Among the many trademark expressions of Satyajit Ray's artistic genius is the exploration of a singular imprisonment: that which confines the minds of bright young women in the households of rich, intellectual, Victorian-era high society. Ray's sumptuously-appointed Victorian interiors stifle sumptuously-dressed young Bengali women, and hint at a kind of oppression particular to the upper classes.
In both Ray's Ghare baire and Charulata, a man concerned about the loneliness and intellectual satisfaction of his young, intelligent wife attempts to broaden her sphere by introducing her to a vibrant outsider. In both movies, the foundations of identity and home and marriage are shaken, with catastrophic results. And in both movies, the counterpoint of relationships is a proxy for the the complex dance of East and West. In Ghare baire, the tension is epitomized in the woman's English studies and repetition of an English song. In Charulata, it is captured in (among other ways) a scene very early in the movie, in which the titular Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) peers through lorgnettes between the slats of the shuttered windows, watching a stereotypically ordinary Bengali man strolling by. Something about him - his freedom, his ordinariness, his Bengaliness - captivates her attention, and she flits bird-like from window to window in her lushly filigreed European parlor to keep her gaze fixed upon him.
Charu's husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), insted of inviting her to join his world of politics and newspaper editorials, indulges Charu's love for literature though he does not share it. Curious to know whether she harbors real literary talent, Bhupati enlists his dreamy, indolent cousin Amol (Soumitra Chatterjee) to teach and encourage Charu to write. The result of this experiment is both affirming for Charu, when her writing is successfully published, and devastating, when her growing love for Amol threatens her identity and her marriage. The movie concludes on an ambiguous note, without resolution for Charu and Bhupati. And Charu's literary and emotional awakening reminds me - as stories in this vein so often do - of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, whose protagonist has nowhere to go but into the sea once she has tasted freedom of spirit and body and mind. Charu's ending is less tragic, but it carries just as strong a sense that there is no returning to her old life. It takes only a tiny gesture to release a bird from its cage; coaxing her back in is another matter entirely.
As for the catalyst of Charulata's awakening, Amol himself is detached, sarcastic, even bratty. Charulata's love for him reflects her own immaturity more than a real emotional connection. This is not a tragic love story of soulmates kept apart by the deep injustice of circumstances or society. Rather, the story presents a talented but incompletely formed young woman with a sort of jealously competitive crush on a young man whose only advantage over her (and it is not an inconsequent advantage) is that he is male, and therefore more worldly and educated and confident than she. Despite his own immaturity and indolence, however, Amol represents the hometown side in the East-West struggle that threads through the film. He wears Bengali clothes and writes in Bengali. He sings Rabindrosangeet - even his "Ami chini go chini," nominally a love song to a foreign woman, is delivered with a sarcastic, mocking air. He even refuses a generous opportunity to travel and study in Europe. All of this is in stark contrast to Bhupati, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, penning English-language newspaper editorials about the English politics of the English rule over Bengal. When Bhupati chides Amol for his literary passions, insiting that politics is far more important and real, Amol smirkingly plays "Good Save The Queen" on the piano.
The pleasure of Charulata, and indeed the pleasure of any Ray film, lies in the density of content and meaning that is packed into a movie of relatively few words. An incredibly rich, layered assemblage of visual imagery, subtle cues, and symbolism paints a story that operates on multiple canvases at once. Commentaries on the value of literature and the futility of politics, on the tension between Bengali and European modes of thought, on the nature of youthful infatuation and ambition, on the frustrations of the idle upper-class life especially for women, all these threads mingle and cross at many points of juxtaposition and harmony. Recurring symbols like Charulata's birdcage, stormy weather, and the newspaper itself highlight the movie's important themes. One of the most touching visual metaphors contrasts Amol's confident, fluent writing with Charu's initial halting effort; when he writes, the words flow out of the pen in an effortlessly beautiful script, while her words scratch and blot the page.
Unlike movies made by mere mortals, where emotions are too often spelled out in explicit, expository dialogues, Ray requires you to divine characters' internal states of mind from expressions and circumstances. He demands of his audience a great deal of thought, empathy, and theorizing. The result is a movie-watching experience more akin to voyeurism than to being told a story. It is both unsettling and compelling, and it is what makes Ray's movies so deliciously rewarding of rewatching. Ray's films are packed with overloaded symbols, subtle cues of meaning, visual metaphors, and allegories that operate on multiple levels. Charulata, in this respect, is perfect vintage Ray - a beautiful and beautifully crafted movie that reveals more and more of its richness with every viewing.