The opening shots of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata bypass melodrama for the feel of a fairy tale, with bored housewife Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) flitting about her spacious Victorian home like Rapunzel amusing herself in her tower. Even shots that stay still for less than a second frame Charu behind bars, be it bedposts or the wooden blinds she jerks open in order to peer at the bustling city life below. Never again does the camera move as swiftly nor as giddily as it does when Charu, armed with a pair of binoculars, hustles along each window to follow the movement of a man she finds interesting. The scene ends as quickly as it came to life, nothing more than a fleeting distraction from the tedium of her sheltered existence.
Point-of-view shots through Charu’s binoculars become a recurring motif in the film, used to emphasize not merely physical, but emotional distance between characters. When Charu’s husband, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), arrives home, we see him through the binoculars, his proximity warped to make him seem farther away, another stranger being monitored by the curious shut-in. Later, Ray uses the same device to frame a glance Charu sneaks of Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), the cousin-in-law who comes to stay with the couple and steals the wife’s affections. The similar shot connotes different emotions, however, this time revealing both Charu’s longing and her desire to tamp down that unacceptable desire, the image’s artificial distance used to subconsciously push that desire away while voyeuristically engaging in it. Such moments help visually define the film, which sees Ray trading the realist style of his earlier work for a sophisticated formalism on a par with that of Max Ophüls.
Not as ornate as the expat German, Ray nevertheless reflects Ophüls’s ability to delineate power structures, personal relationships, and desires through camera movement and placement, and how nominally mirrored shots communicate vastly different moods. An early shot gently curves around Charu in the foreground, back to camera, as the newspaper editor Bhupati condescendingly explains politics to his wife as he eats the meal she prepared for him. Though Charu sits closer to the camera, she holds no power, shrunken compared to Bhupati sitting in the background. Later, however, after Amal awakens her desire for both love and intellectual stimulation, a similar shot of Charu in the foreground and Bhupati in the distance reverses the dynamic, so that Charu, now facing the camera, burns with inner strength while the husband cluelessly prattles on behind her. Ray even displays a visual wit, bringing Amal into the frame for the first time on a gust of wind, as if nature itself sought to shake up Charu’s life.
If Charulata retains the realism of its predecessors, it’s in its dramatically unmotivated arc and morally nonjudgmental tone. Bhupati’s neglect of his wife stems not from a lack of love or masculine hostility, but his deep, idealistic commitment to his newspaper, where he writes on the abuses of the colonial government. Yet Bhupati is also infatuated with the English way of life, evident not only in his house’s architecture and furnishings, but in his awestruck descriptions of great British orators and politicians. The film doesn’t treat this contradiction as hypocrisy so much as a multifaceted relationship with life under British rule, in which people can resent the worst aspects of its governance, but also love its civilization. Bhupati’s complexity adds conflict to the melodrama less in the tension of him learning of his wife’s feelings for his cousin than in the equal footing on which the film places each element of the love triangle. Only Charu’s brother, Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal), who takes over the finances of Bhupati’s newspaper and promptly embezzles everything, stands out as vile, but he hangs at the margins, only surfacing to put outside pressures on the main trio that affects their internal decisions without defining them.
With no monster to propel Charu’s hope for some kind of escape, the film is free to sublimate its romance into minute, teasing gestures. The use of calligraphy especially takes on an erotic charge, the elegant strokes of written Bengali saying far more than the words they form. More broadly, the act of writing—be it journalism or poetry—gives characters agency. The literally prosaic focus trains the audience to find its emotional cues in the smallest moments, which makes the film’s coda, delivered as a series of still photographs, doubly shocking not only for its aesthetic upheaval, but what’s communicated by it. The parting, nouvelle vague-inspired break in filmic motion freezes a move of reconciliation to emphasize its hollow, for-appearances’-sake compromise. Though Amal is introduced hailing Krishna on a stormwind and Bhupati reflects a Victorian mindset, neither man stands as a mere symbol, and both seem worthy of Charu’s love. The finale, however, makes clear that all parties chose poorly in their final relationships, and the restless tedium of the beginning reasserts itself stronger than ever, capable even of reducing life to immobility.