Place is an inherent part of cinema, it’s the sand beneath the feet of form and breathes around content whilst acting within the consciousness of the viewer not unlike the unseen but very much felt constant of existential dread. Two of the artists most associated with place (in this case Bengal) were the dual polymaths Satyajit Ray and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tragore. In 1964 they collaborated for the second time on a film, Charulata (following their 1961 effort Teen Kanya), back in cinemas this week. Ray called Charulata his favourite of all his films and the one that is he had to remake it he would change nothing. The film is also an adaptation of Tragore’s novella Nashtanir, first published in 1901.
Charulata observes the erotic triangulation of Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), his wife Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) and his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee). Bhupati is a wealthy Bhadralok Bengali who is an advocate of the burgeoning Victorian Bengal renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century. Charu lives a luxurious but dull life and is detached from the city of 1870s Calcutta as she awaits the happenstance of fulfilment from her husband. Bhupati also runs a local newspaper, The Sentinel, and is preoccupied with the political upheaval he’s enshrined in. Noticing that Charu is lonely though he asks his cousin, Amal, to keep her company. It transpires that literature is the conjoining point of this dual danger and attraction that finally looses the viper within the nest of subdued tranquillity.
Ray’s cinema is humanist at its core but very much transplanted in a specific time and place. His cinema is a location for patience and virtue and still has ceased to lose its narrative power. Within the canonical house he has built he bridges the gap between the classic narrative of western literature (Chekov, Dickens and Foster) and the poetics and culture of Bengal. This is more apparent in Charulata than perhaps any of Ray’s films; it’s at times whimsical but with a glacial sense of time, tone and pacing. The dual contradiction of sophistication and simplicity of the very best of high art encroaches with a certainty of purpose here. Ray’s use of spatial architecture is profound and enlightening; he creates a beautiful prison that confines that cage Charu like an exotic specimen to be owned and worshipped but not experienced.
Alongside the nuanced sounds of the surrounding environs and the music (which was responsible for himself) these elements of cinema prove Ray as a master of his chosen forms and how we miss him so. The finality of the closing sequence is a shock, as Ray uses formal audacity to ambiguously question what we are observing. Via a sequence of jarring edits and a freeze frame he asks the question: what now? With an added puzzlement he allows the Socratic ideal to predominate and the audience to answer his question of Bhupati and Charu. For Ray himself knew that the only solutions that are ever worth anything are the solutions that people find themselves.