Review: Charulata (1964)

Satyajit Ray reportedly regarded Charulata ‘as his finest achievement’ and it’s plain to see why. Set in late 19th century Bengal and adapted with love from a novella by Rabindranath Tagore, Ray explores the frustration of an intelligent, creative woman who is living an unfulfilled life as the wife of an ambitious journalist.

A long take of titular character Charulata (or ‘The Lonely Wife’, as the film is also known) as she carefully embroiders her husband’s first initial onto a handkerchief is the perfect way to introduce Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee). It subtly depicts her boredom and frustration while also telling us a great deal about the dynamics of the marriage with distant and workaholic husband Bhupati Dutta (Shailen Mukherjee), who is too engrossed with his newspaper, ‘The Sentinel’, to spend time with his wife.

When Bhupati’s cousin Amal arrives – in the middle of a storm, no less - Bhupati asks Amal to spend time with her to discover her writing talents. He trusts him to “guide her” and to “get her to write” without her suspecting where the interest and encouragement originates. The request is bittersweet: he knows Charu is lonely and acknowledges her talents are going to waste, and yet, he is not willing to give up his own endeavours to be with her. There is an irony here in that he is able to encourage his cousin within the first day of his arrival but hasn’t been able to do the same for his wife in all the time they have been together.

Bhupati’s ambition for the paper and his obsession with politics is blinding, but this is a seemingly accurate representation of ‘bhadralok’: middle class, respectable and educated Hindu men. Contextually, looking at the costumes and listening to the discussions about British parties and how they would have on impact on India is a fascinating insight into the ideals of a liberal Bengali man of the time, as well as suggesting how much of an impression the West made on attitudes towards nationalism and masculinity.

While Bhupati’s speeches on colonial rule are revealing, Ray’s framing of Charulata is a lot more delicate. Instead of relying on dialogue, body language and Subrata Mitra’s cinematography do the talking. Charu is often shown walking around the sparse halls of their sizeable house alone or sat on the edge of the ornate bed, and when Amal is present her smile grows gradually wider. In several scenes, Charu looks through opera style binoculars, a framing technique that not only hints at her curiosity for what lies beyond the confines of the marital home, but also allows us to see life and people from her point of view. This is a particularly powerful storytelling mechanism as her gaze adjusts and wanders.

In a beautiful scene set in the garden, Amal and Charu bond over prose, poetry and song. Charu finds the intellectual stimulation and attention she has been craving in Amal, and this is displayed as she sways back and forth on the swing freely. The close up shot of her face as she sings and swings is one of contentment and while it may provide some practical respite from the stifling Calcutta heat, the motion itself could also symbolise the movement of a pendulum and the passing of time, which is particularly relevant for Charu since she is constantly trying to find ways to fill it within her largely idle domestic existence. This is a motif we have seen before with the swinging bird cage during the storm, but instead of being trapped and longing for emancipation, Charu finds ecstasy in her moment of realisation and it is absolutely sublime to watch.

Audiences in 1964 may have been shocked to witness a middle-class Hindu woman straying from her husband. However, Ray’s direction is so sensitive and delicate that the onus is on emotional attachment rather than intense sexual tension, and the portrayal is always sympathetic to Charu’s frustration and longing rather than damning of a potential betrayal.

The film is categorised on IMDB as a drama and a romance, and although the relationship between Charu and Amal does feel intimate and have the beginnings of an amorous bond due to the lingering focus on their exchanges, literature is romanticised more than any human connection. Charulata and Bhupati each represent a different school of thought when it comes to reading, writing and language: it would be much easier for the former to embrace modernity and leave behind literary tradition, but Charu remains an advocate for indigenous fiction, while Bhupati favours masculine commentary written in English which allows him to express his opinion to the masses and criticise the government in print. As a way of highlighting double stardards, Bhupati displays such delight at seeing his piece on the front page of ‘The Sentinel’, yet this pride is entirely lacking for his wife’s published piece of fiction in an established magazine.

Satyajit Ray’s Charulata has universal appeal because of its themes of forbidden love and the understandable restlessness of a woman who is under-appreciated. Bhupati takes Charu's happiness for granted - the misguided assumption that being married to him and living an affluent life is enough for her is conveyed with a masterful flair and respect for the characters (and all whom they represent). It is a very astute commentary and criticism of Victorian patriarchy and all the suffocating 'norms' that come with it.

Not to mention the film ends ambiguously in a poignant freeze-frame as the source material's name, 'The Broken Nest' appears on screen, leaving the delicate character relations in the balance for the audience to speculate over. Its consistently restrained use of speech and melodrama all helps to contribute to the realism Ray is revered for, while the subtle tracking shots of Charulata really allow us to understand life and love from her perspective. Charu may be somewhat confined by societal expectations and gender roles - and many of these still remain today - but as a result of her experiences throughout the film, we are left with a certain hope that freedom on her terms is at least a possibility.


Verdict: Satyajit Ray explores the impact of marital negligence during the Bengali Renaissance with elegance and empathy. With political undertones and an extremely subtle romance, Charaluta highlights the power of human connection and the importance of intellectual stimulation for all.

Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚📚


This post is part of #SatyajitCinemaWeek - an event to celebrate the works of Indian artist and filmmaker Satyajit Ray and to mark the occasion of his 100th birth anniversary.

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