Growing up in a quintessential Bengali home in Calcutta, my interests in the arts and fashion took root early on, thanks to my dida (maternal grandmother). The lady had impeccable taste in music, cinema, sarees and everything in between. As I grew older, my creative pursuits bloomed—I would spend hours just unfolding and exploring sarees, shawls and fabrics from old fashioned steel almirahs and vintage muslin-laced trunks; fascinated with each new discovery of colour pairings, motifs and fabric textures. My grandmother and mother proudly possessed a burgeoning sari collection, in every possible Indian weave!
While other boys my age would be busy playing sports after school hours, I could hardly wait to rush back home! In no time one would find me happily tucked in under a hand-embroidered, silk Kantha (an upcycled throw made by patching together several layers of saris and bound together by a geometric maze of running stitches with colourful cotton thread), laying down next to my dida on a daybed. We spent many languid afternoons in that room, listening to music by Hemanta Mukherjee on the cassette player or watching one of Satyajit Ray’s classics on the VCR player and television.
Looking back, I can profess without an iota of doubt, that my love for cinema, music, costumes and design galvanised and flourished during these simple yet impressionable childhood moments. On one such rain-swept mid-summer afternoon, I distinctly remember being bewitched by the sights, sounds and costumes of Charulata and feeling inspired to write, read and embroider just as Charu did in the film.
I grew fascinated by her brass binoculars, her jamdani and local cotton saris, ruffled lace blouses and intricate yet delicate gold jewellery. It is true, I was perhaps a little too young to understand this complex, multi-layered love story, but the costumes, the setting and the songs completely encapsulated me in a warm embrace.
Over two decades later, I keep returning to this memory, and I draw from it time after time, having designed multiple fashion collections inspired by the costumes and sartorial style of Amal and Charu. It is no surprise that I have intently watched Charulata numerous times, but each experience is equally enthralling and inspiring. After all, when journalists asked him to single out a personal favourite amongst all the path-breaking films he made, Ray always, always chose Charulata!
It is near impossible to point out one element that makes Charulata Ray’s finest. The film is ablaze with marvellous examples of visual storytelling and brilliant background music that’s composed by the man himself; gently floating around each scene, giving it a magical, almost dream-like quality. Set in the Calcutta of the late nineteenth century, Charulata is an adaptation of a 1901 novella titled Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest) by Rabindranath Tagore.
It is a moving tale of a young, intelligent, educated and beautiful Bengali woman named Charu. She is married to an upper class, affluent man, Bhupati Dutta, who edits and runs a city newspaper, voicing against the unjust politics and tax practices of the British government in India. Passionate about this cause and extremely hard-working, Bhupati is unable to devote quality time to his beloved wife. Charu is left lonely and uninspired, as she wanders around her own mansion from room to room, reading the same books time and again and supervising mundane domestic chores.
Arriving unexpectedly and unannounced, with an onset of a Kalboishakhi (a sudden and raging pre-monsoon, almost hurricane-like storm) actor Soumitra Chatterjee effortlessly portrays the role of Bhupati’s handsome cousin Amal. He’s an exuberant, free-spirited young man, fresh out of college, with no ambition in life other than the pursuit of his literary aspirations. Guilty of his absence, Bhupati entrusts Amal with the responsibility of nurturing Charu’s cultural and
literary talents. The duo begins to spend entire days together, building a unique bond over conversations on their favourite poets and writers.
An iconic scene, which will forever be etched in my mind and one that I keep revisiting to seek inspiration, is when they spend a lazy summer afternoon in the garden, with Charu playfully swaying on a swing and seeing the world play out around her through a pair of brass binoculars. In close proximity, Amal is lying down on a madur (an intricately hand-woven reed mat) under a tree, voraciously writing away, working on a poem he intends to submit to a local magazine; while soaking in the play of light and shade. They seem blissful in each other’s company, but as the days go by, and luck would have it, Charu finds herself creatively inspired and dangerously drawn to Amal. Sensing this and unwilling to betray his brother’s trust, Amal distances himself from Charu and leaves the city.
From the very first scene, all the way to the end, the film is completely owned by Madhabi Mukherjee, who becomes Charulata herself—blood, bone and soul. Such was the power of Ray’s discerning casting and evocative direction.
Madhabi delivered an almost never-seen-before performance; an insightful, empathetic and intelligent portrayal of a woman bored beyond redemption in her mundane life; until she discovers this curious bonding and unrestrained attraction to a man she knows she must not desire. This catapults Charulata into one of the finest examples of a female character ever essayed on Indian celluloid. Ray took us on a journey through his marvellous cinematic storytelling—of a woman’s artistic and romantic yearning. A delicate tale of a marriage in jeopardy and a woman taking the first steps toward establishing her own voice.
Today, over a century after Satyajit Ray’s birth in May 1921, it is Charulata (The Lonely Wife), along with the celebrated Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar), that acts as a representative of the entire body of work by Ray, who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Photographs: Getty Images
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