I’ve been fortunate to see more Satyajit Ray films in Toronto in the last six years than I could in more than a decade when I was in India. In India I saw most of Ray’s oeuvre on TV. Here in Toronto I’ve seen all the films on the big screen – either at Ray or Tagore festivals. It makes a world of difference to see these films on the big screen.
This summer TIFF Bell Lightbox has organized a comprehensive festival of Ray’s films from July 3 to August 17. The Sun and the Moon – The Films of Satyajit Ray will screen all of Ray’s important classics.
Surprisingly, the screenings have been well-attended. In fact, had it not been for the generosity of my friend Mariellen Ward, a friend of India and an intrepid travel blogger, who gave me a free ticket, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Kathleen O’Donnell’s lecture on and the subsequent screening of Charulata (The Lonely Wife – 1964).
Kathleen O’Donnell is a professor at the University of Toronto teaching Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Ray turned Tagore’s Nastanirh – the broken nest – into Charulata.
Kathleen O’Donnell’s introduction to Ray delineated all the important facets of the filmmaker, including Tagore’s influence, the basic grounding in the ideas of the Bengali renaissance, the confluence of western and oriental thought as exemplified by the Brahmo Samaj, his career as a commercial artist, his interest in calligraphy and the creation of the Ray Roman font, Ray’s abiding debt to the French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and his almost-maniacal attention to details to all aspects of film making – from directing to script, music, set-design, costumes, cinematography and editing. Unfortunately, as she was warming up to the subject, it was time for the screening.
Charulata is one of Ray’s best. It is a period film (1879) – depicting the height of the Bengali renaissance, when the issues that had been raised nearly a century ago in public fora were now being hotly debated in homes. Of special significance was the role of women in the family and the society. The film depicts the cloistered lives of women in feudal households, with nothing much to do except knit, make paan, play cards, and supervise the household help; the few who could read and occasionally wrote.
Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) is one such housewife, and falls in love with her husband’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee). The woolly-headed husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) runs his own newspaper, and is forever obsessed with British political happenings and English thought, and how these would affect Indians. He doesn’t have time for Charu, or for the books she reads. Amal, on the other hand, is young and has all the time to feed Charu’s fantasies. She falls in love with him, but he is not willing to betray his brother and beats a hasty retreat. When Bhupati discovers Charu’s love for Amal, he is shattered and attempts to leave, but returns to what is now a broken nest.
In The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, film critic and Ray’s contemporary Chidananda Das Gupta (1921-2011) says, “The secret of their identification with an otherwise uncomfortable theme lay in the state of innocence of the characters caught in the web of forces greater than themselves. Their lack of conscious knowledge of what is happening inside them gives them a certain nobility; it is in their awakening that their tragedy lies. Amal, the younger man, is the first to realize the truth; for Charu it is an imperceptible movement from the unconscious to the conscious; for the husband, it is a sudden, stark, unbelievable revelation of truth. All three wake up, as it were, into the twentieth century, the age of self-consciousness. The rhythm of the unfolding is so gentle, impeccable and true that there is no sense of shock even for the conservative Indian, although Ray’s film was as daring for the wider audience as Tagore’s story had been in its day.”
Incidentally, it is believed that Tagore’s story may have been based on the relationship between Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi, the wife of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath. Kadambaridevi committed suicide soon after Rabindranath’s marriage. Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi wrote and read poetry together.
I also saw Mahanagar the next day. But I’ll write about that some other time. The post has become too long.