I had a chance to watch this at the Walter Reade Theater yesterday and it was a really fantastic experience. It was my first time watching such a clean print of this film and watching it yesterday, in all it’s big screen glory only reinforced my belief that this is Ray’s best film. Or at the very least, it’s my favorite Ray film. Having watched the Apu trilogy recently, I really noticed how much more assured this film feels in comparison. I think the first half of this film, especially, is near-perfect in terms of the composition, the pacing and the setting of mood and I felt this huge sense of excitement and discovery even though I’ve watched this film several times and know these sequences really well. I really should try and watch more films on the big screen.
The best part of this film is probably the opening sequence which lasts about 7 or 8 minutes I think. This sequence is nearly entirely devoid of dialogue (I think barring one line to the servant) and it’s this really incredible tableau where we follow Charu around the house on what seems to be a typical afternoon in her life. We see her wander from one room to the next looking for something to break her ennui and nothing really seems to catch her fancy for long enough. She takes up and discards one activity after the other, goes up to the window and starts to observe the people on the street, then grabs her opera glasses to get a closer look (a recurring motif in the film) and then goes from window to window observing this man only to end up bored again.
It’s an exhilarating sequence and it’s not just masterful in terms of the technique. In those seven minutes, Ray has established so many things. From the fashionable cut of Charulata’s blouse and from her jewellery combined with the opulent decor of the living room, we learn so much about Charu’s situation. From the fact that she has a bookshelf filled with books and is reading Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s novel, Kapalkundala, we know that she is educated and even literary. And yet from the way she seems to discard every activity she takes up and from her movements and facial expressions, we are privy to the deep sense of ennui that she seems to be suffering from.
This is then followed by another really great couple of scenes where Ray quickly establishes the dynamics of Charu & Bhupati’s marriage. In the first scene, we see Bhupati walk by Charu a couple of times without even noticing her because he is too engrossed in his book. We see Charu continue to stand in position hoping to be noticed. Eventually she gives up and takes to observing her husband too through her opera glasses.
In the scenes that follow this, we get to see another side of Bhupati. We see him as a good-hearted and even affectionate man but one who is so consumed with his passion for politics and his goal of spreading liberalism through his newspaper that he has little time for anything else.
I also really like the way we are introduced to Amal. His entry into Charulata’s life and home literally seems to cause a storm and along with Charulata, I too was carried away by his youthful exuberance, his charming smile and his poetic and romantic disposition. This scene is particularly effective juxtaposed against what comes right before it. We see Charu and her sister-in-law (who doesn’t seem to have helped alleviate Charu’s boredom at all) playing a game of cards that Charu barely seems interested which then cuts to a scene where both of them have fallen asleep as we start to hear the sound of a storm rising in the background. Really great.
While the films in the Apu trilogy, even taken one at a time, feel somewhat episodic in nature to me, this one really feels like a film that really builds up gradually. Perhaps that is why it feels more cohesive to me but I’m not too sure about this. Anyway, the film is really full of these moments that are captured really perfectly imo and that taken together build into this relationship that develops between Charulata & Amal.
As I was watching this yesterday, I realized that I had forgotten just how funny the first half of this movie is. There are is a wit and charm that pervades throughout this film effortlessly and I was pretty thrilled to find that the humor translates well even through subtitles because the audience (which was largely white and I presume non-Bengali speaking) laughed at all the right moments.
Right off the bat, we see that Charu & Amal seem to have much more in common than either Charu & Bhupati or Charu and Manda. We see their relationship go from respectful and affectionate banter to mutual respect to a friendship and intimacy that both of them seem to be experiencing for the first time. I love these scenes where Charu, Amal (and sometimes Manda) are just hanging around and shooting the breeze. The dynamics between these 3 people is conveyed so well through dialogue but also through the way they are framed by Ray. There are several instances where we see only Charulata & Amal in the frame in a two-shot but then the camera pulls back and we realize that Manda is with them as well. The distances between the characters too seems to reflect their relationship at that point in time. And all of this is still really subtle and done really naturally.
The other really great scene in the film is when Charu & Amal are in the garden and Amal is writing a story. First we see Charu on her swing and I love the way throughout this sequence, everytime we see Amal, we see him from Charu’s PoV – he goes in and out of frame depending on the position of Charu’s swing.
