Charulata (1964)

… 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.

And Bhupati has asked Umapada (who will be staying with Charu and Bhupati, of course) to bring along his wife, Mandakini ‘Manda’ (Gitali Roy). Manda will be good company for Charu.

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’).


78 thoughts on “Charulata (1964)

  1. Beautiful. I love subtleness in undeclared love (undeclared, I presume).
    The novel’s translation being the Broken Nest doesn’t bode well for the ending which one sees in the form of Amal, and Umapada (threat to love and wealth??? of the man).
    All presumption of course. Love playing these guessing games when I don’t know the reality of a subject that has piqued my interest immensely.
    Thank you DO. Definitely going to watch this asap.


    • As I’ve said before, pacifist: you’re a very good guesser. ;-) You are right, both about the subtleness in undeclared love – and in who brings about the ‘breaking of the nest’. Though how that happens might surprise you.

      I’d read – a few months back – a review of this film, and a short synopsis which I must admit didn’t sit too well with me. Adultery? A bored wife falling in love with another man? But, somehow, when you see the film, you can’t help but sympathise with all three main characters – Charu, Amal, and even to some extent Bhupati, because he’s just so zealous about his work, he doesn’t realise that the wife who started off loving him (the things she embroiders for him, the smile on her face…) has fallen in love with another man, just because he has the time for her.

      Do watch, and tell me what you think of it.


  2. Such a beautiful movie and such a beautiful review!
    You know I haven’t seen Charulata. But soemhow I have a feeling that I have seen it and know its nuances. Don’t ask me why, but I have this feeling about it and mind you I have seen only the scene where she scurries from window to window looking at the amusement below.
    There are many films on lonely wives, Anubhav is one.
    The setting though reminds me of a film with Grace Kelly (?), where she plays a wife of a newspaper editor in Paris. She is intelligent and famous socialite. Just like in Charulata she also ends up having an affair with a friend of her husband’s. I am not sure but I think the film is set in pre WWII years. Do you know by any chance the film I refer to? I seem to have forgotten the name and the names of the actors and actresses.


    • I haven’t seen Anubhav, but somehow there seems something familiar about the Hollywood film you talk about. I’m pretty sure I’ve not watched anything with that storyline at least in the past 5-10 years, but there’s something there that rings a bell. Do you remember if it was colour, or B/W?

      One little clarification, though it is a minor spoiler:

      Charu doesn’t have an affair with Amal – yes, she does break down at a couple of places and comes close to telling him exactly how she feels, but neither of them ever actually articulates their love. Which is what makes it even more impactful, I think…

      Spoiler ends.


      • No, I didn’t expect Charu to have an affair with Amal. I was sure that the story being set in XIXth century and all, it wouldn’t have that angle.
        The Hollywood movie is in colour. There is this scene, where the heroine is giving a party and a group of people start having a heavy discussion about politics and to defuse the situation she says that she has lost her earring somewhere and if the people there wouldn’t like to search for it and then pillows fly through the air to search for her ear-ring and this endears her to the hero. Somehow I remember this scene and when my guests start having a discussion about religion, politics, sexuality, corruption or whatever is the current, this scene always comes to my mind. And I make a joke of having lost my earring.
        My guests do stare at me, but it does defuse the situation


        • Hmm. Now I’m even more curious about which film this is. I don’t think the actress could be Grace Kelly, because I’ve just had another look at her filmography (she didn’t work in too many films, actually) – and I’ve seen nearly all of the ones including and after High Noon. I haven’t seen Green Fire, The Country Girl or The Bridges at Toko-Ri, but from the synopses of these, it doesn’t seem likely to be either one of them.

          Heh. I can imagine the dead silence that must greet your announcement that you’d lost your earring!! :-D


  3. One of Ray’s best, certainly, and it’s absolutely touching. While the symbolism of the caged bird may seem blatant, I love the way Ray just touches upon it, instead of beating us on the head with it. Actually, the reason why I would place Charulata over Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam is that there is no *obvious* reason why Charu should feel lonely – she has a husband who cares for her, she cares for him, whereas, as you pointed out, Chhoti Bahu has a lout of a husband. (Not to say SBG was bad – I love the film;; just the difference in the story and the treatment.)

