Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Thanks to lousy subtitles, I spent most of CharulataSatyajit Ray’s favorite of his films—thinking that two points in the love triangle at its center were sister and brother, not brother-in-law. So instead of seeing Charu, the brilliant and lonely wife of a preoccupied newspaper editor, gradually fall in love with his carefree younger brother, I saw the coming of age of a writer against the backdrop of the 19th-century Bengal Renaissance.

One advantage of the mistake is that I shared exactly her husband’s sense of surprise and betrayal when he discovers Charu’s feelings for his brother. But it made me read Ray’s delicate portrayal of Charu’s dilemma as a story primarily about the labor of writing. Part of the movie’s genius is that it can sustain a reading like that; that the one interpretation folds so easily into the other.

The movie opens with a pair of hands (Charu’s) embroidering the English letter ‘B’ onto a handkerchief for her husband. Near the end, we see the same hands beginning to write a story in Bengali. Ray frames that change—from 'B' to Bengali—within two larger off-screen developments in the world of the film. The first is the dawning political consciousness of Bengalis like Charu’s husband, Bhupati, who protests British taxes to support a new war in Afghanistan (the film's set in 1879). Bhupati’s principled and single-minded efforts to waken Bengali resistance lead to his deepening involvement with Western politics; whether Gladstone beats ‘Dizzy’ back in London weighs more in his hopes for India’s future than what happens behind the shutters of his own house.

The second is the Bengal Renaissance, which, through the work of writers like Bankim (one of Charu’s literary idols in the film), aimed to modernize Bangla literature by departing from Sanskrit models and attending more closely to everyday life. Charulata is based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous figure in the movement, and Ray, whose father and grandfather were friends of Tagore’s, studied at Tagore’s experimental school at Santiniketan. So Ray’s own scrupulous attention to the details of Charu’s life—her opera glasses and kaleidoscope, her feet hitting the ground as she swings in the garden, the particular way she plays cards with her sister-in-law on the bed—both argues for and enacts the values of the Bengal Renaissance. (One might even read Charulata as Ray’s case for film—his film—as the apotheosis of the movement.)*

The Bengal Renaissance appears inside the movie mostly in the form of a teasing debate between Bhupati’s younger brother, Amal, and Charu. Soumitra Chatterjee’s Amal is a charming, easygoing poetaster of no fixed politics whose tastes run to stock celebrations of transcendence, the beauties of nature, and the cosmic cycle of life. Charu has a sharp eye for Amal’s literary failings, but he’s also her point of entry to a wider world of literature to which her husband’s indifferent. In one of the film’s key scenes, Charu looks from a swing through her opera glasses first at a woman on a veranda with a baby, then at Amal writing. This is supposed to be the ‘recognition scene’ where Charu, who’s not able to have a child, first realizes her longing for Amal. But since I thought she was looking at her brother, I understood her to be choosing between two forms of labor, and deciding she’d rather make books than babies.

Labor is a central question throughout the movie. Early on, we hear Bhupati tell Amal that his problem isn’t with the British governing Bengal, but with their refusal to give Bengalis any significant work to do. This throws Charu’s own enforced leisure into a political light, so that when she begins writing—working—she’s a stand-in of sorts for Bengal itself casting off imperial rule. Likewise, Amal’s rearguard tastes in poetry twin with his unwillingness to marry or grab the chance to travel and become a barrister; the last we hear of him, he’s hanging out at dreamy poetry recitals with friends in Madras. One irony of Charu’s situation is that her husband can’t see how his wife’s aesthetics connect to his own progressive politics. Literature for him is a kind of embroidery, and while he worries about Bengal losing its culture to the modernizers, it's not till the end of the film that he learns how a new form of writing could advance his political claims for independence.

Charu gets a story published in a major paper, and the sequence where she reaches back into her memories, instead of turning to 'correct' literary models, to write it is one of the strongest in all of Ray's movies. Meanwhile, her husband's bankrupted by a manager who cheats him. (Ironically, Bhupati had put his own politics into practice by entrusting the man, who was listless and bored in his work, with more responsibility for the finances.) Determined to start a new paper, he takes Charu's suggestion that it cover politics and literature, in Bengali, Hindi, and English, with Charu herself as literary editor: a synthesis of all the disparate elements in India's evolving national consciousness.

Tagore's story is supposed to be much harder on Bhupati than Ray is, and the ending more tragic. In the film, Charu extends her hand in the famous final scene and invites Bhupati to "come in," an open-ended command that might stand, among other things, for Bengal's entry onto the world stage through the medium of Ray's film.

*Ray’s 1961 documentary of Tagore’s life, made three years before Charulata, is available in 5 Parts on YouTube.

1 comment:

Gary said...

This is one of my favorites of Ray's films ... thanks for the reading of it!