|Madhabi Mukherjee, screen goddess of India|
d. Satyajit Ray
Criterion Collection #669
Release Date: August 20th, 2013
This is the second of two Satyajit Ray classics that Criterion Collection is releasing this week. The other film is The Big City, which was released in 1963. Where The Big City was a film about a contemporary issue, "women in the workplace;" Charulata is a period piece set in the 1870s. Shailen Mukherjee plays Bhupati, a wealthy, liberal newspaper owner who is obsessed with politics. Madhabi Mukherjee plays his bored wife. the Charulata of the title. If this were a Western film you would expect adultery to ensue, but this Indian film in released in 1964 is about as tame as you would expect from a hypothetical movie shot in the 1850s.
The plot of Charulata revolves around the heroine's efforts to free her soul from the monotony of existence by writing. It's impossible to understand Charulata without at least knowing that the Bengali Renaissance was a spiritual/political/artistic movement that swept Bengal in the 19th century, that the film maker, Satyajit Ray, was from a family that was part of this movement, and that the characters in Charulata also represent individuals from this movement.
Like The Big City, the Bengali-ness of the film is obviously a topic near and dear to the heart of Satyajit Ray. At the same time Ray's subtle, neo-realism influenced style belies the national/ethnic emphasis and creates something that is more universal. Other then the language spoken by the characters, Charulata has a plot that wouldn't be out of place in an English Victorian novel from the 19th century.
Charulata has a gentle touch and has none of the edginess or existentialist influence that characterize so much of Auteur type cinema from the the mid to late 20th century, but at the same time it is impossible to deny Ray his well earned Auteur status. Despite the clunky, retro plot I found myself transfixed by Charulata in much the same way I was transfixed by The Big City. There is something about seeing Indian society so well described that I find it impossible to look away. I just want to drink it all in.