    It is interesting to see a story where you can sympathise with each character for his / her motivations.

    Thank you for this review. (Though you make me want to watch Charulata again. WDIGTT?)


    • I agree with you completely, Anu – both on the point of the caged bird (yes, so many directors would focus on it and fill the frame with it!) and on Charulata being better than Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. I think another reason for my liking Charulata more (besides the fact that Bhupati is a nice man, not a lout) is that there’s very little melodrama here. It’s all very understated, with more left unsaid than said. I think Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam tends to go too high on the melodrama towards the end, when the Chhoti Bahu starts going downhill along with her husband…

      Why WDIGTT?! If you’ve already seen the film, there has to be another acronym for your “inability to currently rewatch it, given limited time and too many other ‘new’ films to discover”! ;-)


  4. I fell headlong for Soumitra Chatterjee after seeing this movie, and teen kanya. Once upon a time DD had launched upon a retrospective of Ray’s film being shown late at night. Madhbi Mukherjee is so perfect her. The movie is one beautiful treat.


  5. Lovely review, Madhu. I haven’t seen the movie but it does seem to be beautifully woven around human relationships in a practical, realistic manner, against the backdrop of societal norms of the times. I love movies which explore the complex relationships between people.

    Talking of movies with bored/unappreciated wives, one that comes readily to mind (of course in addition to Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam) is Anuradha (1960). Also a movie with layers of suppressed emotions, a mix of love and frustration, a hint of adultery (or maybe more than a hint).


    • Raja, Anuradha does not have even a hint of adultery. There is definitely a sense that Abhi Bhattacharya will be there for her if she decides to leave, but she is leaving not for *love* of him, but for the lack of it in her marriage. She’s *never* in love with Abhi Bhattacharya’s character.

      I was a tad bit disappointed with the film’s ending – I cannot think of *any* way in which she would be happy there. I can understand her love for her husband being very strong, but that resentment over the neglect would surely surface again? And is there any reason why her talent should be sacrificed on the altar of her husband’s duty? I wish Bimalda had thrown some more light on that point.

      (of course, the husband in question being Balraj Sahni, I have illusions that he will wake up and remember that he has a wife, and will support her career the same way she supports his, and they will live happily ever after.)


      • I agree with you, Anu – I was none too happy with the ending of Anuradha. It’s just a little too convenient, too pat. Yes, happy and all that, but I really wonder if it would last, because the basis of the problem – that Balraj Sahni puts his work before his family – is not going to go away. And Balraj Sahni or no Balraj Sahni (really!), I like such things to be spelled out for me. An epilogue, maybe?


      • I think the unkind cut in Anuradha comes when one of the visitors (was it Nasir Hussain?) says ‘Aaj uski aawaz dhal gayi hai’ because she has neglected it. It made me wonder if this line makes the girl think if she is ‘past it’ and makes her wonder if it is useless to think of making a life of her own.


        • As far as I recall, the visitor who did most of the talking was Nasir Hussain – though I’d forgotten about that “Aaj uski aawaaz dhal gayi hai” bit. Now that you mention it, I must admit that it made me think, back when I watched the film last, that there was something left unsaid there: as if to say that her voice had dulled (not literally, but in a metaphorical sense) because of the drudgery and dreariness of her life here. I didn’t think it meant that she was past it, but that there was a subtle hint about her husband having caused her voice to ‘fall silent’.


      • You are right, Anu. It wasn’t adultery – it was more that Abhi listened to her whereas Balraj Sahni was too busy with his work. And yes, I was also quite disappointed at the end. Seemed all too tame, esp considering Balraj Sahni had not really done anything to indicate that he’d realised he may have just got his priorities wrong.

