The Lonely Wife/ Charulata
(Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)
If you cannot have faith, trust; if you do not know what is true, how can you make sense of the world and how can you live? These are some of the questions asked by Satyajit Ray’s great film, The Lonely Wife/ Charulata.
The setting is an upper-class milieu of Bengali poets, journalists and politicians at a time, the 1870’s, when India is still under British rule and issues of freedom and self-determination are every-day passionate concerns. Bhupati (Sailen Mukerjee) is a rich intellectual who personally finances a political newspaper, The Sentinel. His wife, Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) is childless, intelligent, beautiful and very talented at both embroidery and writing. Bhupati is so engrossed in politics and in his newspaper that he is neglecting his wife. He is a loving husband and aware of this so he asks Charu’s brother, Umapada (Shyamal Ghosphal) to come work for him and bring his wife Manda (Gitali Roy) to keep Charu company. Manda, however, does not share Charu’s interests. When younger cousin Amal (Soumitra Chaterjee) arrives, the husband is delighted and asks him to keep her company whilst trying to get her to write, which the husband assures him, his wife is very talented at.
This sets the scene for the drama that unfolds: Amal will write and so will Charu, to her husband’s surprise and delight. However, Umapada will end up stealing such sums of money that it ruins Bhupati’s newspaper and his press; a greater betrayal yet will be that the once lonely wife, lonely no more, in fact brimming with emotions she heretofore had only found in novels, will start embroidering slippers for her cousin rather than for her husband.
The Lonely Wife dazzles with the expressiveness of its restraint. The film begins with a close-up of a woman embroidering what we will find out is her husband’s initials before zooming out to show us the bed she’s sitting on and the richness of the bed and the room. The camera follows her as she wanders through her magnificent house, all alone with her embroidery and the books she lovingly strokes. The film’s windows are closed off against the heat but seem semi-barred and begin to suggest a prison. She hears a bird. She’s framed by her house, sumptuous but overwhelming in its immensity: it takes her a while to get to the drawer holding her opera glasses. Finally, she peeks at the world outside, with its music and it drums, its workers. Life is available to Charu only through opera glasses and barred windows. Nonetheless she eagerly follows the action outside, going from to room so she can follow the events of a world she has no access to. She’s a rich and beautiful woman aching for any kind of adventure but lonely in her luxe and with only books for company. The film’s beginning is a beautiful, wordless opening scene with a flowing camera that allows us to discover even as it frames our perception
The film has many moments of sheer loveliness: the scenes in the swing, with the camera fixed so that Charu’s face is always at the same distance from it; and with that exquisite little edit onto her feet as they lightly touch the ground; and then the camera fixed on the swing as we see the brother-in-law, younger, more literary, more poetic, more romantic than the sturdy, steady, loving husband of hers, immersed as he is in politics and the smell and lure of his printing press.
Later, near the end, a melodramatic scene worthy of Douglas Sirk: when she finds out her brother-in-law has left the house, and by implication his feeling that leaving her lonely is a perfectly good price to pay for his cousin’s well-being, the doors swing, the storm enters the house, a perfect poetic symbolization of the storm raging over her heart and, as the film cuts to the husband witnessing this thunderous show of emotion for his cousin, over their own relationship and indeed their world. Madhabi Mukherjee has the seductive and compelling presence of a great star and one can’t help looking at her when she’s on screen. But Sailen Mukerjee is the greater actor and his hurt and distress at realizing his wife loves not just another but his own kinsman is deeply moving.
Earlier on, in a magnificent speech, he’d expressed to his cousin his distress at being swindled by his brother-in-law:
‘Such a trusted person, my relative, no, more than that, a friend. If that man can betray so badly…I put all my trust in him. I feel literally suffocated. What’s owed I’ll pay but…if this is how a man treats another, a person who I trust, then what have we got? What is there to live for? Trust, faith, are these all empty words, Isn’t there anything called truth. Is everything fake, an illusion. A person this close, I couldn’t trust him either? How could people actually get along then or live for that matter? My whole world seems to be crumbling’.
It will crumble further still. The film’s told us as much via camera movement. Throughout the film, a recurring shot begins from the side of the marriage bed and travel right into the room. The marriage bed is the starting point but it is not the centre and the world extending from it flows in all kinds of directions it shouldn’t.
In the last scene, the husband returns to the home but can’t bear to look at his wife: he looks to the side, he looks down. She says come in. He looks at her but quickly looks back down. She smiles, repeats her invitation, extends her hand. He comes in but doesn’t yet look at her. Each extends a hand to the other, but before the hands meet, the frame freezes, and we get something like one of those missing scenes from the restored version of Cukor’s A Star is Born that is reconstructed only through pictures held together by the soundtrack, like the flow of narrative is fractured by isolated pictures of melancholy instances: a close-up of hands not meeting, a picture of them in the barred balcony of their home, a solitary servant on one side, a strewn newspaper on the other. The fracturing of the flow of movement subtly underlining what the sub-title will scream at us: A Broken Home.
It’s a great movie, ostensibly Ray’s favourite of his own works and based on Nastanirh/ The Broken Nest, a novella by Rabindranath Tagore, who also wrote the song that accompanies the wonderful sequence on the swing and is said to be a principal creative influence on the director.
