Extra marital affairs were not unknown in Victorian India of 1871. Charu (Madhabi) is the bored childless wife of Bhupen, workaholic editor and owner of "The Sentinel", one of the yet faint newly emerging voices of protest against British rule. She embroiders a three petalled flower on a white piece of muslin stretched on an embroidery frame as the opening titles roll. She wanders aimlessly around the rooms of the immaculate upper class house, listening to the street sounds, observing the antics of a monkey on a string through a pair of opera glasses. Embroidery is a very apt symbol for this exquisitely delicate film. Her doting thick bearded somewhat unattractive husband emerges from another room, lost in his political journalistic reveries, oblivious of his wife's presence. But he is a kind well meaning chap and as he realizes his wife's need for company and occupation, he suggests inviting his own younger brother Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray's perennial hero, from the Apu trilogy onwards), who has just completed his studies, and has literary aspirations. And that is how the trouble starts. --the young, beautiful, intelligent bored to death wife and a handsome, poetic, romantically inclined, college pass out is inflammable stuff in the stuffiest of eras.
It is strange that this six feet five hulk of a man, Satyajit Ray, should have produced a body of work so feminine in it's texture.
Ray is at his most intoxicating in his portraiture of women. Even his favorite hero Soumitra has more of Shelley than Byron in him---he is a bubbling brook who sings a range of melodies. In Aparajito, he was a somewhat ordinary young man given to a moderation of revelries of youth who carelessly neglects his mother even as she expires in his absence. In Apur Sansar, he graduates from idealism to the tragedy of losing his deeply loved wife (Sharmila Tagore), already having lost in succession his sister, father and mother in the fist two parts of the Apu Trilogy-- and finally triumphant acceptance. Soumitra is feminine with abandonment. I suspect Ray was somewhat embarrassed with his towering frame and rough masculine, even coarse, appearance and saw in Soumitra someone he would have preferred to look like, someone who doesn't stand out like a thumb. Tagore too was six feet two. There is perhaps some food for thought in that Gandhi was was not even five feet five--he was the most manly of men and quite obsessive of his gender.
Charulata is a romantic film which hovers dangerously close to eroticism--dangerous in terms of the era it inhabits and also in terms of the Tagore-esque refinement of it's creator. One of the climaxes in the film occurs in the earlier part as the lovers never to be are in dalliance in the weedy garden where a naughtily dis-clad stone Cupid observes a poetry exchange with Madhabi on a swing. The dams of her emotion break down inexplicably in a later scene when Amol's poem is published in a respected magazine. She sobs uncontrollably. Is she lamenting her own strangulated creativity? But she has her revenge when her own short story is printed--she flings the paper at Amol, her eyes blazing in triumphant exultation.
And, in the background, the wheel of history silently rolls. Each of Ray's movies films are precisely located in a specific era of India's past and he recreates a period with poetic and masterly indirection. He is a great chronicler and passionately of native soil. He is a nightingale who sings of his land. In The Chess Players (Shatranj ke Khilari) the deadly British political game of gulping vast Indian territories is wound around the comedy of two dissipated nawabs and their errant wives. Ghare Bhaire (The Home and the World ) is towards the proposed partition of Bengal in 1909, and examines the ambiguities in the rise of nationalism, as birds of many feathers take shelter and advantage of the social turbulence. Ray brings history to life by telling stories--it is a moot question whether history or the story comes first. After all, the world, and even the British, know English history more through the series of Shakespeare's plays than what may have actually happened. In Asani Sanket (Distant Thunder), we learn of the harrowing Bengal famine of the forties artificially brought about by the diversion of rice to the troops battling the Japanese in South East Asia. It is a masterpiece of understatement as we participate in the rhythms of remote rural Bengal, and the famine is brought home through one single death. Excess is what you will never find in Ray's films.
Charulata is a delicious slice of historical cake, recounted with humor and love. Amol receives a marriage proposal propped by the carrot of higher education in England to be financed by his father in law to be. England, a magic word! The land of Shakespeare, gloats Amol , as his mouth waters. And of Macaulay, Burke and Gladstone, chimes in his brother! Even as they protest the excesses of British rule, their patriotism takes the form of hooting for the Liberal party in the British elections. Fiery Gandhi is a long way in the future and the spirit of the age is more expressed through the rather comically idealistic hymns of the anglophiliac Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who is buried in the Amos Vale cemetery in Bristol. There is little effort to hide their admiration for the English. Satyajit Ray embodies this deep dualism of Indian intelligentsia--we never seem to be able to chose between the East and the West, to this day. India has indeed been a confluence and a clash if never quite a melting pot for many and divergent civilisations, and this shimmering immiscibility of hues is what it is. It was in Bengal more than any other part of India that England and India came most closely face to face. Tagore and Ray are two pre-eminent examples of this fruitful insemination.
Ray has been on occasion compared to Shakespeare. This is not really far fetched. Shakespeare in his own words is "god's spy on earth". It is in his ability to encompass the entire range of human experience--birth, childhood, sickness, and above all, death; the seven ages of man; transcending differences between clown, king, soldier, man, woman--that he excels all other human beings. Hamlet's mind as he sets out on what is to be his final journey towards the fatal duel; the scene of the morning after when Macbeth's murder is discovered--Shakespeare straddles these incomprehensible extremities of life, even as he treats us to the exquisite social refinement of "Love's Labor Lost". Ray plays a gentler flute but his melodies recognise the secret recesses of the heart, and reach stunning crescendos. Again and again, in film after film, he soars. Ray unbares the range of human experience through the society of Bengal, the city more than the countryside, the middle and high more than the low. His sympathy is always universal.
He has a peculiar power of compressing an ocean into a drop--certain split moments which contain literally an infinity of meaning. Two such come at once to my mind. The first is from Pather Panchali. Apu is leaving his childhood home forever. His elder sister Durga has been lost to poverty and disease. He hurls into a muddy pond a lately discovered necklace, one which his late sister had stolen from a neighbour and vehemently denied having stolen. The object sinks into the slush to be covered by the floating algae. Now the little secret is theirs alone, a private jewel of memory. The past is dead, childhood is over.
Another one occurs in that other masterpiece, Jalsaghar. Bishwambar is of a an aristocracy hurtling towards economic extinction, overtaken by the newer moneyed aristocracies. A musical soiree, such as form the central passion of his days of decline, has just concluded. His much scorned lately rich neighbour Mahim is about to fling a purse towards the performer. Bishwambhar extends the hook of his walking stick to restrain Mahim forcefully by the wrist, claiming precedence as host to make the first offering. It is a stunningly dramatic moment, an assertion of dignity by a doomed man, of culture over vulgarity.
Such too is the conclusion of Charulata. Bhupati has been shamelessly defrauded by Charu's brother. And now he discovers Charu's infatuation with his own brother Amol, who has already scampered away in remorse and is on his way to England. Knowing everything, Charu extends her hand to her husband. But the hands fail to reach each other. Not yet. It is a sad moment of triumphant optimism, as if a flickering candle settles into a steady flame.