        Or maybe he had? Sorry, I saw this a long time ago so it’s a bit fuzzy in my head. I should have just stuck with saying that Charulata’s under-appreciated wife reminded me of Leela Naidu’s character in Anuradha. The rest of what I said in my earlier post is incorrect – I’m happy to retract that bit.

        Except for the end, I do remember liking Anuradha a lot. It was a sensitive film, with situations that you could relate to, not just in 1960 but even 50 years later.


        • I think what disappointed me most about the ending was that it seemed a lot like saying ‘Oh, she’s realised a woman’s place is at home.’ Which is fine with me when the woman *chooses* it to be, but not quite when it is societal boundaries that keep her there. And yes, it didn’t seem like Balraj Sahni was going to change one bit – so I can just see the same tensions play out even more – won’t take more for her to turn to adultery, in fact.

          I wanted to shake Bimal Roy and say “So, being a doctor in a village is noble and all, but that doesn’t mean that a person who has a god-given talent (and good prospects) should ‘sacrifice’ it all for ‘greater good’. We need our arts as much as we do everything else.”

          Aaargh. Rant over. Somehow the idea of a marriage being based on ‘sacrifice’ TM has never appealed to me. (That must also be because I don’t have the martyr complex.) Yet, the rest of the film was so sensitively handled. Sigh.

          Maybe I need to watch it again and review it?


    • Thank you, Raja. Yes, this is a wonderful movie – beautifully nuanced and layered, and with a realistic view of how things work in this world, especially a world far more straitlaced than the one we currently live in. If you get the chance to watch it, don’t miss it.


  6. We can just go on and on praising this film, hain na? It’s brilliant, of course the Ray touch. It’s often told that Ray had a special something for Madhabi and hence it’s only in his films that she looks her best. Soumitra is awesome and the camerawork stupendous. HIgh time I catch it again. And this time, my husband plans to join in :)


    • We can just go on and on praising this film, hain na?

      Absolutely. :-) It’s a fantastic film – definitely worth a rewatch. My husband would probably find it immensely wearying to sit through a film like this – he prefers loads of stuff happening onscreen (sci-fi, fantasy and comedy being among his favourite genres,) so he would probably have to be tied down to a chair to watch Charulata… but I hope your husband likes it!


  7. Hmm, this film looks interesting, and it is interesting to see it compared with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. There is another Satyajit Ray film that I have seen compared with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, and that is Jalsaghar. And in that case I can certainly see the comparison, too. Philip was the one who compared the two:

    Philip actually expressed the opinion that Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was better than Jalsaghar, as “an even more complex and disturbing film about social decay and social change.”

    I am not sure how I would compare those two, as they, too, have similarities but big differences. Both are sad and both are moving, and both have fine music and one extremely well filmed dance scene. But I find Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam to be more painful (that is, in an intended way :) ), and I imagine it must be much more painful than Charulata as well.


    • Thank you for that link to Philip’s site. I’d read his review of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam a long time back (I read his reviews of all my favourite films when I first discovered his site!), but I’d forgotten about the comparison to Jalsaghar – which I haven’t seen, so can’t comment on. I remember Yves posting a
      review of Jalsaghar however:

      …and I remember thinking that this was a film I wanted to watch, sometime. My interest’s piqued even more, now.

      As far as Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam being “more painful” than Charulata is concerned, I don’t know. If pain must be loud and melodramatic, then yes, Guru Dutt wins. But if suppressed pain leaves more of an impact, then I’d go with Ray. Charulata has this sad unspoken unhappiness about it that left me feeling far more unhappy than Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam did.


  8. A fascinating review, thanks. I think I’d be with your husband in not choosing to see this, though. It does strengthen my conviction that Bengali literature is the Indian “Russian” literature – if it isn’t glacially slow and infinitely, unrelentingly sad, it’s not art – Pather Panchali I’m looking at you!. That’s why you’ve intrigued me sufficiently to add Goopy ghyne to my shopping cart for my next DVD purchase!