After seeing Satyajit Ray’s The Big City, Roger Ebert remarked that he had trouble approaching Ray’s films as ‘foreign’: “they are not foreign. They are about Indians, and I am not an Indian, but Ray’s characters have more in common with me than I do the comic-strip characters of Hollywood.” I agree. The film feels both of its time and very contemporary: probably most people living in cities in the non- or recently industrialised world are no more than a generation away from village life (and this includes European countries such as Spain, Romania and many more) and the problems around re-definitions of inside/outside, the family, work and gender roles are not too different than those Ray’s film so delicately and beautifully dramatises.
In The Big City, Subrat Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee), an accountant who works in a new bank, and his wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) live in a cramped apartment in Calcutta. They’re supporting his father (Haren Chatterjee), a former schoolteacher who needs glasses they can’t afford, his mother (Sefalika Devi) who’s got an expensive tobacco habit, his sister (Jaya Bhaduri), a teenager but still going to a fee-paying school, and their young son Pingu (Pressenjit Sarkar). They can’t make ends meet. The husband drops hints that maybe the wife can get a job. The wife takes the hint but then it is the husband who becomes reluctant to venture any further as a wife working away from home would shame him in front of his parents and friends. However, they see no other solution.
Ray works within the realm of the little hurts, slights, and barriers in life that must be overcome. There are no heroes or villains. The family benefits from Arita going to work but each is nonetheless and in different ways resentful that she’s taken a job. The father who loves his son prefers to bad mouth him in the course of begging for new glasses from former students rather than accept them lovingly from his working daughter-in-law. The older generation is shocked and unaccepting of this modern world in which women are allowed to work. Yet it might be shocking to us that they initially see begging, however delicately and elegantly voiced, preferable to work.
This illustration of middle-class poverty nonetheless focuses on a family who’s got a servant whom they have trouble paying; there are other people who are much worse off then they. You get a real sense of modernity arriving in the city, people who’ve just come from a village and who’ve still got a rural, almost tribal identity but in a changing world. Unusually, Anglo-Indians are depicted as the disenfranchised minority, on the face of it privileged, but de-facto structurally oppressed, their privilege being tied to the world order of a different generation and one that no longer exists. Chandak Sengoopta in ‘The Big City: A Woman’s Place’, an essay offered as part of The Criterion Collection website, offers a marvellous socio-historical context for the film’s drama.
The character of Arita is the film’s focal point; it is through her that we see Modernity structurally transforming the family and a whole way of life. Initially, the film’s focus is on the husband’s worries, and we see her encased inside the tiny apartment unable to meet the various demands the members of her family make on her. Then we see her fear of the city; how she needs her husband’s support to go outside and into the world. Then her awe and wonder at the richer homes, other ways of life. Soon she’s standing up for herself, walking purposefully through the streets, arranging contracts, wearing sunglasses and even putting on lipstick and meeting men.
The lipstick is crucial. And the lipstick is inextricably linked to her new ability to be with men who are not her husband. Arita is no flâneuse; she’s a career woman now with places to go and people to see; and all these wonderings around the city, all this career success, particularly in the light of her husband’s travails but of the culture as a whole, make her husband, and most likely the film’s initial audience, question her virtue. Part of the beauty of the film is that it makes us understand why her society and her husband might put her morality in question (what else is the husband to think when he finds a lipstick in her purse or sees her with other men?) whilst simultaneously leaving us with no doubt as to Arita’s goodness.
Madhabi Mukherjee who plays Arita seems simultaneously ordinary and a great beauty. Her features are just as delicate as her way of conveying the character’s emotions. She evokes a centered serenity even in her greatest moments of distress, even in her final confrontation with her boss. Her Arita has a calm humbleness, useful when she has to deal with each new difficulty and one which also comes across as tactful and polite: Arita does her best to prevent others from feeling threatened or ill at ease at the sense of empowerment she now clearly feels. Like so many women in the history of cinema, walking the streets offers Arita money and freedom, although Arita walks in daylight, to an office job, selling knitting machines instead of herself and is at all times respectable.
The Big City is also fascinating in relation to film form. There are some extraordinary shots: one of the husband shown through a sheet where the light makes his disembodied profile seem a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split figure; the other of the wife looking through a glass and trying on lipstick, a modern identity, and showing us being in the process of becoming (the mirror shot is later rhymed with one showing us looking at herself with the money she’s earned from her job, the lipstick and the money crucially interlinked). What we see and how we see it seems extraordinarily modern and imaginative. The film is shot in long-takes sometimes helped along by a rather stilted though no less efficient zoom lens. Each shot is composed sparsely, minimally, there is very little too distract the eye from within the frame, but these sparse compositions create maximum effect.
The pace is languid, audiences might feel a bit too much so. But it all builds into a marvellous, multi-layered, depiction of a society in transition, and the uncomfortable choices a loving family have to make to get by. The film reminds us that drama need not involve superheroes, or natural disasters or fatal afflictions; that good and loving people trying to get by in the world in the best way they can is, when shown with such skill and delicacy, sufficient to create something beautiful and moving. It’s a great film.
Seen at the Midlands Arts Centre but also available as a great Criterion DVD