Reel Life: Charulata, the lonely wife
It’s like Ray and us, the audience, are peeping into a world that is entirely owned by Charulata, and that too through her eyes. Images, a series here and a sequence there, are resonant with meaning
Quite often, in appreciating cinema, one thing that we don’t talk about enough is the gaze. How does the filmmaker look at his characters through the camera? How does his way of looking, in turn, mediate the gaze of the audience itself? And how does it all add up to making a film what it is?
Time and again I have gone back to Charulata (or The Lonely Wife, as it is known internationally), my favourite film by Satyajit Ray from his vast oeuvre, for engaging with and trying to understand a filmmaker’s viewfinder.
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Nastanirh (Broken Nest), I marvel at how Ray could frame the entire film through the point of view of his protagonist. It’s like Ray and us, the audience, are peeping into a world that is entirely owned by Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), and that too through her eyes.
Very little is said. Images, a series here and a sequence there, are resonant with meaning. It’s an overtly feminine gaze coming from Ray; from the very beginning. Charulata embroidering the name of her husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) on a handkerchief, fixing things for him, sitting by him during the meal, looking after his needs and roaming around the long corridors of the huge mansion, aimlessly. Comfort and purposefulness are in books but most so in “looking” at the world outside. Quite evidently, she is the Queen of the house but also imprisoned by it.
The delightful opening sequence has her tracking a man outside on the road, chasing him from inside her home, as she moves from one window to another, following him with her opera glasses. People and objects are so close and yet so far. It aligns us with her. We become Team Charulata, empathetic of the dilemmas that are unfolding in her mind and life.
Her way of looking sets her up as a curious person, one with an agile and enquiring mind. The one iconic image of Charulata looking at Amal through the opera glass says it all. Even as she looks at him, she is looking within with her mind and heart becoming playgrounds for her predicaments. She is a woman bound and confined by domesticity who urgently needs to break free and embrace the world outside. Her husband, busy bringing out the newspaper, has no time to spare. Will his Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) bring the companionship and friendship she always desired?
Ray keeps it delicate as he examines an innocent banter threatening to become a bigger betrayal; but not quite. There is grace in communicating Charulata’s battles with her passion and attempts at self-realization and the accompanying guilt. There is an inherent empathy for the woman even as he explores the possibilities and impossibilities of forbidden desires.
The 1964 film is one of the many dealing with women caught between home and the world outside, the husband and the romantic stranger. Like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960) and Ray’s own Ghare Baire which came two decades later in 1984. While Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee) and Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) are the Bhupati and Charulata figures here, Soumitra Chatterjee returns as Sandip, another facet of the Amal he played in Charulata, even as Ray discusses the right of a woman to belong to both home and the world outside. That’s what should define true emancipation.
The most beautiful inheritor of the legacy of Charulata, however, is a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri called Hell-Heaven. I first read it in New Yorker magazine. Told from the point of view of the bored, lonely wife of a Bengali professor in the USA, it introduced food as the woman’s ally, just like opera glasses in Charulata. Feeding a young graduate student makes the woman face up to her longing and desires. The actualization remains a different story altogether.