(The Lonely Wife)
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production: R. D. Bansal (company); black and white, 35mm; running time: 115 minutes. Released 1964. Filmed late 1963 to early 1964 in India.
Producer: R. D. Bansal; screenplay: Satyajit Ray, from the novel by Rabindranath Tagore; photography: Subrata Mitra; editor: Dulal Dutta; art director: Bansi Chandragupta; musical score: Satyajit Ray.
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee (Amal); Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata); Sailen Mukherjee (Bhupati Dutt); Shyamal Ghosal (Umapeda); Geetali Roy (Mandakini).
Awards: Berlin Film Festival, Best Direction, 1965.
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Charulata is the most successful film of a group Satyajit Ray made in the mid-1960s with the actress Madhabi Mukherjee. Whereas the director's first films—especially the Apu trilogy—trace the education and growth to maturity of young male heroes, these mid-1960s films treat, in a variety of periods and social contexts, the problems of women in Indian society. As in the early films, Ray's method is to use a mass of brilliantly observed and often very funny details to build a single strand of plot. Charulata, one of Ray's undoubted masterpieces, is adapted from a story by Rabindranath Tagore and set in a period of particular significance to the director: the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Charulata, the sensitive but bored wife of a westernized newspaper publisher finds herself drawn sexually to her husband's young cousin who comes to stay and shares her taste for literature. The film moves with beautiful precision from flirtation and almost childish competitiveness to near tragedy amid a lovingly reconstructed period setting. While Tagore's story ends in disaster, Ray is less conclusive, choosing to freeze the film's last frame as husband and wife are about to come together again. This refusal of tragedy points to the characteristic form of Ray's films. One of the creative tensions in his work is that between the often rambling narratives he adapts and the tight shaping impulse of his imagination, which produces story patterns to match the most finely wrought classical Hollywood movies. But just as villains are absent from his work, so too is narrative closure and Charulata is typical in its rejection of finality where the characters are concerned.
In considering Ray as a filmmaker it is important to remember that his work has no roots in the traditions of Indian cinema. His early films are resolutely independent of the devices and conventions of the Hindi movie, of which he had little if any direct knowledge at this time. Ray's is a personal synthesis of an Indian sensibility and the formal lessons of western cinema. Though he is often seen as the heir to Italian neorealism and works like Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves have made a profound impression on him, there are fundamental differences. In particular Ray refuses actuality—the living presence of contemporary society—which was so crucial to filmmakers like De Sica and Rossellini. Ray habitually turns to the past, and the particular significance of Charulata, beyond its incredibly sensitive study of personal interaction, is the period to which Ray turns. Both Ray's ancestors and the Tagore family belonged to the educated elite of the Bengali middle classes who formed the "middle-men" between the colonizers and the colonized. Their knowledge of English gave them key posts in education and administration under the British, and also made them a channel through which the new intellectual ideas from Europe (democracy, liberalism, nationalism, the liberation of women and social equality) flowed into Indian society. Charulata celebrates this moment of interaction: the husband Bhupati devotes his wealth and energy to his English-language newspaper which will disseminate the new ideas. A key moment is the party that he throws to celebrate the Liberal election victory in London. But the nineteenth-century Bengali Cultural Renaissance was not merely an assimilation of western ideas. Its participants combined this with a re-examination of traditional arts at his college— now a university—in Santineketan. Here too, Ray is faithful to his family traditions, for all his finest films are explorations of Indian society. Finally Charulata's power comes from the sense of Ray's personal discovery of a key moment of fusion between India and the West.