    • Stuart, you may find this hard to believe, but I was actually thinking of you when I began writing this review, because I remembered you saying that you couldn’t sit through more than a few minutes of Pather Panchali! ;-) I haven’t seen any films of the Apur Trilogy, so can’t comment on whether or not Charulata matches up as far as sadness goes, but somehow there was something about this film that I found mesmerising. It’s not particularly slow (plus, Ray uses the slowness to build layers of subtle references to show what’s happening) – and it is certainly not “unrelentingly sad”. There is the inevitable sorrow (how on earth can Charu and Amal ever be together? Impossible), but the entire film is so beautifully handled, that I never found myself feeling really depressed.


      • Pather Panchali fascinated me from the first frame itself. I think it is a visual treat to say the least. I showed it to a freind of mine, who doesn’t know Bengali and also doesn’t know much English, i.e., she couldn’t understand the subtitles much. She understood the story all the same. It is fascinating to see the pictures. Every frame a story in itself. Pather Panchali is a treat for the eyes and the soul. I first saw the film on DD long time back and then in Vienna at a retrospective and I was bowled over. I can understand Stuart in the sense that it is slow. For me it is exactly this slowness which makes it a poem. This is the language of the film.
        Even The Broken Mountain was slow, like most of Ang Lee films. But the director speaks volumes in this slow movement. It has a quality of a western ballad. Lust, Caution his next film is called an espionage-thriller film. For me this aspect of the film was secondary if not tertiary. The director stealthily weaves you in the story of love, patriotism, betrayal and treachery but basically tells you the story of the emotions and feelings of its main protagonists.
        Every film has a language, not the language which the protagonists speak but the one which the director speaks to his audience. If one is tuned to it, it reveals aspects and angles of the story which otherwise remain hidden. One can even forget this language. This happened to me with Pestonjee by Vijaya Mehta. I saw it for the first time in my teens on DD and I was bowled over by its story. and picturisation. I saw it again few months back and I failed to make the connection. Maybe the language of the film has also to do something with the age it is made in.
        I’m going on and on and on and soon I won’t even know what I really wanted to say and where I had started. :-)


        • Hmm… now I am tempted to watch Pather Panchali, since I anyway do have it lying at home. But perhaps after a while – once I’ve gone through a bunch of good ‘paisa vasool’ entertaining movies, so that I can appreciate Ray’s work better.

          I actually don’t mind slow movies, as long as there’s something to compensate for the slowness – such as character development. By that account, Charulata really scores for me, because there’s very little actually happening in the first few scenes, but it’s done so well, that you understand a lot of what Charu and Bhupatii’s life is all about.


          • Of the Apu triloy, Aparajito, for me, was the weakest link. I loved Apur Sansar and Pather Panchali. The first, in fact, I’ll second thandapani’s exhortation – you must, must, must watch it! It is slow, but it’s like poetry in motion. Very, very lyrical.


  9. I have still not seen this film despite you helping me with the subtitles- it is always at the back of my mind but I keep pushing it later in favor of the many Hindi movies that remain unseen by me. This is a wonderful post, and if this will not exhort me to watch Charulata soon, then nothing will.

    (Actually I share Stuartnz’s reservations about Bengali films and literature being slow, layered, nuanced albeit doleful- that’s the feeling they give- But I guess I will have to see some of these films to actually know whether my prejudice is misplaced or not.)


    • Watch it, watch it. It’s really good. :-) And if you try to get to the end of the unseen Hindi movies, you’ll never manage it in one lifetime. May as well intersperse those with some really good films in other languages…

      Actually I share Stuartnz’s reservations about Bengali films and literature being slow, layered, nuanced albeit doleful”

      Doleful? What? Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne? Chiriakhana? (or, other films that Sharmi has reviewed – like Baksha Badal or Deya Neya?) Hardly, I think. That’s a little one-sided view. Something like saying all Hindi films are full of songs and completely escapist.

      Watch some, you just might like them!


