Monday, April 20, 2009

Charulata (The Lonely Wife)

Satyajit Ray is supposedly the master of Indian cinema, but based on this film, he’s not much worth any investment of your time. This film is about a woman married to a wealthy man who spends all of his time working on his pet project, a political newspaper. She wanders the wide, gusty rooms of their house, moping, reading, and doing the occasional bit of embroidery. She is terribly bored, and so are we. Finally noticing this, her husband brings his brother and his wife to live with them, putting his brother to work on the newspaper, while the wife, who’s not terribly bright, plays card games with Charulata. Charu is still bored, as are we.

Then, another brother—the youngest—moves into the house as well. He’s fresh out of school and uncertain what vocation to take up, until he settles on writing—he and Charu have a shared affinity for novels and poetry (neither of which Charu’s husband can abide, living only for politics). The rich man decides that he can entertain his wife, though, by having his young brother inspire her to write. She refuses, insisting on playing only the supportive, traditionally feminine role, making him a painted notebook and serving as a muse. They seem to be falling in love, although their interactions are childishly innocent. When his story is published, though, she is, for some undisclosed reason, livid (there seems to be some kind of jealousy as the other wife, who doesn’t understand a thing about literature, has also been serving as a kind of muse for the young man, constantly bringing him culinary treats). In a frenzied fit, Charu writes an essay on the village in which she grew up, and it is published in the preeminent literary journal. She doesn’t tell her husband; only brings the article to show her new friend. He compliments her writing—tells her how much better it is than his own—but in another inexplicable fit of tears, she runs away angrily.

Soon, the young man knows he must leave and start his own life (and take his own wife). He goes in the night, leaving a note behind. Charu is livid, but she and her husband have the house to themselves again—his other brother and wife also absconded in the night, but less righteously so. They stole money from the newspaper, so that now it’s gone under.

For a moment, there is hope for Charu and her husband. They sit on a bright beach and hatch a plan to start a new paper, one that contains cultural as well as political pieces, with roles for them both. But when they get back home, there is a letter from Charu’s young brother-in-law announcing his marriage, and Charu takes it to his old room where she clutches it, sobbing, her head against the bed. Her husband sees her and, rather than reacting with tenderness, burns with a jealous rage, which he bottles silently. At the film’s conclusion, Charu, knowing that she’s been “caught,” dries her tears and goes to find her husband, extending her hand to him. He hesitates before he takes it. This is the film’s most interesting sequence: a still frame of Charu with her hand extended in an offering of peace; a still frame of her husband with his fingers tentatively reaching, but with an expression of loathing and distrust on his face, followed by a still of the entire frame, the two of them together, their hands nearly but not quite touching. Then, a large caption flashes onto the still: “The Spoiled Nest,” and all of the delicacy of the moment is wasted, and the film, for me, gets tossed out the window onto the trash heap.

Bonus fact: Every artistic nuance that could possible be construed as interesting in this film was lifted from Alain Resnais Last Year At Marienbad, which came out three years before Charulata.


Anonymous said...

Bonus fact: You are a silly goose.

Adam said...

Yeah! Don't be such a hater!