There’s usually no better way to put me off a movie than to say it’s so-and-so-director’s "most perfect" film. A statement like that gets me thinking one of two things: 1) it probably isn’t true, so let’s watch the film and poke holes into it, or 2) it’s probably true, which would make this an uninteresting movie, and I’d much rather watch something that’s edgier. As it is, the films I find most interesting in directors’ resumes tend to be the ones that haven’t achieved polished-diamond perfection but that are flawed in some obvious ways, with glimpses of brilliance. (At an impromptu DVD-watching session I would opt for Scorsese’s The King of Comedy over Raging Bull; Hitchcock’s Marnie or Rope over Rear Window; Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well over The Seven Samurai; Welles’ moody Macbeth over Citizen Kane.)
Ray’s Charulata is one of the exceptions. Intellectually speaking, I know what people mean when they say it’s his best film in terms of all its elements coming together perfectly, and that it’s made by an assured filmmaker in complete command of his craft. But at the same time, while watching the film I’m not conscious of any of those things. A part of my brain isn’t on red alert, telling me: what are you doing watching this boringly Accomplished movie? All I can see is the beauty and subtlety of the story and the performances and how, without any melodrama or even explicit admissions by the characters, the film draws the viewer deep into an emotional conflict.
The first 10 minutes are vital to any film’s impact and Charulata is set up beautifully by a number of vignettes that have passed into movie lore. Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) with her fieldglasses, moving from window to window. The brilliantly theatrical scene where she stands by sullenly as her kindly but inattentive husband, engrossed in his newspaper, passes by without noticing her (in this scene she almost seems to be addressing the viewer directly - defining for us her status as a bored housewife). The game of cards with her sister-in-law, which establishes how static these women’s lives are - the building up of tension followed by the sister-in-law’s cry of dismay when she loses the entire pack on the final card (this is a suspense sequence Hitchcock would have been proud of). The breaking of the storm: the room darkening as Charu lies on her bed, the frenetic activity as the women hurry to get the clothes off the clothesline, the camera swirling about madly, and alll of this culminating in Amol’s (Soumitra Chatterjee) great entrance, posturing as "Krishna, slayer of demons".
But striking as the opening scenes are, I wouldn’t be writing about Charulata here if the rest of the film didn’t measure up to the great start. In scene after masterful scene, Ray establishes Charu’s growing feelings for her husband’s young cousin and, remarkably, creates a wrenching emotional drama out of a story where the three protagonists are all likeable, well-meaning people. This is a lesson in movie-making of the sort where everything doesn’t have to be spelt out to the audience - where viewers can be treated as intelligent people. It deserves multiple viewings, which is not something you’ll usually catch me saying about a movie that is so widely acknowledged as a director’s best.