Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos


Yesterday went well. I finally got to watch Charulata. The last I remember of this movie was watching it in a packed hall in Bhubaneswar, and understanding nothing. Age makes the man wiser, and I realized and appreciated the movie in all its vitality and subtle imagery. Most importantly, I realized what good filmmaking is all about…

This was one movie, when pressed; Ray would have chosen to be his best and most perfect film. Ray is believed to have said, that given a chance to remake all his movies, he would not be making a single cut/change in this movie. Like all Ray movies, much of the imagery is in the screenplay and the cinematography; dialogues are at a minimum – and the acting and interplay of emotions fantastic.

Charulata is the story of a wealthy Bengali landowner, Bhupati Majumdar, his wife Charulata, much younger than him, lonely but sensitive and literary, and of Bhupati’s carefree college-going cousin Amal, who comes to stay in their household. Bhupati, a worshipper of English rationality and political ideas, is perpetually wrapped up in his political magazine and his wish and hopes to see the Liberals win in England to bestow sufficient attention and care on the lonely Charulata. Lost in this faraway world of political intrigue and machinations, Charulata’s loneliness takes abrupt turns, makes her whimsical and at some point in their interlinked but widely divergent lifestyles, she misses the comfort and care of a satisfying marital life. On the other hand, we have Amal, carefree, college-going, not a care in the world, who has literary ambitions of his own, but which are far-removed from his brothers political inclinations. Traditionally, the relationship of a dewar (thakurpo) is one of casual intimacy with a certain degree of license, and their relationship builds on this particular note with a common love for literature and poetry as the foundation. Extremely powerful are the moments in the garden, where Charu and Amal through the use of rhetoric and alliteration, coerce each other into literary efforts. Charu’s affection for Amal takes a different turn when she gives him a notebook and elicits a promise that whatever he wrote in that – would be only for her eyes and not for any publisher. Through a subtle play of words and images, eye-movements and sideward glances, Ray manages to convince us that there is a mild tension of a gradually building affection between these two individuals. Sex has always been underplayed in all Ray movies, and sexual tension has never been as underplayed as this!!! Despite his promise to Charu, Amal goes and gets his article published in a magazine of that time; leading to extreme heartbreak and jealousy on the part of Charu, who quite justly feels deprived by the unwanted intrusion of a foreign party into their closed literary circle.

At this point of time, the tone of the story changes from one of casual flirting and heightening sexual tension to one of household worries. Umapada, Charu’s brother departs with all their money, leaving them laden with debt and worries. Amal, not wanting to cause further harm and trouble in the already traumatized household, leaves suddenly, leaving Charulata grieving. Bhupati unexpectedly enters their bedroom and finds Charu weeping on the bed, leaving him shocked and speechless. It is at this point that Ray diverges quite a bit from the Tagore original. Whereas Tagore’s novella ended in a duple rejection on the part of both husband and wife where both of their paths could never meet again and were irreconcilable, Ray’s movie ends with a tinge of hope. As a debilitated Bhupati starts leaving the house, Charu asks him to stay; a servant holds a light up keeping it aloft, and Bhupati approaches Charu. Their hands stretch towards each other, their fingers approaching closer and closer. Just as they are about to touch, Ray freezes the shot. The movie ends in a brilliant series of five close shots – close-up of Charu’s face, somber but untroubled, one of Bhupati’s, anxious and grievous, a shot of the servant holding up the lamp, a mid-level shot of Charu and Bhupati with their arms outstretched, and finally a zoom-out as the words “Nashtanir” flicker on-to the screen…

Though the pace might be a bit slow for these troubled times, the movie is an artistic masterpiece. The musical score is an understated one but tremulous, with two extremely beautiful vocal interludes – with Kishore doing ample justice to the impeccable Tagore number Ami chini go chini. Madhabi Mukherjee gives one of her best performances as the tender, affectionate and slightly whimsical Charu. The shots of the day-dreaming wife as she rocks back and forth on a swing in the garden, stealing glances at her brother-in-law lying sprawled on the ground, is quite unforgettable. This, for me definitely stands out as one of his greatest creations… Nobody but he could have made it like he did – arranging every camera frame to convey poetry, nuance and expression like no other filmmaker could. It is as if a photographic film of images has been embroidered together on an exquisitely beautiful mosaic of moving images.

This was just another movie which made me realize that it would take years before a filmmaker of his stature is produced again…

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