The Lonely Wife

The Lonely Wife/ Charulata (Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)

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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

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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.

It’s been shown as part of the Ray retrospective at the NFT and is, along with The Big City and The Coward, available to rent from Lovefilm.

José Arroyo