One of the interesting aspects of watching people’s reactions to one another when they meet is to see the extent these reactions are shaped by unacknowledged emotions: tiredness, prejudice, suppressed resentment lead to condescension, flattery, anger and other subtexts which colour the consciously controlled verbal exchange.
While some great writers (Flaubert for instance) have examined these subtleties, very few film makers have. Even the great Yasujiro Ozu steps back, as it were, and observes personal interactions in a social context. Satyajit Ray is almost alone in presenting what goes on beneath the surface of a persona, and as a result his characters are among the most richly realised in cinema.
This explains partly the comparative neglect that Ray’s films have suffered. Many of them have never been available on disk. (True, this neglect is also partly due to Ray’s carelessness about preserving his work, over which he had almost complete artistic control). But consider the context in which we see films. Action dominates the cinema world: our powerful reactions of fear, anger and lust are well catered to. On the sidelines are the human emotions, with actors registering the basic ones: love, fear, joy, despair, hate – and this is seen as an accomplishment, made by those actors who can act. And then there is the cinema of Satyajit Ray, where a commonplace phrase can say so much, and a dozen expressions cross an actor’s face before they reply. Ray is not more realistic than others, he just shows more. We may know this is happening with the people around us; we’re not used to seeing it in films.
So a plot summary of a Ray film will often not tell us what it is about. In Charulata, a good, intelligent, politically involved but emotionally obtuse man gives his wife’s brother the opportunity to steal from him because he wants to trust him, feeling that responsibility will steady the man. And he throws his lonely wife together with his young cousin so that their shared literary interests will give them companionship. The man, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), feels he is doing good, but because he is only aware of his own benevolence he becomes horribly disillusioned by the end of the film.
Everybody acts in ways they can justify to themselves. Even the thief feels he is stealing from a fool. There is no betrayal except of illusions, no passion that is not disguised as friendship. The husband Bhupati hides his tears behind his kindness. The only casualty is trust. Yet how much is being said!
The film is doubly qualified in terms of context. We are watching Bengali upper class people in the late nineteenth century go about their relationships. We may be unsure if what goes on is uniquely Bengali, whether it relates to other Indian cultures, how much it reflects the morality of the 1870s or the customs of the wealthy. Gradually we see that what is depicted is the constants in human nature, unchanged since the Stone Age perhaps. Sidestepping the usual method of holding our interest in matters such as these by means of melodrama, Ray shows us how a human being can feel two powerful emotions at the same time, how our intellect can misinform our brain what our heart is feeling.
Ray was a consummate film maker with an uncommon command of the elements of film making. Charulata excels in its sets, lighting, camera movements and music. But the chief resource Ray has is the faces of his actors, and in particular that of Madhabi Mukherjee.
Madhabi is best remembered for her role as Charu. She started as a child actor and is a famous Bengali actor with many roles to her credit, including ones in two other Ray films, ‘Mahanagar’ and ‘Kapurush’. How often in Charulata the screen is filled by a close up of this face, and the tumult of emotions crossing it. This is no virtuoso act; Madhabi always remains in character, and when she doesn’t know what she is feeling, neither do we the viewers, yet we are moved just the same. I wonder if Ray directed Madhabi in this role the same way he reportedly directed the 14 year old Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar, telling Sharmila, lean this way, hold your head to the light, narrow your eyes – be damned to the Method and all its actors when doing things this way gets such results.
Despite other elements in Charulata: the vividly realised and perhaps excoriated milieu; the use of symbolism – we see Charu on a swing several times, one of which is also a famous virtuoso camera sequence; the satire of gender roles – all, including Charu, think she would be more satisfied had she had children, yet in a passion she easily excels Amal as a published writer; experimental sequences, such as the montage of images from Charu’s childhood, which were new in the 60s and unfamiliar to Ray; some of Ray’s finest music, and charming songs by Rabindranath Tagore (whose novella Nastanirh is the source of Ray’s screenplay and which has reputedly autobiographical elements); still the play of human emotions, and the way people become aware of them, remain the focus of Ray’s work, in Charulata as elsewhere.
Perhaps this is why there is no resolution to the story in Charulata. Plots and the other devices of drama are a psychic necessity for us precisely because they don’t exist in real life. We separate good and evil into heroes and villains in a story precisely because good and evil are confusedly mixed in real life. So anyone who wants to depict human emotions must deal with ambiguity. In a way emotions cannot be resolved: they just are. Does Charu love Amal or is she just lonely? Is Amal dutifully following Bhupati’s instruction in encouraging Charu to write or just preening himself on his own literary abilities, or trying to seduce her? What does Amal’s departure reveal about his feelings for Charu or is it merely cowardice? When Bhupati and Charu reach hands towards each other at the end of the film will those hands touch? We can’t know any of this, just as the characters cannot and this tells us more than any resolution could.
One of the words used to describe Ray’s films is humanistic, referring to an old and now somewhat outmoded philosophy which hasn’t worn too well after two world wars and the dominance of media generated opinion all over the world. In fact the word humanism is most often used now pejoratively by those who think they have a radical political agenda. The basis of all institutions however, political or religious or social, is human nature. The examination of human nature is the business of any art worthy of the name and the films of Satyajit Ray are an outstanding contribution to this activity.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.