Charulata - Satyajit Ray - - Madhavi Mukherjee

1964, directed by Satyajit Ray

In the opening scene of Charulata the eponymous housewife wanders through the ornately appointed rooms of her mansion, peering outdoors through opera glasses. A robed Brahmin below the window catches her attention, and she spies on him idly, going from room to room. Finally, following him from a triple window, she peers out three times. The odd thing is, he’s covering ground faster than she is, yet for some reason the Brahmin keeps re-entering her field of vision from the right. Such an obvious continuity error would be surprising in such a carefully made film. More likely the Brahmin represents a figurative fault in Charulata’s own vision.

We don’t need to wait to find out the defect in Charu’s point of view. Although she is generally sympathetic, she is introduced insulting her servant Braja for his slow response: “Are you deaf?” She snaps at him the same way again toward the end. Only in the final scene, when she asks him to light the lamps, does she address him without berating him. It’s difficult to say whether she has changed, because this last time Braja answers her without delay, and there’s no occasion for harsh words… but something has changed in her marriage, and the movie is specific about what had been wrong with Charu all this time. Charulata is, above all, a critique of romanticism. The same worldview that makes an affair with Amal so tempting also produces her snobbery. What, after all, could be less romantic than a servant? It’s not surprising that her vision is more attracted to a Brahmin.

Charulata - Satyajit Ray - Brahmin - opera glasses - umbrella

Charu may see Braja as a blemish on her ideal surroundings, but the movie takes the servant’s side. Far from being deaf, Braja shows appreciation for music when he eavesdrops on Amal’s singing. Charu exposes her snobbery again when she shoos away a wild bird, while ironically a pair of pet birds sits beside her. As long as a bird is framed in a golden cage it’s welcome in her romanticized world, but a stray bird is not. The result is unjust to all birds; they’re either deprived of freedom or pushed out of sight.

From the outset Charu is immersed in romantic thoughts. She whiles her time reading romantic novels by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Whenever she or Amal looks through windows, opera glasses, a magnifying glass, or a kaleidoscope, it’s as if they’re framing the world through idealizing optics the way romanticism does. The Victorian house is steeped in romance, each object and surface embellished beyond what its function requires. Everything looks like more than it actually is. Charu mentions that the yard was supposed to be a Japanese garden, its plantings and contours arranged to perfection. It’s hard to avoid thinking that Charu herself is a kind of ornament, an object of beauty meant to be kept in the background. Ironically this humanizes her. Her romanticism, including the snobbery it gives rise to, is a natural outgrowth of her setting and her limited role in it. Nor is her husband Bhupati entirely to blame. He’s wrapped up in his socially conscious politics. Romanticism isn’t in his nature, it’s simply a received worldview that he indulges and that sucks Charu in. Like so many of Ray’s films, Charulata is about the damage caused by inherited ideas.

Charulata - Satyajit Ray - Bhupati - Shailen Mukherjee - Madhavi Mukherjee

The big event in Charulata is the visit of Amal, Bhupati’s dashing young cousin, who sweeps Charu into a romantic fantasy that nearly damages her marriage. Amal first appears during a storm, entering jubilantly in a gust of wind, and when Charu realizes he’s gone for good there’s another storm. Framed by these two storms, Amal is effectively a storm in Charu’s life, disrupting the calm of her marriage. It’s almost as if he had materialized out of Charu’s romantic imagination.

Amal enters and leaves like a force of nature, but there’s also something magical in the way he’s linked to the two storms. Charulata is full of magical and poetic juxtapositions that reinforce the feeling of a romantic fantasy. Charu plays a couple notes on the piano that segue into her approaching husband’s footsteps, as if she conjures him out of boredom the way she had conjured Amal in her wish for excitement. When she asks Amal to find a mat, without further ado a gorgeous peacock mat unfurls to a quick arpeggio, transporting her and Amal into the garden with all the magic of a flying carpet. The first garden scene leaps forward in time, a notebook materializing to another burst of music, and the second garden scene also begins magically with a match cut on a crumpled page as Charu seeks the right beginning for her short story.

