Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Notes on Ray films 2: Charulata

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.

20 comments:

  1. Even great translations sometimes fail to catch the nuances of a language. Jabberwock, discerning critic that you are, I guess you must not have missed a dialogue sequence between Charu and Amal where Ray/Ray-ee has used alliteration -- a string of words and sentences starting with the letter B (in Bangla) -- to telling effects. It's one of the high points in the film where Charu shows her affection for Amal in a light-hearted but loaded banter. I don't know how the sequence was translated, but it definitely is Ray-the-scriptwriter at his sublime best. And of course, you must also have realised how Ray shows the banaliy of a group of intellectuals immersed in British politics, pretending they are more barmy than you get in the ol' Blighty. That was Bengal at that time.

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  2. Blogisite: afraid I did miss the alliteration. Would it have come across in the subtitles? Or would someone who doesn't know Bangla need to keep a ear open for it? Will look out for it next time I see the film.

    Speaking of loaded banter though...I was struck by the scene where she gets him a new notebook to write in and he refers to it as a virgin book, the pages of which he will now fill, and she responds by saying "one touch and you're already in the mood?" (those were of course the subtitles, don't know how accurate the translation was)

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  3. You pointed out right. Yes, the translation for the notebook scene is roughly correct.But translations are indeed a problem area in Ray films. I guess it's not so much of a problem when one is watching an Italian or a French film translated in english. The social nuances somewhat match. Translations must have really fallen flat in films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Hirok rajar Deshe, Debi and Mahapurush. However, Kanchenjungha (you must have watched it, I guess)-- an entirely script-driven film -- got rave riviews abroad. (It's a different thing that critics in Kolkata vent out their spleen after the opening). The only physical action in the film consists of the protagonists walking along a meandering path in Darjeeling. The script lend itself so well that one may think Ray made it for the western audience. I would suggest you watch it if you haven't already.
    PS: Haven' read the English translations of Feluda novels. But are they selling well? They have achieved cult status in Bangla (children's)literature.

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  4. Another film that is very screenplay based is Agantuk. Loved it. [English subtitles, of course.]

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  5. The post brought back memories of my days in PG Mass Comm class, where the film studies teacher was taking us through a textual analysis of Charulata. While one would imagine such an exercise to be a real killjoy, it was actually a very absorbing experience. It gave me an opportunity to fully appreciate Ray’s eye for detail. In the opening sequence just before the lorgnette scene, there is a shot of the wall clock, which strikes 4 o’clock. Madhabi then goes on to peer at the outside world through the windows of her house. Exactly 15 minutes later, the clock strikes the quarter hour and she asks the household help to make tea. Ray deliberately matched real time to cinema time to drive home the sense of ennui in the protagonist’s life. Like the famous swing sequence, on which reams and reams have been written, Charulata contains numerous moments of cinematic magic conjured up by the master.

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  6. And, yes, I am among those who think Kanchenjunga is Ray's best film.

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  7. it's a shame I haven't seen any of Ray's work. Off late, lots of people have been telling me, or I have been over-hearing my aged colleagues talk about the "genius".
    I infact watched Gautam Ghose's Abar Arannye here recently at the Bengali Film Fest. It was a sequel of sorts to Ray's Arannyer Dinratri.
    I loved Abar Arannye... found it absolutely brilliant. Then later I was told it is nothing compared to Ray's orginal.
    Hearing of Ray every two days... it seems it's a sign.
    Gotta get some DVDs...
    These reviews will surely help.

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  8. alliteration: ah, i was reminded tof that scene - it's a brilliant scene. - when i read the comment by blogisite: bouthan baaje ... biri .. behaya. that's how it ends, if i remember correctly. last saw charulata about ten years ago, and i remember not being able to sleep after it. do you know what ray deliberately gave it a less pessimistic ending than tagore's novella? when the story ends in the book, bhupati extends his hand towards charu (as in the movie) but unlike in the movie, where the camera freezes when their hands are almost touching, thus perhaps hinting that they might be able to resolve their differences, the book is much more blunt: charu says 'let it be'. and that's that.

    i loved charulata when i saw it, and have seen it several times, and it really haunted me, but i have to say the one which really amazed me with its near perfection was 'mahanagar'.

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  9. Someol' guy: As far as I remember, the word "behaya" was not completed by Charu. She left it tantalisingly hanging at"beh..." Ray left it to the reader's imagination, I think. These words bring on the sexual tension that hangs heavy on the Bhupati household and culminates in Charu embracing Amal in throes of passion. Was the embrace part there in the book?
    PS: Otherwise, I think Ray was a bit too prudent. None of his Feluda novels have female characters per se. Haven't seen the short film Pikoo'r Diary, which deals with an extramarital affair. In Nayak, we have a drunk Uttam Kumar referring to Sharmila's blouse, pointing out to a train attendant the position where she used to clip her pen....

