also just be a nostalgia for a simpler India. A time before the trappings of British capitalism and excess.

The first few minutes of the film, we watch her inside her bedroom. Quietly observing, out her window, manual labor. We see her seeing other people just moving. It feels like all of that – the ability to move freely – is alien to her, though it could just be that she envies their freedom.

She’s in her gilded cage.

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Lauren: Amal asks her to write about the village where she grew up. (Again, am I running with the use of the word ‘village’ and thinking of it as a place that would be outside a city where the inhabitants are more likely to be of lesser economic means?)

I also wondered if it was her feeling that those people were more free.

Simply because they could move through open space.

Gaurav: You know what, I forgot about that. Let’s rewatch that sequence [ed: sequence begins at 1hr12m].

Lauren: We see a spindle; we see the act of hand-weaving thread into textiles.

We see a bird in the cage. Which we also see again, later, outside Charulata’s window. 

Gaurav: Yes. We see people outside her window that are working and laboring, but we see that cage hanging in the near distance, too.

Lauren: What celebration might this be?

Gaurav: It feels very much like Diwali, actually. A fight against evil.

Lauren: Is she writing in Bengali?

Gaurav: I think so. It’s not a script I recognize as Hindi.

Lauren: I’d like to know more about how often women were published in India at that time.

It’s really badass that she got published. But I wonder about the gender politics that may actually be overlooked by Satyajit Ray because, at the end of the day, he’s still a male filmmaker. Something to meditate on for the second part of our discussion of this film.

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Gaurav: We’ve established how so much of this film is about creation, a revolution, a commentary on India operating within the trappings of imperialism.

Let’s talk about what the film’s ending says, then, if we take this thesis all the way.

There is a critical moment in the film. Bhupati entrusts the safe with his newspaper business’s money to Umapada, Charulata’s brother. Umapada plots to and eventually steals the money, running away with his wife Manda.

Bhupati has now been victimized in his political/business life. His own brother in law has victimized him.

This is how capitalism ruins things. Imperialism infects this family and this marriage. It creates discord. The only love we see that is a good love is the love between Amal and Charulata. But that love isn’t allowed. It’s not allowed under the system of capitalism that this house represents.

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Lauren: What is at risk? That’s what I want to know.

Gaurav: For Bhupati and Charulata? Or Amal and Charulata?

Lauren: What does each character fear, in light of this love between Charu and Amal? What does it make Bhupati fear? What does it make Charulata fear? What does it make Amal fear? What do they truly fear, at their core. And what is truly at risk. Perhaps even, versus what is actually at risk.

If there is a difference.

Which there may or may not be.

Is this about conceptions of marriage and family? Is it about a value system or moral code?

If so, what defines those?

Gaurav: I see this as a film that explores how imperialism and capitalism enter into the domestic sphere. It plays out with politics and art as opposing forces.

We see how men and women handle it differently.

And we see it play out in a family drama.

That’s the larger frame I’m seeing.

So the ending is fascinating because we have Charulata repairing the conflict of capitalism/imperialism. She brings politics and art together again.

Lauren: Right. I don’t disagree. But what is the value system that is being affected by imperialism? What is the actual value at threat?

I’m not questioning that it is threatening it. I’m trying to understand – anthropologically – what is threatened.

Gaurav: There’s this idea of India and it’s bound up in art/writing.

This is what Ray ends on. Charulata’s art, her poetry is brought into the political realm.

And we see this as a way to heal.

It’s healing a nation that is broken by toxic ideas of what is proper, of what is civilized. We see this tested in a marriage where things like honor, truth, honesty, goodness, this is the morality that is being tested.

Faith.

Lauren: Yes. Fidelity.

Gaurav: An India that is harmed by larger political violence. Healed by art, and by a woman who asserts herself in the domestic space, who gains agency.

Lauren: I think you nailed it.

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