Satyajit Ray’s Charulata completes 50 years

Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Charulata based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Nastaneer turns 50 this year and the appeal of this film revolving around a young, married woman who is deeply attracted to her brother in law, still holds true. Shoma A Chatterji discusses this appeal and the immense controversies and comparisons to Tagore’s original work this film triggered, when it was released in 1964.

Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata (released in 1964) is based on Nastaneer (The Broken Nest) a novelette of around 80 pages, written by Tagore in 1901. Its translator, Mary M. Lago, describes it as “one of Tagore’s best works of fiction.” The story of the film and the original literary piece takes place in 1879, at a time when the Bengal Renaissance was almost at its peak. Western thoughts of freedom and individuality were just about to ruffle the age-old calm feathers of a feudal society. Thinking men were responding to it. Women’s liberation was being talked about, but not much beyond a few cases of widow-remarriage and education. In Charu of Charulata, Ray probably discovered the crystallisation of the Indian woman, poised between tradition and modernity. Intelligent, sensitive, graceful and serene, Charu was a traditional woman whose psyche imbibed unto itself, winds of change from the world outside. And it was changing, though below, in the drawing room, her British-influenced husband Bhupati was celebrating the victory of the Liberals in Britain. Nineteenth century Western social philosophy and Ram Mohan Roy’s ideas were constantly working towards the liberation of women.

Tagore’s original story Nastaneer created shock waves among feudal purists and Hindu aristocracy of the time. It was criticised because it not just suggested but made it clear that Charu, a bored and lonely wife with creative talents in writing, is deeply attracted to her husband Bhupati’s young cousin Amal, a student who lives with Bhupati and Charu. When Amal realises this, he is shell-shocked and not wanting to be a part of the betrayal of a generoushearted cousin, beats a hasty retreat, bringing the lives of the husband and wife to a metaphorical and tragic end. “Where Charulata herself is concerned, Ray achieves that wonderful transparency in the objective correlative which represents ideal cinema.

Every thought in her mind is visible, every feeling”, writes Chidananda Dasgupta in Talking about Films. He goes on: “Deeply intelligent, sensitive, outwardly graceful, self-composed and serene but inwardly the kind of traditional Indian woman of today whose inner seismograph catches the vibration waves reaching from outside into her seclusion, stirring her with a spiritual unrest.”

Though Charulata, the film, is distanced from Nastaneer, it does not move away from the original essence of the Tagore story. Amitabh Chattopadhyay has disputed Ray’s loyalty to Tagore’s original story. But when one considers the relocation of the story Ray made almost a 100 years after Tagore wrote it, one begins to understand the perspective of a filmmaker ‘looking’ at a story that was penned by a different person (Tagore) in 1901 (about five characters set in 1879) through his ‘cinematic’ vision which is – and has to be – distanced from Tagore’s literary vision. But there is a sense of ‘reverence’ to Tagore that Ray expresses through other visual components. The recreation of the period to create the mise-en-scene and the setting is an example. The European style haveli with its heavy, ornate furniture is made into a gilded cage for the helpless Charu. Long corridors, rooms seen through vistas, shuttered windows, dark wallpaper, all combine to create an overpowering sense of being enclosed in a confined space, while at the same time offering glimpses of dappled sunlight filtering through the central courtyard or in the formal garden. They also highlight the loneliness and the boredom that defines Charu’s life.

To quote from Chidananda Dasgupta, “the exquisite period flavour is Ray’s own, and distinguishes the film from the story which Tagore takes for granted. The sunlit garden, the swing, the embroidery, the floral motifs on the doors and walls, the horse-drawn carriage, the evocative settings created by Bansi Chandragupta are, however, more than exquisite decorations; they frame the action and set it at a distance – the distance of contemplation.” It is this ‘distance of contemplation’ that marks the ‘process of transportation’ which makes Charulata, a creative cinematic expression stand independent of its original source, as much as it takes the Tagore story a bit further ahead in time.

The ‘process of transportation’ from the novelette to the film both necessitates as well as creates the ‘changes’ that purist critics of Charulata question. Ray has been drawn and quartered for taking liberties with the Tagore original and magazines brought out special issues on an on-going barrage of letters between economist Ashok Mitra attacking Ray and Ray defending the changes. Had Tagore written this same story in 1964, when Ray made the film, perhaps he too, would have closed his story along similar lines. The same logic would apply to Ray’s strong visual statement highlighting the loneliness of Charu, understated in the original story. Charulata, the film, takes the argument of a young married woman’s loneliness and subsequent attraction for her brother-inlaw Amal further, to fit into the social realities of the 1960s, without changing the framework of the time and the place given in the Tagore story.

There is a passage in Tagore’s novelette Nastaneer that reads: “Perhaps Bhupati had the usual notion that the right to one’s own wife’s affection does not have to be acquired. The light of her love shines automatically, without fuel, and never goes out in the wind.” Charulata is fifty but Charu the woman, lives on forever, having left a bit of herself behind in all women everywhere.


Shoma Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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