Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) has a stultifying daily existence as the wife of crusading newspaper editor Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), whose dedication to his job results in her feeling neglected by him. However, the sudden appearance of Bhupati’s extroverted student cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) results in Charulata’s previously quiet life changing. Whilst Bhupati encourages Amal to encourage Charulata to write, she finds herself not only realising her creative talents but also developing feelings towards Amal.
Ray effectively depicts the growing relationship between Charulata and Amal without using physical intimacy, the partial result of Indian censorship restrictions, which allows him to be more creative. Ray uses Amal and Charulata’s assigned writing lessons to develop their relationship as well as Charulata’s creative desire, progressing from Charulata and Amal playfully discussing literary ideas to Amal realising the damaging effect his relationship with Charulata would have on Bhupati.
However, Ray also uses Bhupati’s commitment to political activist journalism as not only a way of explaining his distant relationship with Charulata, but also to comment on the impact of British colonial rule on India. This particularly comes across in Bhupati’s fixation on the upcoming British general election, where he supports William Gladstone‘s Liberal Party in the belief that their victory will result in less oppressive governing of India.
Charulata’s artistic flourishing, represented in her writing about her home village for the first time, provides Ray with the opportunity to superimpose a montage of village life (images of a fair, and a religious celebration) over her writing, acting as an innovative stylistic departure from the otherwise sparse and naturalistic staging of the rest of the film. Ray’s decision to depict the climactic moments of the film in a series of still photographs is another formal variation that seems more jarring, although it does allow for a degree of ambiguity to seep in regarding the future of Charulata’s relationship with Bhupati.
The skill of Ray’s directing also extends to his cast, with Mukherjee subtly portraying Charulata’s initial frustration with her tedious life at home, her conflicted feelings towards both Amal and her writing skill, and her newly-found ambition as she encourages Bhupati not to give up on his newspaper. Shailen Mukherjee also impresses with his depiction of how Bhupati’s commitment to his newspaper and his intense rationality gives way to suspicion and despair once he realises the truth behind Charulata’s feelings for Amal. However, it is Chatterjee who provides the most affecting performance, expertly essaying both Amal’s initially carefree nature, as well as his increasing unease about his relationship with Charulata with a naturalistic ease that doesn’t make his character development seem jarring and inconsistent.
Charulata is a quietly impressive film that handles its subject matter with a surprising degree of naturalistic restraint. Whilst Ray was already receiving critical acclaim for his Apu Trilogy in the 1950s, this film serves as an effective entry point into the works of a filmmaking legend.
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