      • Yes, I agree it’s a prejudice and a most misplaced one. Thanks for the suggestions- I will start with the ones that are on youtube :)


        • I think we all need to open up at some time or the other to movies (or books, music, whatever) that we aren’t familiar with. When I first began this blog, I’d meant it to be primarily Hindi cinema and Hollywood, but somewhere along the way – with help from people like bawa – I’ve come to appreciate a lot of international cinema that I might never have watched previously. (Two of the funniest films I’ve watched – in any language – have been Italian! And the earliest comedy I’ve seen – a silent – is a Russian film called The Girl with the Hat Box). :-)


  10. Just finished watching it on youtube, with subtitles.

    I’m completely bowled over. Actually I’m not surprised, because reading your review I knew it would be the kind of film I’d love.
    Loved Amal’s (Soumitra Chaterjee) entry, sort of blew in with the storm, and created havoc in Charu’s life.

    I absolutely agree with you about the slowness – which isn’t really slow, because one is so engrossed in the beautiful direction, and expressions. The film had me completely immersed in what was going on.

    Some of my take on the film is different from yours though;

    -I really didn’t find the film sad. There was a sense of enuii, a sense of boredom experienced by Charu. It wasn’t a hopeless situation – just not completely fulfilled.

    -I also didn’t think the symbolism of the barred window as being imprisoned, because it is shown several times with even Amal standing there in the same way in happier moments. In addition her husband even offers her partnership in the newspaper which showed that she wasn’t being thwarted or being caged and suppressed.
    She even wrote and published her writing.

    -I felt that it was mainly Charulata who was infatuated or rather she who found refuge in Amal’s company. Amal only became conscious of it when she started behaving ‘strangely’. And then he gets pensive. Initially he enjoyed her company and that seemed to be all, I felt.

    – I didn’t find much similarity between Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and this except for a bored wife and that of a rejected one, each dealing with the situation as the circumstamces allowed, which forms the story of the films.


    I found the ending quite satisfactory. The husband understands the situation and the role he had to play in it, while Charu realises her infatuation (when she tears the letter).
    Words would have diluted the deeper subtleties of the resolution, I think.

    **End spoiler**


    • Mmmm. I really liked your take on it, pacifist. Thank you for taking the trouble to write what you thought about it – where you agreed and where you didn’t. Yes, I do think that the infatuation is far more on Charu’s side than on Amal’s. I do think he does find her attractive (that classic scene with her photo…). Then there’s the scene where she vows never to write again – the scene where she begins crying and clings to him for the first time – you see his hand rise, as if to touch her and comfort her; then he stops and lowers his hand, as if remembering that she is his cousin’s wife.

      And yes, the stories of Charu and the Chhoti Bahu are different – what I was trying to point out was that there was a similarity in the milieu and historic/geographic context, and the fact that both women are bored (though to a large extent for different reasons).

      I agree completely about the wordlessness of the end. That is perfect. What I didn’t like was the ‘freeze frame’ technique. What I was hoping for was something more subtle. Like Bhupati eating dinner with Charu sitting by, but no conversation between them, or something along those lines. Anyway, as I mentioned, it’s a fairly trivial thing in a movie that is otherwise such a satisfying watch.


  11. And one very important thing IMO, pointing to the fact that she wasn’t the suffering wife unable to do what she wanted was when she gets her writing published without any help from either her husband or Amal who didn’t even know about it. The husband hears of it from his colleague (and doesn’t get angry about it) while she herself shows it to Amal who is surprised.


    • Good point! Yes, that is true – and possibly a result of the fact that Charu was an educated woman. Perhaps less traditional than Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam‘s Chhoti Bahu, who had nothing better to do than “get jewellery made, get it broken, get it made…“. Also, Charu had more backbone (because of her education?) – so getting something published in that particular magazine was a challenge for her; the way she flings the story in Amal’s face, almost, seemed like it…