And then there’s the wonderful moment when Charu is reading Amal’s notebook using her opera glasses and finds a spelling mistake that she gleefully points out. She then continues to look around with her opera glasses and finally lands her eyes back on Amal and along with her, we too get to see him as if for the first time. It’s a great scene and really captures this complex series of emotions without getting at all heavy-handed about it.
I also really like the scene where Bhupati is spinning this really amazing dream where Amal is in snowy London and traveling to Europe and trying to convince him to get married to this rich man’s daughter. We see Amal getting swept up in the fantasy for an instant and Charulata’s reaction to the prospect of Amal getting married. And by the time the scene ends, we realize that for all his apparent patriotism, Bhupati is still fixated with the West and England in particular whereas Amal seems to carry a nationalist’s heart beneath his flippant, frivolous demeanor after all. Which reminds me that I love all the discussions that Bhupati and Amal have about literature and the way that Ray seems to portray both extremes so affectionately and yet be able to critique both positions as well. Given everything I’ve read about the family Ray grew up in, I suspect he interacted with enough people like Bhupati and Amal in his own life.
he scene where Charulata hits Amal repeatedly with her copy of the journal that published her piece and then gets upset when he praises her writing and breaks down and promises never to write again is another one of my favorite scene (probably neck to neck with those opening 7 minutes). It’s perfectly acted by Madhabi Mukherjee imo and that scene is really where I get reminded of the hopelessness of the situation. Till that point, we are mostly seeing these two people engage in harmless flirtation and being competitive with one another and so on and this is when I think even we as the viewers realize that this idyllic situation can’t possibly last.
I was less interested overall in the side-plot about the embezzling of funds but Ray doesn’t pull it out of a hat or anything. The first time we see Bhupati hand over the keys to Uma, we know what’s coming. And in retrospect, I could see why he wanted to keep that particular plot-point (apart from the fact that it’s present in Tagore’s story that Ray is being reasonably faithful to). It paves the way for another really good scene where Bhupati is talking to Amal about betrayal and we get to see Amal’s growing realization that he is guilty too by virtue of not doing anything and merely letting things take their course. Amal’s guilt-ridden sideways glance just captures all this so well.
These are the parts where the film starts to get really dramatic. And as I’ve probably mentioned in the write-ups of the other films I’ve watched for this marathon, I like Ray best when he is just capturing simple moments that are seemingly lacking in drama but are so poetic and beautiful. That’s the case here as well. And yet, I was quite comfortable with most of the drama in this film. I was ok up until the point where Amal leaves and we see Bhupati and Charu having a conversation on the seashore. I really quite like that seashore scene in fact.
At least watching it yesterday, I wasn’t so sure that I like what comes after that scene on the seashore. For one thing, the film gets even more dramatic in these last 10-15 minutes. To me, that really interrupted the rhythm that the film had up until then. It was jarring to me when Charu breaks down and starts crying and we see Bhupati watch her from outside the room. Bhupati’s lonely carriage ride is poetic on paper but didn’t work nearly as well for me in reality. And the freeze frame shots at the end which are reminiscent of The 400 Blows are cool and all that but the pessimism of the ending (and especially the text at the end that reads The Ruined Nest) felt so heavy-handed in contrast to the rest of the film.
Right now, I really wish Ray had chosen to end the film at that scene on the seashore. I think that scene still retains the ambiguity that he was perhaps going for with that last freeze-frame with the outstretched hands. There is no certainty that the plans they are hatching are going to work out and that Charu will find happiness at the newspaper. But at least it suggests that there might be hope yet and acknowledges that ultimately, we all move on and don’t stay heartbroken forever.
I brought this up when me and my friends (who watched the film with me) went to dinner after the film. I was pretty much shot down the minute I suggested it and told that the tragic ending was the only way to end the film. One of my friends also suggested that perhaps I had not understood the film properly .
I still think I’m right about this.
Regardless of the ending, I can’t recommend this film enough. It’s one of my all-time favorite films and if there’s only one film from this marathon that I wish everyone would watch, it’s this one.