Don't miss a single one of these great films on display at TIFF Bell Lightbox in the TIFF Cinematheque series "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". From visionary programmer James Quandt, this is one of the most important retrospectives ever presented in Canada. If you care about cinema, you can't afford to miss even one. Heed the warning below!!! The Film Corner & Mr. Neeson mean business!!!
|Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata:|
Seeing the world through opera glasses.
…and don't forget to order
the stunning Criterion Collection
Blu-Ray of Charulata.
|Illustration by Satyajit Ray himself|
Starring: Madhabi Mukherjee,
Sailen Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, Syamal Ghosal, Gitali Roy
There are many extraordinary things about Satyajit Ray's great melodrama Charulata, but first and foremost is the grey zone he so delicately explores in this adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's short story "Nastanirh" (The Broken Nest). If anything, it's these shadings which contribute the most to the romantic and tragic elements of this deeply moving love triangle and Ray's touch here has never been more expertly applied with respect to this perspective. Collaborating with his favourite cinematographer Subrata Mitra and the superlative editor Dulal Dutta, Ray plays out the vast majority of the action within the expanse of a highly upscale Calcutta home, alternating between the vast, gorgeous emptiness of the setting and the emotional claustrophobia which infuses the space through the eyes of the film's title character (played by the babe-o-licious Madhabi Mukherjee). It is through the lenses of an ornate pair of opera glasses that Charu gets glimpses of the world outside the coldly beautiful interiors so expertly designed by art director Bansi Chandragupta.
In the late 19th century, India is still under British rule, but in Calcutta the Bengali culture is taking further steps to assert itself in spite of the colonial yoke and Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) uses his upper class status to not roll over and feather his own nest, but to assert the notion of freedom. He does this by running a political newspaper from a corner of his palatial home and in spite of his friends and associates expressing concern that Bhupati could get into trouble with the authorities, he shrugs this off and maintains his belief that free speech is a paramount tenet of Britain and that he's doing nothing wrong. In a sense, he's right about this but his newspaper continues to suffer from low circulation and minimal ad revenue which keeps his attention too strongly upon business rather than his passion and vision to guide the paper creatively.
Bhupati is an honest, educated and intelligent man. He also prides himself upon being an extremely liberal and forward thinking member of his class. You would think this would make him a perfect husband for beautiful Charu. Her interest in the arts and culture, as well as her intelligence and literacy, is not at all lost on Bhupati and is the thing that makes him love her desperately. He's so enamoured with her brains (and considerable beauty), that he even encourages her to express herself artistically as a writer. Given the usual domestic patriarchy Ray has often explored in his films, this truly sounds like a marriage made in Heaven.
Here, however, are those damnable shades of grey. Bhupati is so obsessed with his newspaper that he seldom has time to be a friend, lover and equal life partner to the smart, sensitive Charu. More out of boredom, rather than anything else, she consumes herself with the deathly dull management of the household and apart from her occasional readings, she lives an incredibly lonely life, often spying activities in the outside world through her opera glasses.
Even this is not lost upon Bhupati. Within the context of an ages-old patriarchal culture, this sensitivity to her needs makes him a more-than-deserving recipient of canonization. Bhupati hits upon an amazing win-win (or so he thinks) situation. First of all, he summons Charu's big brother Umapada (Syamal Ghosal) and his wifey Manda (Gitali Roy) to come and live as family under their roof. Umapada has been looking for a good job and Bhupati puts his brother-in-law in charge of the day-to-day business operations of the paper. So far, so good. He assumes Manda will be excellent company for Charu. Wrong-O, Bhupati. Just because Manda is a woman and Charu is a woman, doesn't mean they're going to be good friends. As liberal as our want-to-be newspaper magnate is, he still carries the kind of patriarchal assumptions that offer no help at all. Manda is a catty, cheap and vulgar young lady with no interest in much of anything save for lolling about and/or playing stupid card games.
Luckily, Bhupati has also extended an open invitation to his young, educated, intelligent and sensitive cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee). He encourages Amal to spend time with Charu and coax her to work on her writing. This sounds pretty win-win, but goddamn those shades of grey. Amal and Charu are matched perfectly on both artistic and intellectual levels and they spend virtually every waking hour together discussing art, philosophy, literature and writing. They even undertake to write creatively on their own work and critique it for each other.
Seeing two young people fall in love because they're both smart and attracted to their respective minds is pretty damn sexy. Ray handles this courtship as slowly and carefully as it plays out. Every gaze, gesture and nuance has weight, but they're all exclamatory points on the creative and intellectual intercourse between the two. That said, it doesn't hurt that Charu is a babe and that Amal is a young, studly dreamboat. Good looks, however, are genuinely secondary, as is sexual magnetism - these things blossom from the mind melding. Besides, if looks played into it, Sailen Mukherjee as Buphati is no slouch in the looks department either.
Disaster and betrayal loom, of course, but they come with the force of a hurricane as one (for the audience) is from an expected source and - at least initially - the other is wholly unexpected (though in retrospect, not a surprise). While the film ultimately leads us to a place of redemption and forgiveness, once we get there, Ray doesn't cop out. As in life, he takes us to the precipice, but refuses to placate us or his characters. Instead, he piles on the chill of a freeze.
And make no mistake. This is Satyajit Ray we're talking about here. It's a deep, deep freeze.
And it's devastating.
Charulata is presented at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the TIFF Cinematheque series "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". This might be your only chance to see this masterpiece the way it was meant to be seen, so get your tickets NOW and GO. Visit the TIFF website for further details by clicking HERE.
See it on the big screen, then be sure to buy the outstanding Criterion Collection edition via the various Amazon links below. The Criterion Blu-Ray of Charulata is another treasure trove of delights that make the disc a must-buy and mega-keeper. Included is the stunning all-new restoration in a 2K digital film transfer, with my ever-favourite uncompressed monaural soundtrack. All new mini-docs featuring interviews with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee, Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas and Bengali cultural historian Supriya Chaudhuri are detailed and full of valuable supplementary insights. I always love Gideon Backmann audio interviews and Criterion includes a doozy with Ray himself. The new English subtitle translation is a marvel and definitely a step forward from the already fine translation in the 1990s Merchant Ivory Foundation restoration. The lovely booklet includes an excellent essay by Philip Kemp and a truly astounding interview with Ray by the inimitable Andrew Robinson.