Sunday, May 23, 2010
Ray’s Cinematic Meditation on the Modernity of Charulata
Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) examines a woman’s assertion for love, while being fixed in a lonely marriage. From the opening credits we see a wife whose identity is not defined by her image, but that of her dutiful hands embroidering the letter “B” which identifies her husband’s name Bhupati, onto a handkerchief. The exposition marks Charu to be the outsider, who spies on the outdoor world through binocular opera glasses. Her British colonial home is made up of paintings and furniture that bear little relation to her own identity, making her an outsider even in her own gilded cage. Seemingly bored, Charu flips through books, plays piano and cards, eats kulfi, and spies on her work-distracted husband. It is the arrival of her husband’s cousin/ brother Amal who sweeps through the door like a monsoon storm and straight into Charu’s heart. Despite the simple premises, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata has more on its mind than a simple love triangle; Ray’s bigger concern is with female modernity.
Charu gazes upon her husband through opera glasses, as if waiting to be a participant in his world, where she is currently an observer. The first time we see Bhupati, he literally walks right past Charu as if she were invisible. This is emphasized even more, during their first dialogue, which occurs over a meal that only her husband enjoys. Charu sits passively, watching her husband eat by himself and discuss their lifestyle. This lack of unification emphasizes Charu’s relationship with her husband as a distant one. Yet at this time in India, the early 1900s, a woman’s position in marriage is what defined her. For example, Darius Cooper writes:
In India, a woman’s identity never belongs to her. It is wholly defined by her relationship to others. The patriarchal Indian tradition always forces her to play what it deems the appropriate role of daughter/ sister/ wife/ mistress/ daughter within the narrow confines of the Indian family structure. (Cooper, 40.)
Charu’s identity is solely defined by her relationship to her husband. Not only does Charu embroider, but she also supervises domestic chores, serves meals, and spends her idle time performing feminine pastimes. Though her husband is politically liberal, his perspective of women is still not fully progressive. Though he acknowledges that, “even a widow can hold her head up high” (in reference to the modern times), the word “even” suggests that “widow” is still viewed in society as a negative. The film was titled The Lonely Wife internationally, and the first quarter of the film supports this title as Charu lives out a pretty banal and disconnected existence. Her husband even picks up on this when he blatantly asks his wife if she is lonely; Charu honestly responds, “I have gotten used to it.” Bhupati, however, doesn’t provide advice or a cure for her loneliness…well, not intentionally.
Amal’s entrance into the film is not immediately a transformation of Charu’s modernity, for she continues to fulfill the wife role even with Amal. She mends his clothes, feeds him beetle leaves, and acts as a maternal host. This is not very surprising considering the traditional relationship between an Indian wife and her husband’s younger brother. According to Chidananda Das Gupta:
The word in Sanskrit for husband’s younger brother literally means ‘second husband’…Ritualistically, therefore, the husband’s younger brothers and cousins are vaguely placed in a sort of ‘second husband’ position, ready to take his place, as it were, but never actually doing so. Even today, it is an ambiguous relationship, made up of brotherly affection often overlaid with tinges of sexuality. (Das Gupta, 43.)
The brotherly affection that Charu initially has for Amal evolves into something greater as she is able to connect with him more than her own husband.
It is with Amal that Charu becomes more actively engaged, redefining her identity to be more than a mere observer and devotee of her husband’s world. After all, Amal and Charu share parallel interests and sensibilities; she finally has someone with whom she can express herself. Amal lives a relaxed and an uncomplicated existence, shares a similar fascination for the book Sharmulata, dabbles on the piano, loves to sing, write poetry, and expresses him self romantically. Both Charu and Amal also view Bhupati in similar ways. Just as the exposition of the film opens with Charu observing Bhupati through binoculars, when Amal fist reunites with his cousin, he too looks at him through a magnifying glass. Amal and Charu, parallel characters, are equally disconnected from their foil Bhupati and his world. While Bhupati prioritizes his work for his newspaper The Sentinel, Amal and Charu are more interested in the world of fiction and feeding the imagination. It is ironic however, that Bhupati prides himself on what he calls “living politics” because he doesn’t exactly practice modernity within his actual household.
Feminist scholarship has argued that the home in fact functioned in the 1870s and 1880s as the place where the difficulties faced by the middle-class male in an unequal and racist public life were compensated. This space of tradition was the realm over which he could reign supreme, even if, as in many other domains of colonial experience, concepts of the traditional had been reshaped in terms of modern codes, in this case those of house management and child rearing. But this home was a space subject to repression, and women had to shoulder the burden of representing a traditional identity protected from the inroads of hierarchical colonial culture. (Vasudevan, 19.)
