Given both men's connections with the much-discussed "Bengali Renaissance" movement, the meeting between filmmaker Satyajit Ray and writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was bound to happen. The second of three Tagore adaptations by Mr. Ray, Charulata, set in late 19th century Calcutta, has gone down as one of the Indian director's greatest achievements; little wonder, as it is in essence a Victorian parlour drama about forbidden love set against the background of an Indian elite dreaming of civilization and independence.
As always with the director's work, it's practically impossible to look at this period piece strictly as costume drama, such is the universality of its story about a stifled, repressed housewife yearning for a release. Charulata, the doting but unfulfilled wife of society gentleman Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), is a close relative of The Big City's Arati (they're actually played by the same actress, the remarkable Madhabi Mukherjee). Both are women chafing at the restraints placed on them by the heavily patriarchal, conservative society they live in. But unlike Arati, who finds escape through her work, Charulata's role confines her to the palatial Dutt mansion, the less tangible activities of art and love as the only flights from its four walls: the writing everybody encourages her to keep doing, and the resulting dance of chaste, touch-and-go seduction between her and Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati's cousin, in town for a visit.
The story takes place against the political aspirations of 1870s Bengai bourgeoisie, with Bhupati devoting his energy and time to publish a newspaper meant to advance the cause of Indian independence; but so engrossed in it is he, and so taken with his idealism, that he completely neglects the practical aspects of daily life (his trust in Charulata's brother being sorely misplaced) and the fact his own wife has no absolute possibility or opportunity to seek her own independence (love as an equal of politics). This, however, is not used against anyone - Mr. Ray steering clear of preachiness or judgment, preferring to observe with a sympathetic eye and an infinite curiosity about human emotions what his characters are going through.
Though the stuffiness of its claustrophobic, gas-lighted single décor is almost demanded by Mr. Tagore's source material and central to the film's meditation on a woman's fate, it is true that it does occasionally make Charulata seem a bit too fusty, too slow-moving - but that's forgetting just how smartly and quickly Mr. Ray could turn clichés on their side, and how the simplicity of classicism has always been his guiding light. Victorian parlour drama or not, Charulata is also a grade A "woman's picture" like Hollywood never quite could do them, being more than just a tale of forbidden love to take in an entire approach to life, politics and society.
Cast Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Shailen Mukherjee, Shyamal Ghosal, Gitali Roy, Subrata Sen, Bankim Ghosh
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the novella The Broken Nest by Rabindranath Tagore; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); designer Bansi Chandragupta; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 22nd 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)