  12. Satyajit Ray?! :O In my literature book, there’s one story of his, Big Bill. I couldn’t stop laughing at the confusion on my friends’ faces – “Huh? What’s Babu?” “What’s Dandakaranya?” “Where is Sikkim?” The last question prompted me to go, “JEWEL THIEFFFFFF. :D” And that got me a weird look from my literature teacher. But all that aside, I fell off my chair when a friend came and asked me, “Is Babu their name or what?” I was reminded of Bombai Ka Babu, and my poor friend thought something was wrong with me because I couldn’t stop laughing. :P


      • It’s about two friends, Tulsi Babu and Prodyot Babu, and they go to Dandakaranya to get some herbs, then they find this huge egg. Tulsi Babu takes the egg home, and he’s not surprised at anything. There’s a double rainbow and he doesn’t care. Prodyot Babu is amazed at a lot of things (like me!), but this doesn’t get in the way of their friendship. So the bird hatches from the egg and gets bigger and bigger. Prodyot Babu is very surprised. Finally, when the bird gets really gigantic and kills the neighbour’s cat, Tulsi Babu is alarmed and sets it free. Then people start getting killed. The shikaris don’t want to go kill it. Tulsi Babu goes back with his friend, and tosses it a herb. It eats, and Prodyot Babu asks what it is. Tulsi Babu replies matter-of-factly, “It makes one vegetarian, just as it has done to me.”

        I like the story, and most of my friends were flailing about helplessly. I nearly wanted to ask my literature teacher to show them Dev’s song… but that wouldn’t fix anything. :P


        • Heh. That sounds like Satyajit Ray in quirkily funny mode – he was a very versatile writer. Another great series of his is the Feluda ones, about a detective and his adventures, along with his nephew and a bumbling writer friend. Witty, fun and with just the right amount of mystery and detection.


  13. @bombaynoir: Yes, Inspector Shekhar is one of my favourite onscreen detectives too. Amongst literary detectives, I have dozens I like – but Muzaffar Jang is my favourite. :-D


            • Well, my grandma and I were both swooning over him in that black suit. (Seriously – I couldn’t stop looking at him! :DDD)

              And, WOW! You have your own Wikipedia page! Ohh my gosh, I didn’t know that you had written all those books! No wonder you write so well! :D How do you get your stuff published? (I’m asking cause I have this idea for a novel which is honestly a mash of C.I.D. and Kala Pani and Baat Ek Raat Ki and Guru Dutt’s thrillers, and, and, umm, and Goldie’s thrillers and Dev’s movies and all that good stuff! :D)

              What is your essay on “What movies do to writers”? If anything, you just saw what movies do to me. :P


  14. Hello Madhu,

    Well, I don’t know if other commentators have encouraged you to watch more of Ray’s cinema (I haven’t read everybody’s contributions) but I certainly do! This review was a real peasure to read and look at; your stills of the movie are, even more than what you write, a sign of your great perceptiveness. I have marvelled at how clear and evocatively crisp you have managed to make them! (perhaps you simply had a good copy of the film :-) No, in fact, I know it’s because you paid attention to Ray’s cinematography so well).

    About your comparison between Charulata and SBAG: it’s a classic comparison, and there are indeed superficial elements of similarity. But I’m not sure it corresponds deep down. Choti Bahu is pent-up like Charu is, but the symbolism at work in SBAG is much more of a metaphysical nature, as opposed to the more social and even political one in Charulata. What Ray is doing in his movie is making an artistic statement about the need for woman’s emancipation. Guru Dutt (or Abrar Alvi) on the other hand is not interested in reform; he’s revisiting romantic (or mythical) archetypes, and trying to make some new art flare up from the age-old magnetic triangle.

    In Charulata the subtlety is greater than in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, because Ray knows better how to suggest (as you very rightly write) multiple layers of realities that he even doesn’t have to develop, annd this thanks to his amazing sense of psychological realism. So even if there is perhaps a weightier symbolism in SBAG, Charulata belongs to the world’s masterpieces thanks to Ray’s economical technique.



  15. Thank you, Yves!

    There have been a few (very few) suggestions on other Ray films – especially Pather Panchali – among the comments, but not much. I do remember some of the films you and Sharmi have recommended in your blogs, so I’m keeping an eye out for them.

