Judge Gordon Sullivan once directed a campfire marshmallow drama.
An exquisite story of a woman's artistic and romantic yearning.
Bollywood has become synonymous with Indian cinema, but before Western viewers were familiar with the song-and-dance numbers and epic length of the average Bollywood film, there was one name that meant Indian cinema to most viewers: Satyajit Ray. Rising to prominence with his Apu Trilogy, the Bengali director rose through the ranks of art house directors, already an acknowledged master of world cinema by the time that his 1964 film Charulata was shown at the Berlin Film Festival. Now that the film has been restored from the original negative, the folks at Criterion have brought out Charulata (Blu-ray) that the director's fans are sure to love.
Facts of the Case
Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee, The Big City) is the repressed and depressed wife of oblivious newspaper man Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee, The Big City). When her husband's cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee, The World of Apu) comes to stay with them, sparks fly between the couple as their feelings transgress the bounds society has set for them.
One of the major problems that confronts artists in areas that are or used to be colonies is how to not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Though the British record in India is hardly sterling, it would be a little extreme to reject Shakespeare because the British were also military occupiers. That's the conundrum that many artists have to solve: how to keep the good stuff inherited from the colonizers (like Shakespeare) while not reinforcing the bad stuff (a legacy of oppression). Many artists go to one extreme or the other, completely rejecting colonial influence to create art that is perfectly indigenous. Other artists seek the wealth offered by the economic power of former colonies and completely subsume themselves in the traditions of their former overlords, producing art without a hint of native flavor.
Satyajit Ray takes the middle path with Charulata, borrowing the best of both worlds. In one sense it's a classic melodrama of the type that will be familiar to almost every Western viewer. The story of the emotional and sexual awakening of a lonely housewife is so familiar that it's the subject of cheap TV movies as often as it is the subject of award-winning films. In that respect, Ray shows that he is completely aware of the melodrama tradition, offering all the expected pleasures of the scenario: the distracted-but-well-meaning husband, the lonely housewife trapped by both her husband and society who just wants freedom, and of course the dashing young man who could take her away from all of that. Taken just on this level, Charulata is a satisfying story of misbegotten love that fans of drama will appreciate.
Of course that's not the only level Charulata works on. There's also the entire heritage of Indian literature (and cinema) at work as well. Adapted from India's best-loved novelist Rabindranath Tagore, the film is also filled with references to the highlights of 100-plus years of Indian culture. Snatches of music, lines from novels, and references to political history dot the film from start to finish. As someone not steeped in that culture, it's impossible for me to catch everything, but it is obvious to an outsider that Ray imbued his melodrama with more than the usual care that goes into these kinds of story.
Ray, like other masters of the melodrama, understands that telling personal stories is a fine way to occupy one's time, but those stories are most significant when they intersect with larger issues. Whether it's class conflict in Douglas Sirk or race relations in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the best melodramas tell us something about the larger culture. Ray sets his story in the 1870s, at the height of a renaissance movement in Bengali literature and politics, and less than two decades after India's independence from Britain. Such a look back might seem like a retreat, but Charu's husband is a newspaper man, and his antics outside the home herald the changes that were to continue in India after the Bengali Renaissance and eventually blossom into Indian independence.
The folks at Criterion, unsurprisingly, have seen the value in Ray's film and that shows in this Blu-ray review. Charulata was recently restored from the original negative (with a few interpolations from a safety print due to damage) and given a 2K scan for this 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The result is a black-and-white image that is nothing less than stunning. Detail is gorgeous throughout, with only a few hints of softness here and there. Grain is handled perfectly, with no intrusive DNR. Blacks are appropriately deep throughout, and contrast is rock steady. The subtle gradations in the grays are especially impressive. Ray's films have often been available in subpar presentations, but Charulata (Blu-ray) wipes all of them off the table. The LPCM 1.0 mono track in Bengali is a little less impressive, due mainly to technological limitations of the time. Things can get a bit tinny, but overall dialogue is clean, with no serious distortion or hiss to distract.
Extras kick off with nearly 20 minutes of interviews with Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee, who play Charulata and Amal. The pair discuss the film, Ray's methods, and the legacy of the film. A 25-minute featurette produced by Criterion features a pair of scholars (one of film, the other of history) discussing the ways in which Ray adapted the novels of Rabindranath Tagore. Finally, the disc includes an archival audio recording of Ray discussing his work from 1966, and it runs for 13 minutes. The usual Criterion booklet includes an essay by Phillip Kemp and an interview with Ray from later in his career. I'm guessing that Criterion has largely emptied the vault with their Music Room release, and their dedication to recording new material for this Blu-ray is impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All of the explosions in Charulata are emotional, so those looking for lots of action or a fast pace will be disappointed. It's a black-and-white foreign film from the height of the art house era. Satayjit Ray may be a master of world cinema, but romantic melodramas certainly aren't for everyone.
Charulata is a fine example of Satayjit Ray's deserved prowess as a filmmaker. He blends his interest in Bengali history and politics with a traditional story of frustrated domesticity. The result is a drama that impresses with its subtlety. Criterion has done their usually excellent job bringing fans a great restoration with new extras just for Charulata (Blu-ray).
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