The contrast of Bhupati’s essentially traditional perspective and Charu and Amal’s more modern point-of-view is emphasized during one scene in particular. Unable to comprehend lofty and romantic poetry, Bhupati humorously interrupts Amal’s reading of his poem, only to be fixated on his opening line concerning; “a moonless light.” Bhupati tells his younger brother that he is only interested in what is “real” and “scientific.” Amal responds by asserting that he is a student of literature, not science. After a moment of deliberation, Bhupati swiftly changes the subject to a more conservative and conventional topic, never allowing Amal to finish his poem. Frustrated by his younger brother’s literary and lackadaisical sensibility, Bhupati suggests, as a traditional patriarch, that Amal get married to a well-mannered and educated daughter of a lawyer. Understanding that Amal would need a more romantic motivation, Bhupati tries to seduce him into marriage with the potential traveling experiences that it would bring. For a moment, Amal and Bhupati are mesmerized by fantasies of Europe and the Mediterranean. Charu, meanwhile, who is eavesdropping, is anxious and disappointed by notions of Amal’s marriage and travels. However, Amal quickly snaps out of his daydream with three simple words, “Long live Bengal,” unintentionally putting a smile on Charu’s face. Her “second husband” would stick around for a little longer.
Charu doesn’t repress her desires but acts in subtly seductive ways with her newfound confidant, Amal. Although, in the opening scene of the film, she is seen embroidering a handkerchief for Bhupati, Charu transfers her affections to Amal, stitching a journal for him (with the promise that his writings will be exclusively for her). She longs for emotional intimacy with him, something that she has yet to find with her husband. Perhaps, the height of Charu and Amal’s romance occurs during Ray’s famous garden scene, which is significant, as it is the first time we see Charu outdoors- the perfect context for her to broaden her identity which has been limited within the confines of her colonial home. Interestingly enough, Charu’s first words in this scene to Amal are “Forget your brother”- advice that she intends on taking herself. Although Amal is a catalyst in Charu’s world, encouraging her to express herself in an unprecedented way, the onus of that initiation belongs to Charu. After all, it is Charu who asks Amal for a “push on the swing” and specifically says; “all I need is one.” Amal’s push symbolizes Charu’s transition into freedom of self-expression (which is later furthered by her literary achievements), for we see her soar into the air expressing an unbridled freedom. The audience feels Charu’s levity as the camera swings with her and captures her point-of-view as well as her euphoric facial expressions. Later, when Charu suffers from writer’s block, her creativity is restored only when she visits this swing, her symbolic place of liberation.
Amal’s symbolic push is furthered when he encourages Charu to continue writing and compliments her when she is published in a leading newspaper. However, things between Amal and Charu suddenly change when Amal leaves without warning. When Charu reads the letter of Amal’s abrupt departure, she falls to the ground and weeps. Though crying is most often associated with moments of weakness, Charu’s tears represent a determining strength.
But while the former [Bhupati] emerges as a liberal patriarch with little understanding of the deeper workings of the mind, the latter’s [Amal] sensitivity is compromised by an almost casual inability to cope either with the pressures of the ‘old’ or challenges of the ‘new’. Only Charu, the modern Bengali woman comes through as a figure carrying the strength to face the consequences of her actions. (Misra, 1053.)
Though she has compromised her marriage, Charu’s tears, signifies her independent struggle in expressing her heart’s desires.
In conclusion, Bhupati witnesses her passionate sorrow and finally comes to the realization that his wife and his cousin have feelings for one another. This epiphany leads him to a carriage ride through darkness during which time he cries and uses the very handkerchief that Charu has embroidered for him. For a moment, it appears as though he may be leaving his wife, but he eventually returns to her. When he arrives back home, his head hangs down in shame, and it is Charu that invites him in--- into her world. In the concluding scene of the film Bhupati reaches for Charu’s hand, and then the shot freezes. The terms of their union are not yet decided upon, but it does signify the hope that their marriage will be based on more equal terms. The last shot of the film is of the symbolic handkerchief, a motif of Charu’s domesticity and dutifulness. Though, Charu and Bupati’s union is cast in the background in a shadow of uncertainty, the high-lighted discarded handkerchief makes it clear that Charu’s role as wife has taken on new meaning, that of modernity.
Cooper, Darius. The Home and the World. Satyajit Ray, Film Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Winter, 1989-1990), pp. 40-43. University of California Press Stable URL:
Das Gupta, Chidananda. Charulata. Satyajit Ray, Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 42-45. University of California Press; available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1211031: INTERNET
Misra, Amaresh. Satyajit Ray's Films: Precarious Social-Individual Balance. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 20/21 (May 16-23, 1992), pp. 1052-1054. Economic and Political Weekly; available from
Vasudevan, Ravi. Nationhood, Authenticity and Realism in Indian cinema: The Double Take of Modernism in the Work of Satyajit Ray. Moinak Biswas ed. Apu and After: Revisiting Ray’s Cinema, London: Seagull (2006), pp. 1-29.