    What you say about the comparison between Charulata and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is along the lines of something pacifist and I discussed as well: the similarity between the two is superficial (which is, in a way, what I’ve also tried to convey – perhaps not very effectively! – in my review). I agree about the ‘many layers of realities’ you point out in Ray’s film; I think that, and the subtlety of Ray’s treatment, is what makes this film such a masterpiece.


  16. A very sensitive review of a wonderful film. I regard Charulata as the best of Satyajit Ray. As for Pather Panchali you need to know that it is a great film.

    A high point of the film is this beautiful song by Kishore Kumar

    Ami chini go chini tomare O go Bidesini from Charulata


    • Oh, yes. I know that Pather Panchali is a great film. It’s been highly acclaimed, and (along with Pyaasa) was on Time Magazine’s list of the hundred best films ever made. Unfortunately, my tastes don’t always agree with those of the majority – for instance, I don’t like Guide (except for the music), and I find Mother India too depressing for words.

      Love that song, by the way. I like the way Ray weaves the songs into the narrative. They’re not full-fledged songs, but just little tidbits that fit perfectly into the story.


  17. @bombaynoir: How do I get my stuff published? Tough question, Read a lot, for a start. Read, read, read. That’s the only way you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t. (For example, if you want to write a detective/thriller, just watching a bunch of movies of that genre won’t work – you need to read books, because there’s a difference in the way books are written and movies are filmed. Since I write a lot of historical detective fiction, most of my reading is in that genre).

    Then, of course, send your work to people who’re interested. I kept an eye out for short story contests, and sent in entries wherever I could – the CBA, for instance (I won, incidentally). Stuff like that gets you recognised.

    I don’t know how it is in Singapore, but in India at least writers can send manuscripts – novels, short story collections, etc – directly to publishers with a covering letter and a synopsis. In most of Europe and North America, publishers will only look at your work if it comes through a literary agent.

    But finally, the most important thing is to write. Practise a lot. I subjected my family to my short stories, travelogues, and even a novella from the age of about 6. (Well, the novella came when I was about 13 – so this might be the perfect time for you to start!) :-D


    • My friend, who was sitting next to me, laughed when she saw the part where you said, “watching a bunch of movies of that genre won’t work”. She was like, “I TOLD YOU SO!” Ah, but I guess you’re right. Books don’t have songs in them though. Pity. :<

      I'll try to look for contests and all that, and probably read more. I haven't been reading much lately. Mostly watching films. I'm still at a very very early stage of the novel, though. I think I should just wait first. Don't think publishers would like to publish a 13 year old's work. :P

      How short are short stories? I tend to fall prey to loooooong introductions (it always happens in my schoolwork), and this fanfiction I'm writing right now is getting so draggy that the readers are fed up. (I am also fed up of writing an actionless plot, when the real fun only comes when one of them goes missing!)

      And thanks for the advice! :D


      • Well, publishers may not want to publish a 13-year old’s work, but who knows? Christoper Paolini was a teenager when he wrote the Eragon series, wasn’t he? And you have to really labour over a book – my first book took me seven years (well, counting many months when I didn’t do a spot of work on it!) to complete.

        Short stories can vary in length. There’s flash fiction, which can be about 500 words long (less, if you want to experiment). But about the outside limit for a short story would be between 15,000 to 18,000 words – it’s all very flexible.

        You’re very welcome, by the way. Oh, and what you wanted to know about what I wrote for The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do To Writers… here’s an excerpt:

        (Incidentally, CID and Teesri Manzil were the two films that formed the focus of my essay).


        • Yeah, but I get the feeling that I’m not good enough for it. :/ I’m reading the Hunger Games right now, and Suzanne Collins wrote it so well. And WOW! :O Seven years?! Even Sholay didn’t take that long to make!

