The Contemplative Discontented "Charulata" Rivals Any American Film on Marital Discord Review

Considering how popular a topic marital discontent is in American cinema, you’d like to think we were the masters of the genre, but famed Indian director Satyajit Ray captured the despondence and disconnect of a marriage in decline subtly and completely with his 1964 film Charulata, starring Madhabi Mukherjee as the titular dissatisfied wife. Balancing some overt symbolism with a story of a woman who yearns for her husband to notice her desires for his attentions and not to be dismissed as a “traditional” wife, content with house chores and lounging about, Ray takes the “new vs. traditional” theme found in many of his films and translates it to one of the most character-driven forms he ever delivered. From the film’s mostly silent opening scenes to its dour but hopeful ending, Charulata paints a nearly perfect picture of a woman desperate for something or someone to engage her intellect and her husband too distracted by a doomed hobby that she could have helped him save.

Aspiring political luminary and fledgling newspaper owner Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) occupies all of his time and focus with the running of his struggling political periodical, The Sentinel, leaving his wife Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) to idle about, embroidering, and playing cards with her sister-in-law who rejects anything too intellectual. Having just hired a family member to manage the newspaper, Bhupati decides to invite his cousin, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), who dreams of being a writer, to live with them and subtly tutor Charulata in his craft without outright letting on he’s doing so. Amal’s love of song and poetry ignites something within Charulata that her nights with her husband, who dismisses the arts as inconsequential when weighed against his all-consuming interest in domestic and British politics, have been denying her. Upon learning of the condescending reason behind Amal’s presence, Charulata reveals her unknown talent for writing that leaves Amal with a seed of doubt about his own ability just as her husband’s passion project is ripped out from under him by a singular dishonest action.

Satyajit isn’t afraid to fill moments of his films with long contemplative silences, but for few of his films are such moments as meaningful as they are here, doing well to inform us of Charulata’s feelings of intellectual and emotional isolation despite having a husband in the next room, a sister-in-law who talks to her every day, and a house filled with servants. All of their presences mean nothing when compared to Amal who stimulates her mind and actually discusses with her about the things that fuel her curiosity. The more they talk, the more their bond grows, to the point where it becomes ambiguous as to the nature of their relationship. Something more clearly forms between them, but his constant rebuffs on the topic of marriage (to anyone) and her inability to fully articulate until it’s too late what his presence in the home means to her lets it all amount to nothing but a missed opportunity for two kindred spirits to remain connected. Instead, Charulata is left with her broken marriage to her husband who had to lose everything to realize she should have been the center of his attention all along.

At points Charulata is a bit heavy-handed with its symbolism (like an approaching storm just as Amal arrives) and the melodrama that ensues as Charulata’s conflicted feelings for Amal seem to go unreciprocated, but it still manages to be a terrific expression of the conflict between the traditional and newer, modern ideas of what marriage should be.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Despite having no video for it, the audio interview with Satyajit Ray is a candid and informative retrospective from the director himself on his career and Charulata, and it’s probably the best extra on the disc, followed by an interview with Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee. After that, an interview with a film historian and an Indian cultural historian rounds out the disc as it covers the ways in which Charulata adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s novel and where it deviated.

Finally, as with all Criterion releases, we get a booklet insert with an essay, this one by Philip Kemp on Ray’s reverence for the work of Tagore, and an interview with Ray on Charulata.

"Charulata (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale August 20, 2013 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Satyajit Ray. Written by Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray. Starring Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Shailen Mukherjee.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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