Charulata - Satyajit Ray - Amal - Soumitra Chatterjee - Madhavi Mukherjee - garden - swing

The garden swing is the film’s signature image, and it too is charged with magical power. In the famous scene when Charu rides it, the camera takes a point of view unfamiliar to human vision, floating in front as if bound to her by some invisible harness. The swing is the locus of both her romantic love and her inspiration. She falls for Amal on the swing, turning her gaze on him after spying a mother and child in a nearby window. Her marriage is childless, and the wordless implication is that she suddenly looks at Amal as a man who could give her a child. It’s also on the swing that she conceives of the composition on her village that will bring her success and esteem. When she had first sat on the swing she had asked Amal for a push, and in pushing her literally he had also pushed her figuratively, giving the start to her writing career.

In its pursuit of abstract ideals, romanticism denigrates the real world. Charu’s sheltered lifestyle affords her the fantasy of living in a poem, as if words and written letters were more real than the people and things around her. The opening titles single out the letter “B” on an embroidered handkerchief, the token of love that ultimately brings her husband back at the end. Later, Charu and Amal make a game of using words that start with “B”. The movie is filled with poems, novels, lyrics, short stories, and letters, the screen often filled with elegant handwritten scripts. Tokens of writing are conflated with corporeal reality – Charu’s pen is carved with the figure of a hand; the dot on the page that begins her writing career echoes the bindi on her forehead; and the parallel lines of ruled paper echo the characters’ striped clothing. Bhupati also lives by words, but his newspaper is political, not romantic like Charu’s or Amal’s literature. In contrast, Charu’s visiting sister-in-law Mandakini is implied to be illiterate. She too has a crush on Amal, but she cannot participate in the drama of romance because she doesn’t traffic in written words.

Charulata - Satyajit Ray - Amal - Soumitra Chatterjee - oval portrait - song

Mandakini’s husband Umapada, Charu’s brother, cheats his employer and brother-in-law Bhupati out of a small fortune, motivated by envy. There’s not much romantic in this subplot, but besides motivating Amal’s departure it’s also a foil to the main plot. After the crime is discovered, Bhupati gives Amal a sorrowful speech about the pain of betrayal, which awakens Amal to the even greater betrayal he was contemplating, the theft of Charu’s heart. Once we realize how much worse Amal’s contemplated crime would have been, we can appreciate the corrupting effect of romantic notions.

Romanticism tends to present itself as an enrichment of life, but Charulata presents it as an insidious force that ensnares people against their better natures, leads to inevitable disappointment, and exacerbates the elevation of the privileged. Amal sings of a “fair-skinned” beauty, and Charu’s romantic outlook motivates her contempt toward Braja. Underneath it all romanticism is the recourse of the bored, a destructive substitute for real life, and a contributing force behind racism and unjust hierarchies.

Charulata - Satyajit Ray - Bhupati - Shailen Mukherjee - Madhavi Mukherjee

The film ends on a frozen moment, a split second before Charu’s and Bhupati’s hands touch in reconciliation. The movie stops just short of showing the healed marriage, scrupulously avoiding any sort of closure, which would be dishonest in the same way that romanticism is. Showing the happily fulfilled marriage, with the implicit suggestion that everything was finally all right, would frame the world in the same falsely idealizing point of view it had criticized in its main character.


Shadow of a Doubt – A bored young woman figuratively conjures up the visit of a male relative who brings romance and danger into her life

Day of Wrath – Skepticism toward the abstraction of written words

Brief Encounter – Boredom, infidelity, and regret of a bourgeois wife; link between romanticism and snobbery

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – Critique of romanticism

Gertrud – Critique of romanticism in a bourgeois married woman; overly decorated home