Satyajit Ray made films that make your heart soar. If you give yourself to the world that he creates, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the drama that follows. Key to this is the performances that Ray always managed to get from a cast that, bereft of his influence, never really added up to much. To see Madhabi Mukherjee‘s performance as Charu, the titular lonely wife, is to see an honest and career-making performance but, like many of Ray’s cast of regulars, it seems more about what Ray managed to get from them than what they were able to give on command.
It’s a standard enough story – Charu is lonely because her husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) is running a newspaper. They’re a wealthy couple but this is 1870’s Calcutta, under Raj rule, and Bhupati’s outspoken style might rankle his superiors. Seeing that Charu is unfulfilled, he invites his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), a writer, to keep her distracted. Bhupati recognises that Charu has some writing talent and hopes that, under influence of Amal, she will exert her abilities. It doesn’t go completely to plan.
It’s easy to get carried away with praising Satyajit Ray films, but it is important to understand just what he managed to achieve. He made his best films in India in the 50s and 60s, films that resonated around the world and still influence directors to this day. Wes Anderson is an avowed fan, and there’s definitely a lot of Ray in his work – similar subjective camera movements, and obsession with using small stories to represent big issues (the role of women in society and aspects of women’s liberation, in this case).
The representation of women in the film would have been a revelation at the time, even in a country as matriarchal as India. Madhabi Muckerjee said at the time that the script for Charulata was the first time she’d been offered a role in which the main star was a woman, not playing second fiddle to a man. Charu is the centre of the film, the body that provides the orbit that the other characters live in. The men exist in her reflection, and the story could work no other way. It’s almost the perfect film.