          And phew. I thought short stories were very short, but that seems to be a safe place for me to work. :DD

          As for the last part, YAHOOOOOOOOOOOO! Two of my favorite films! -hurries off to read-


          • Yup – seven years. But I was working full-time (usually 12 hours a day, sometimes more) in a corporate job, and would feel a sense of achievement if I managed to write 200 words a day of my novel. It was terrible. Sometimes I didn’t get around to writing for months. I suppose if I totted down the actual time it took me to write it, it would be around two years or so – with the editing my literary agent suggested.


  18. Just before I left, I had watched Charulata again, because I felt I must have missed things when I concentrated on the subtitles. This time I just glanced at them to check what the dialogue was and then watched the characters.

    Now I feel absolutely certain that Charulata was not representing suppression or any such usual thing.
    In fact she was quite an example of the ‘idle rich’ that her husband didn’t want to become. A pity that he didn’t look to his wife not becoming one too.

    She doesn’t even like walking out to tell the servant to take the tea to the master. She shouts from her room, and only gets up when it was necessary.
    The scene is repeated when her sister-in-law arrives…she tells her to tell the servant to take the tea.
    Then, she grumbles because she the sister in law didn’t bring the washing in.

    There is this discussion about the conservative and the modern woman. The latter sits around on her bed, reads, or embroiders, while the former does none of these things – so perhaps makes samosas and paans (I’m guessing :)

    Even the attraction for Amal, this time I noticed was almost completely onesided. He does find her attractive, but I don’t feel it had anything to do with feelings.
    The moment he realises her attraction for him, he is on guard.
    -when she wants him to say that he will come back from England…to her he pretends to read aloud and not hear
    -when he wants to go and find out about the reason for the late night return of his brother, she gets all emotional asking him not to go away no matter what has happened, and he tells her to leave him (because she was holding on to his arm).

    I’m quite taken up with this film
    Thank you for the motivation. :-)


    • That’s a very in-depth analysis of the film, pacifist! Thank you. :-) I’m glad you got the time to see it again – and that something I recommended was enough to tempt you to watch it again. I did like Charulata a lot. One comes across so few films that are so sensitive, yet quietly so.

      I did not think of Charu as actually suppressed either, just (maybe) housebound because of tradition – her social status, and the prevailing norms, do not allow her to wander around outside the house on her own. I think she’s ‘lonely and neglected’ (bored, too) rather than suppressed – at least not by Bhupati. Your observation about Charu actually not even trying to get out of that ‘idle rich’ mode (by calling to the servant, rather than going downstairs) is interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. Or the way she sort of bosses Manda around… thought-provoking.

      As for Amal’s attraction (or lack of it) – yes, now that I think of it, you’re probably right.

      I will need to watch this again! But, oh: WDGTT??!!


  19. This is one of my all time favourite Indian films. It is a powerful depiction of unrequited love and of loneliness. Excellent performances and it is one of those films that takes its time with the story and lets the actors convey all to us.


    • I like, too, the fact that there are so few actors in the film – that strengthens the story and makes their characters so much more powerful. I too think of this as one of my all time favourite Indian films: simply superb.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I totally disagree with what you have written in our dialogue in ‘ Mahanagar ‘ review. That review of this movie ‘ Charulata ‘ may not be all that interesting since it’s one of your earliest ! On the contrary, it’s so subtle and all-encompassing !
    Yes, the film is a true masterpiece. One of the Maestros best if not the Best ! The film has so many great moments without dialogues that it’s probably impossible for any reviewer to dwell on each and everyone of it ! A few are not only the best of Ray or indian cinema but world cinema too !
    I have reviewed the film in Gujarati on webgurjari and watching the movie again and again for that purpose was one of the most blissful times of my life.

    May you get more time and convenience to review more and more of Ray’s movies.


    • You are so kind. Thank you so much, I really appreciate the time you took to read this and to lave such an encouraging comment.

      “The film has so many great moments without dialogues that it’s probably impossible for any reviewer to dwell on each and everyone of it

      Very true! That can be said of so many of Ray’s films, he was truly one of the greatest film makers of the world.


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