… and some random comparisons with Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.
This Satyajit Ray film had been lying in my to-watch pile for a long time. Then, I learnt a few days back that the Indian government had finally decided to award a Dadasaheb Phalke to Soumitra Chatterjee for his contribution to Indian cinema. Better late than never, I guess (even though a number of people have said that it’s too late). The announcement, however, did give me a solid reason to watch Charulata (aka The Lonely Wife). And I ended up wanting to hit myself for not having seen this masterpiece earlier.
The central character—the eponymous ‘Charulata’—is Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee), the wife of the wealthy Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee). We first see Charu on what seems to be a routine afternoon at home. It’s a luxurious, beautiful home in the Calcutta of 1879: intricate painted glass panels on the doors, chandeliers, marble-topped tables. Everything shouts wealth, but also taste.
And in this comfortable home, Charu sits, idly embroidering her husband’s initials on a handkerchief. She wanders about, looking out on the street from between the shutters of the windows, or opening the cupboard to pull out a book by her favourite author, Bankim. There is a palpable feeling of ennui. Charu is alone—for the first few minutes of the film, we don’t even see anyone else in the house, though she calls to a servant, Brojo, to take the master his tea at 4 o’clock.
The ‘master’, Bhupati, is—as we already know—a moneyed man. But, as he points out to Charu at dinner, not one of the ‘idle rich’, as they’re described contemptuously. Rich, yes. Idle, certainly not. Bhupati owns and runs a newspaper called The Sentinel. The Sentinel is Bhupati and his views in print: strictly political, opposing the government and its high-handed ways, standing for truth and honesty and representation for the Indian people in government.
The Sentinel keeps Bhupati busy day and night. He has no time for Charu, and seems to meet her only when he finally comes home at night for dinner—and even then, he spends his time trying to convince her of the importance of politics. It isn’t that Bhupati doesn’t love Charu; he obviously regards her with affection, even if he cannot understand her lack of interest in politics, or why she prefers novels, stories and poems to political treatises.
It is this affection that makes Bhupati acknowledge that Charu, sitting all alone at home through the day, is bored and lonely. So he’s decided to invite her brother, Umapada (Syamal Ghosal) to come and work for The Sentinel. Umapada has been a failure as a lawyer, and could do with a job. Plus, Bhupati needs someone to help him out with managing the newspaper—Umapada can do that.
She is. Or is she? Manda is illiterate, perhaps somewhat childish, too. For her, the most interesting pastime seems to be a game of cards—which, as is soon apparent, bores Charu to death, because the game they play doesn’t even require brains; just mere luck (though Manda insists it also requires willpower, of which she claims to have plenty).
One day, out of the blue, a young cousin of Bhupati’s turns up at home. 23-year old Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) has just finished his college exams, and both Bhupati and Charu are pleasantly surprised to see him. Bhupati immediately drags Amal off to the office of The Sentinel to show off his brainchild (and, as Bhupati laughingly admits, “Charu’s rival”). Amal jokingly calls The Sentinel’s stance on politics “Sedition!” and refuses to be involved in any of it when Bhupati invites him to join the newspaper.
The scene is full of camaraderie, but all is not well on The Sentinel front. Umapada has been sent out to gather advertisements for publication in The Sentinel, but nobody is willing to advertise in a newspaper that focuses solely on politics and has such a limited audience.
Umapada does not even seem to be especially bothered by his inability to get any business for The Sentinel; instead, he looks thoroughly disinterested in the whole thing.
Bhupati guesses that this is probably a result of Umapada’s lack of responsibility in the office. He has only been given a job, no responsibility. Here, therefore, is responsibility. Bhupati hands Umapada the keys to the safe and tells his brother-in-law that he will now be responsible for maintaining the accounts.
Meanwhile, Amal has settled in at Bhupati’s home. Both Manda (who makes him singhadas) and Charu (who mends his torn kurta) are sweet, hospitable—and perhaps seeing him as a means of relieving their boredom by his mere presence?
Amal is obviously, like Bhupati, one of the bhadralok: perfectly at home in a distinguished, wealthy, highly educated household. Unlike Bhupati, however, he is able to understand why a reader (in this case, Bhupati’s friend Nishikanta) would not be able to sleep for three nights after having read one of Bankim’s tragic novels.
“Dada, suppose the government comes up with a new tax tomorrow,” says Amal. “Will you still sleep at night?”
That is what Bhupati can’t fathom. Literature isn’t something to lose sleep over, he insists. Politics is. “Politics is a living thing!” The long and the short of this conversation is that Bhupati finally realises that Amal has a real talent for writing, and an interest in literature.
While Bhupati can’t imagine being interested in all of this, he realises that here is his chance to relieve something of Charu’s boredom, since Manda’s arrival does not seem to have made much difference. Bhupati tells Amal that he knows Charu writes well—she wrote lovely letters to Bhupati once when he was away. All she needs is a little guidance and some inspiration. Can Amal help her with that?
Amal agrees. But Bhupati makes one request: that Amal not let Charu know that Bhupati had asked him to guide her in her literary efforts. She’d retreat into her shell if she ever discovered that.
Charu, having finished embroidering Bhupati’s handkerchief, has now begun work on embroidering a pair of slippers she means to surprise him with. Amal lets her get on with her stitchery, but begins a conversation on Bankim’s works.
