- Kiran Manral
My introduction to Tagore came about rather late, when Doordarshan showed a nightly retrospective of movies based on Rabindranath Tagore’s work. And one night, I settled down to watch Charulata (adapted from Nashtanirh). The story of a woman caught between a husband who is steeped in his work, older than her, and seemingly uncaring and her sudden incandescent fascination with a young man in her house, her husband’s cousin was delicately depicted and sensitively handled by the director. At that point I marveled at the insight into the workings of a woman’s mind that had led the Poet Laureate to write this character, and the situation she finds herself in, when to all outward appearances she has a perfectly comfortable life. And there was Madhabi Mukherjee playing Charulata, the upper crust lady, blessed with a perfectly expressive face that hovered between the woman of the world and the ingénue, she was every bored housewife, wanting to spark up her life, thirsting for appreciation.
The original title given by Tagore in Bengali, meaning The Broken Nest, is much more evocative than the simple name Ray chose to title his film. The nest, the home, in this case, metaphorically speaking, isn’t a nest at all, because Charulata doesn’t have children to occupy her. She lives with her husband, an intellectual at the height of the Bengal cultural renaissance in the late nineteenth century, who is older, more mature and has a newspaper to run, and therefore little time to give his young wife. The opening sequence of Charulata sets the tone of the movie, a woman, running from window to window of her huge mansion like house, watching the world pass outside her courtyard with opera glasses, evocative of both her boredom and her restlessness. We get a sense of her feeling trapped in her domestic situation. Her husband passes her, and walks past her without even noticing her, so engrossed is he in a book. And as he passes by, she looks at him with the same opera glasses she was looking at the outside world with. At that moment, with that gesture, the viewer knows that there is an estrangement and a distance between the husband and wife, which is leading to a restlessness yet to be fulfilled.
While she does have a huge house to run, it is efficiently staffed leaving her with effectively nothing to do. Enter her husband’s cousin, Amal, younger, more towards Charulata’s age, interested in poetry, indulgent towards her literary pretensions and ambitions, and the inevitable happens. Charulata falls for him. Amal is reluctant to encourage this, naturally, given the circumstances he is in, and Charulata experiences a minor triumph when a short story she has written gets published in a local publication. The movie shows Amal going away abruptly to end Charulata’s infatuation with him, and her husband’s realization of her feelings for his young cousin. The film ends with Bhupathi returning home after wandering around aimlessly, hurt and bewildered and Charulata’s tentative reaching out to him, but the hands donot meet, implicit in the message that the nest has been irretrievably broken. In the movie, Ray discards Tagore’s original ending which had Bhupathi saying he was going out of town, and Charulata asking him to take her with him. And then sensing his hesitation, she tells him to let it be. Their relationship is, to all purposes, now over.
Charulata was the film of which Ray said that had he to make it again, he wouldn’t change a single thing. And indeed, it had the kind of perfection when all elements in the film, every little detail, come together harmoniously.
I am shamed to say, I still have to read the book though it has been on my to read list ever since I saw this movie. Maybe, this year, I should rectify that.