Charulata also is known as “The Lonely Wife” is a film about love. Sadly, due to all the cookie-cutter versions of love in recent pop culture, love stories have gained a bad rap – many consider them to be corny, cheesy, and unrealistic. But that’s not true for Charulata. Charulata is a film that plays around all forms of love: between a man and a woman, between a man and his work, between a woman and literature, and between culture and music. The story was adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “The Broken Nest” and stars Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata, Shailen Mukherjee as Charu’s husband, Bhupati Dutta and Soumitra Chatterjee as Charu’s brother-in-law, Amal. The film tells the story of a rich but small Bengali family living around the 1880s when the British were still ruling India.
Charu, as she is so lovingly called, is married to a loving but distant husband whose newspaper “The Sentinel” has made him so busy that he can rarely spend any time with his wife. One of the first scenes is Charu rushing from window to window with binoculars, following a man walk, as she has nothing to do (there are servants who do all the work) or anyone to talk to. She spends her days sewing or reading books from the library and is unable to tell her husband about her loneliness, as she fears he might feel guilty.
Her husband, Bhupati, finally realizes that his wife feels lonely and so invites Charu’s brother and sister-in-law to live with them. However, Charu’s sister-in-law proves to be no match for Charu’s interest in poems and literature and she longs for a companion she can connect with. This is when, Amal, Bhupati’s cousin, walks into the story. He has just finished college and shares Charu’s love for poetry and literature. Bhupati, realizing Charu’s potential in writing, asks Amal to guide Charu (little does he know that Charu is way better than Amal).
Soon after, Amal and Charu, who are of the same age group, start spending time together and it’s only a matter of time before Charu falls in love with Amal. And you can’t really blame her for that. She is childless, her husband is barely present and, though Charu is bound to traditions as a woman of her times, she is intelligent, well read and witty and deserves all the happiness in the world. She loves her husband but the friend, the person with whom she can express herself freely is Amal.
The three main characters in the story are all good, brilliant people. Amal is young, mischievous and wants to succeed as a writer. He too enjoys Charu’s company and is sometimes intimidated by her intelligence, especially when her writing is published in a more exclusive newspaper than his. Moreover, he is a gifted singer, him singing “Ami chini go chini” (sung by Kishore Kumar) is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. It beautifully demonstrates Amal’s teasing nature that perhaps misleads Charu. Charu’s love for Amal and Amal’s ignorance of this love is evident in the entire scene.
Madhabi Mukherjee brilliantly portrays Charu’s conflicting emotions that come out as bursts of anger and envy at Amal and people round her. Amal’s realization and guilt comes in at a sour time for the entire family and the climax where Bhupati finds Charu crying and calling for Amal breaks you into a million black and white (the film is monochromatic) pieces.
But, oh the ending! Only Satyajit Ray could have ended a film like that. The reel stops to become stills of Charu’s and Bhupati’s hands both reaching out but not yet touching and all goes silent in the Dutta household.
The flow of the movie is so subtle – physically, very less is happening but amidst the people and their thoughts, there is a quiet but powerful storm raging. Ray’s zoom-ins of characters in the story provides a glimpse into their eyes and thoughts and they are shot ever so elegantly. There is not a single scene in the film that feels out of place – each and every frame in the film carries and adds meaning to the story.
Personally, along with Charu, I fell in love with the library, the hallways, the way Bengali women drape their saris and the entire era of the film. The fact that the film was released in 1964 but it still manages to be relevant to this day and is able to impact people 55 years after its release speak volumes about the film. Because rather than being about a particular event, it’s about a person’s need for love and companionship and the weird, often unpredictable turns of life.
The music, most of which was written and composed by Ray himself, adds a charming layer to the story, making it ever so Bengali. Ray’s fondness for music, literature and all things art is evident from how the film is shot and composed. The film is a heaven for aesthetic seekers like myself.
To put it into words which recent meme culture will understand, I’m not saying Charulata is one of the best films I have ever watched but that’s also exactly what I’m saying.
However, one thing to be noted is that anyone watching Charulata for the first time should not appreciate it just because they are intimidated by the fact that it was revered by filmmakers and critics alike. They should watch the film with a clear mind and have thoughts and emotions of their own for this film deserves and demands an honest and a devoted watch.