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  10. Joy,now that you've started on Ray, you'll have all the Bongs in the blogosphere dumping on you.

    Charulata compared with a later film on a similar theme, Gahre Baire - would you try that?

    And yes, among the comparatively static later films, Agantuk is wonderful. Says so much so succinctly, without the preachy overtones of Ganashatru

    J.A.P.

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  11. J.A.P., glad you made the point about Ganashatru being preachy. In fact, I think Kanchenjunga and Ganashatru represent two poles of Ray's ouevre. While both films dwelt on morality and society, Ray did it with infinite subtlety in Kanchenjunga. Whereas, Ganashatru seemed more of a geriatric rant. But just as one thought that the Master was losing his grip on his craft, he delivered his brilliant swansong, Agantuk. Watching the film, one could not help but picture Ray speaking his mind through the character of Utpal Datta. There is one particular scene where Dhritiman Chatterjee is haranguing Utpal Datta over his views on urban values. Dhritiman says, "What do you have to say about widespread promiscuity among savages?" To which, Datta just sighs, "Hmm, holy matrimony," and lapses into silence. That, I think is classic understatement!

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  12. Absolutely agree with Tridib, that example is bang on...amazing scene that between Utpal Dutta and Dhritiman...but the best thing about Ray in the script was the subtle touch of sarcartic humour that he's given to Utpal Dutta's dialogues...goes so superly with the man's character! All in all Agantuk was just superb.

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  13. I watched both 'Pather Panchali' and 'Charulata' at a Delhi film fest recently, and though am no film critic myself, it was 'Charulata' which had me rivetted from the start. Anyways, now I want to watch more of Ray's films.

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  14. Am surprised you did not mention the wonderful Kishore Kumar song in the film.
    Agree with the recommendations to watch 'Agantuk' and 'Kanchenjunga'.

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  15. JAP: I refuse to take the bait. Ghare Baire is too verbose a film for me. The Ray of gems like Parash Pathar and Kanchenjungha went somewhat askew writing the dialogues in Ghare Baire. Charulata is about human relations but even then the incendiary nationalism of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee comes through, subtly… For instance, when Charu liltingly sings out Bankim's name, or when Amal talks about not going to Boston but being rooted in ‘B’engal and ‘B’ankim and his novel ‘B’isabriksha (This is a part of the alliterative sequence I mentioned in an earlier comment). On the other hand, Bimala in Ghare Baire seems to be a perforced mouthpiece, her revolutionary trait is too conspicuous to be credible. At the end of it, Ghare Baire seems to be punctuated with Ray’s Brahmo sensibility (he was a brahmo). But then we also have to keep in mind that it is not an original screenplay. There is another Brahmo’s (Tagore’s) voice lurking between the (script) lines.

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  16. I've found Charulata to have more repeat value (for me) than Ray's other films (which all have tremendous repeat value). A tremendous film, and a lesson in subtility.

    I don't know why (because they are really very different movies) but I get the same kind of feeling and emotions when I watch Guru Dutts Sahib, biwi aur ghulam......

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  17. Laughed out loud at the term "Intellectually speaking"

    :D

    (Oops...improper comment on a serious post with serious comments, on a serious blog?)

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  18. OK, out on a limb again.

    Joy Baba Phelunath more visually satisfying than Shonar Kella. Hands up, everybody who agrees ...

    Trivium - Captain Spark is now in the hospitality industry and looks kind of cute in a black suit. Even has the beginnings of a white streak in his hair.

    I suppose everybody knows that Topshe is a financial consultant with a stake in a chain of successful restaurants that specialise in Bangali cuisine.

    And that Jatayu, Mandar Bose and Maganlal are dead. Damn.

    J.A.P.

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  19. i am waiting for a post on "Shimabaddha" .. if it comes
    coz i have some comment on it which will surely break your heart :)

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  20. Sid...no mote the kid3:07 PM, April 08, 2008

    Jai,
    Almost all of Ray's movies are based on superb stories/novels/ebven short stories by leading authors. This is probably why the story and plot is always gripping. Charulata, for instance, is based on a short story by Tagore. Ray's much underrated Hindi films Shatranj ke Khiladi and Sadgati are based on Premchand's stories. And ofcourse the Feluda series, Sonar Kella and Jai Baba Felunath , are based on the stories by Ray himsefl. Many of his movies are based on leading Bengali writers like Shankar(Seemabaddha, Mahanagar), Apu Trilogy( BibhutiBhushan, ). You must also watch Teen kanya which is actually 3 different short films in one , all 3 stories based on Tagore's work. Agantuk, Ray's last movie(and also Utpal Dutt's)is based on a short story by Ray himself.
    However, I am always amazed by the way Ray had adapted the stories to screenplay and often extrapolated the plots in a subtle manner.

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