There’s a beautifully subtle moment here: Charu, sitting on the bed and doing her embroidery, talks about Bankim’s heroines. Amal, pacing about the room, has just come to a small tabletop photograph of Charu and touched it lightly when Charu says, “All the women are beautiful”. Amal turns, looking towards the unaware Charu as she adds, “They’re so perfect, they make me uncomfortable.” You can see the incredulity in Amal’s eyes (though he makes no comment); how can a woman as beautiful as Charu feel that she is any less perfect than one of Bankim’s heroines?
But, they eventually get down to work. Amal uses, as an excuse, his own desire to write; and Charu agrees to come out with him into the garden, where he’ll write while she sits on the swing. She even makes him a notebook—prettily inscribed with his name—and tells him that it’s his on one condition: whatever he writes in it must remain unpublished. So Amal begins writing, sprawled out there on a mat under the trees.
And Charu, with her opera glasses in her hand, sits on the swing, and teasingly points out an error Amal has made in his writing. When he goes on with his writing, she goes back to swinging gently, looking idly through her opera glasses. At the trees and leaves in the garden, at a woman with her baby in a neighbouring balcony… the opera glasses focus a long while on this little scene of maternal affection, and we can see a glimpse of the loneliness of Charu, a woman with no child of her own.
…and the opera glasses eventually travel back to the figure of Amal as he lies hunched over his notebook, scribbling, oblivious.
Her lips curve into a smile—blissful, sincere, full of affection. As she lowers the opera glasses, you can still see the smile lingering, even in her eyes… until her face changes as she realises that she has been looking at Amal with feelings no ‘good wife’ should harbour towards a man other than her husband.
It is not Charu’s fault that she is bored and lonely, and that Amal has come into her life as a man who understands her, shares her love for books and things other than politics. It is not Amal’s fault that Charu is beautiful and interesting. Both are subtly but obviously attracted to each other (and Manda sees it all, probably understanding much more than she seems to).
But will anything come of this untold love? Charu and Amal are both tied by their bonds of loyalty to Bhupati—she as Bhupati’s wife, he as Bhupati’s young cousin. This is the 19th century, and Charu is a traditional woman. Amal has his dignity to maintain, and he cannot possibly betray the trust Bhupati has put in him.
While it is considered absolutely acceptable for Charu to treat Amal with a light-hearted affection—as one would a younger brother—she must not think of him as anything else. And while Amal may sing flirtatious songs to her, his “brother’s sweet wife”, that is where he must stop. Will there be a future for Amal and Charu? Can they even bring themselves to ever admit—even to their own selves, let alone to each other—that they feel anything for each other?
When I first saw the tagline The Lonely Wife, I was reminded of another classic film from the 1960s: the 1962 Hindi film Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, starring Meena Kumari as the lonely, neglected wife of a dissolute and wealthy Bengali zamindar. There are similarities between the two stories: both are set in the Calcutta of the late 19th century; both touch occasionally on the prevailing political situation; and the central character in both is the lonely, neglected wife of a wealthy man who has no time for her.
For both women, their upbringing and the prevailing social norms mean that there is very little for them to do other than remain within the gilded cage of their havelis. (Incidentally, a motif that is used often by Ray in this film. In one memorable scene, Charu loses her usual serenity and breaks down, clinging to Amal and weeping, to his surprise and discomfort—and when she recovers, she goes to the barred window. Outside, hanging from the eaves is a birdcage with a pet mynah. Inside, Charu, at the barred window).
But there the similarity ends, because Charu is in many ways different from the Chhoti Bahu. Charu is educated, a thinking woman who is bored not just because her husband has no time for her, but because she has nobody to talk to, nothing to do but read novels or look out at the world going by.
The Chhoti Bahu’s loneliness, on the other hand, stems from her husband’s undisguised contempt for her, and the knowledge that he’s more interested in drink and debauchery. Where Rehman’s character in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is an obvious villain, Bhupati is not. He is an enlightened, educated, good man who feels genuine affection for his wife, but lacks the sensitivity to really understand her.
What I liked about this film:
Satyajit Ray’s almost lyrical, often wordless, use of subtlety to show emotion. Where a more blustering director might have shown Charu yawning or complaining to Bhupati about her boredom, Ray uses quiet little indications: the languorous way in which Charu wanders around the drawing room, her hand stroking the backs of the chairs, but not with any pride, just because she has nothing else to do.
Or the excitement she feels when she sees something amusing—a plump man, striding purposefully along with an umbrella on the street below. That sight, so simple and so commonplace for people with other things to do, interests Charu so much that as the man progresses on the street below, she hurries from one shuttered window to the next, watching him through her opera glasses.
And there’s the inimitable scene on the swing, in which you can see Charu’s interest in Amal, and right after, the guilt that comes into her face as she realises that she regards him in a way not right. And all of it without words. You can watch the scene here (it’s a 14-minute clip, but the section I’m talking about is in the first 3 minutes).
That brings me to the second aspect of the film that I really, really liked: the acting of Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee. They are the central characters of Charulata, and they are both superb.
What I didn’t like:
The treatment of the end. It’s not bad, really. Just that, considering the subtlety that dominates the rest of the film, the cinematic treatment of the end is a little too abrupt. I’d have preferred something more understated, not the freeze frame technique used.
That, however, is trivial compared to all that is excellent about Charulata. I admit to not having seen much of Ray’s work, but I’ve heard others say that this film is regarded as one of his greatest (if not the greatest). It did win two awards—the OCIC and the Silver Bear—at the Berlin International Film Festival. So yes, it’s certainly a good way to start exploring more of his repertoire beyond Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Chiriakhana.
Note: Charulata is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Nashtanir (‘The Broken Nest’).