Ranking: #56/111

Director: Satyajit Ray (India)       

Genre: Social Drama/Romance

The great Indian film director, Satyajit Ray, another cinematic story-teller of the highest order, considered this film to be his best (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 682). Like Fassbinder’s masterful period drama, Effi Briest, Charulata is a slow-moving, highly disciplined social portrait, which is delicately directed with soft lighting and a light grey photographic palette, with lots of white and whitish grey tones. The film is set in Calcutta at the end of the nineteenth century when India was still under colonial rule.

It is a moving study of female isolation, with the main character, Charulata, feeling trapped within a cold marriage, within a rigid patriarchal society. In the opening scene, Ray skilfully evokes her seclusion, as she looks at the outside world, and the people passing by, through binoculars. Later, we discover that she is an imaginative person, with an interest in poetry, literature, culture and art. But she us largely ignored and neglected as a person.

Charulata is the elegant, intelligent wife of Bhupati , a newspaper editor and publisher who is more interested in politics and the newspaper business than his own wife. Ray draws a satirical portrait of this upper-class liberal intellectual who lacks real empathy and humanity. He’s seen as a well-intentioned, but overly idealistic intellectual, who can’t connect emotionally with his wife. In fact, he is oblivious to her emotional needs and inner struggles. Beneath her self-controlled, impassive exterior, she is in pain. He’s passionate about his work, not about her.

They each live separate lives.

Bhupati invites Charulata’s elder brother, Umapada, and his wife Manda to stay with them to provide company for his lonely wife. However, this does not work. It is only when Amal, Bhupati’s younger cousin, comes to visit that she regains some enthusiasm for, and interest in, life.

Amal upsets the sterile equilibrium of the household, becoming an agent for change in their lives. He has literary aspirations and he and Charulata become fond of each other, as they share their love of poetry and connect at an intellectual level. He is the opposite of the dreamy, self-absorbed Bhupati.

She begins to fall in love with him. Inspired, she ends up publishing a short story which highlights her own creative talent. She is beginning to blossom, to come out of her shell. However, this love for him remains unrequited. This only adds to the sadness of her life. Then tragedy strikes. Charulata’s brother and sister-in-law swindle Bhupati out of his money and run away. His brother had never paid the bills of the printing business and, instead, had taken out loans in his name.

Due to this cheating, Bhupati’s newspaper and his printing press collapse. Amal, feeling uncomfortable in their household, which has become so fraught, decides to leave. While trying to get over the shock of being swindled, Bhupati discovers that his wife had been in love with Amal.

The film is satirical about the kind of high-minded liberal idealism which has blinded the newspaperman both to his wife’s unfulfillment and to Umapada’s evil intentions.

The film ends with a tentative hint that Bhupati, humbled by the realisation he might have lost his marriage on top of the trauma of being swindled by close family members, can reconcile with his wife. The final freeze frame of the film captures this intimation that they might try again to be happily married, although the future still seems uncertain for them.

This film is so masterfully made that one cannot understand how a story so sad could be so beautiful. It represents a high point in modern Indian cinema.