Charulata (The Lonely Wife) review: Music, poetry and, most of all, love

Perfect posture: Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata (The Lonely Wife)

Film Title: THE LONELY WIFE

Director: Satyajit Ray

Starring: Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sailen Mukherjee

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 111 min

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 01:00

   

There’s a truth to silent-screen queen Norma Desmond’s notion: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” But cinema’s golden years produced people who hardly needed faces, as they had movement. Think of John Wayne framed in a doorway before striding away. Or picture Marisa Berenson gliding just ahead of Ryan O’Neal.

It’s an attribute that Madhabi Mukherjee née Chakraborty knows only too well. Working with directors Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray during the 1960s, the Benjabi born star proved to a mistress of cinematic movement.

Her portrayal of Charu in Charulata (The Lonely Wife) is composed of tiny motions. Even in repose, her posture conveys more than most actors could manage with a lengthy soliloquy.

Following on from 1963’s Mahanagar (The Big City), the film would mark the artist’s second and arguably most potent collaboration with Ray.

Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nashtanir (The Broken Nest), Charulata chronicles the life of a bored and neglected housewife, who, caught between ancient Calcutta traditions and late imported Victorian values, must weather competing restrictive regimes.

Charu is privileged and educated but is barely noticed by her husband, Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee), a wannabe newspaper mogul. In order to keep her occupied, Bhupati asks his lively, romantic cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to stay. Amal and Charulata are soon locked into a strange literary rivalry, a displacement activity for their latent sexual attraction.

For many decades, Charulata was regarded as a minor work in the Ray canon, despite the director’s insistence that it was his own favourite. If it has been previously overlooked, that may be because Charulata is too damned sneaky for its own good: the film’s strange tacked-on reconciliation scene still looks subversive.

Beneath the straightened 19th- century values and Mukherjee’s deft, delicate performance lies a drama that’s fit to burst with political and colonial discourse, class, proto-feminist values, music, poetry and, most of all, love. All life is here.