Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) is the wife of literary editor Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), who has been recently very busy with working on the publication of a new newspaper called The Sentinel which he hopes will take the readership by storm. However, all his focus being on this, he has neglected his wife, who has so little to occupy her agile mind that the boredom is really dragging her down - reading the best and brightest new authors is all very well, but she would like to be doing something similar and exercise her talents in that field. The trouble is, in nineteenth century India, there is not much call for women writers...
Rabindranath Tagore, often thought of as one of the greats when it comes to Indian literature, was the inspiration for this adaptation of one of his stories from writer and director Satyajit Ray, no minor character himself in the Indian cultural sphere. This would seem to be a union made in Heaven for fans of the nation's art world, and sure enough, not only did Ray number it among his finest achievements, but aficionados of Indian cinema agreed, and while "Indian cinema" makes billions across the globe think of Bollywood and song and dance extravaganzas, he was someone who reminded us the place was capable of understatement too.
Now, there's a reason Bollywood is so huge with so many audiences in so many countries and Ray remains a more rarefied concern: many is the hopeful student of so-called World Cinema who has heard the name and given his work a go, only to find themselves struggling with the culture shock and scrabbling to get a handle or a way in on one of Ray's most lauded efforts. Therefore it is true that Charulata might not be the best place to start, as despite its followers claims to the universal appeal of unrequited passions and frustrated ambitions, the careful, sensitive and methodical manner the director went about them is not going to be, ironically, for everyone.
Indeed, it was clear the real love affair here was between Ray and the page, as time and again the matter of the printed word was brought up, we saw letters and journals being written, that newspaper gets a lot of screen time, and when the characters are not talking about their feelings they are discussing art and politics in a manner that would benefit being written down. So what you had was a medium about watching and listening that was entranced by a medium about reading, and that will doubtless appeal to the avid bookworms - yet those who did not feel that connection would be somewhat lost in this rhapsodising about the written word. For them, you could suggest they concentrated on the love triangle instead, because those aspects complemented one another.
You could tell Charu (as she is called in abbreviation) is a woman of passions that are not being channelled to her satisfaction; Bhupati is a nice guy, and he does love his wife, but his head is in the clouds, so much so that when Charu exercises her ability to pen an article for his newspaper, he doesn't realise until he is told at the launch party by his male colleagues and friends, thus embarrassing him. But that's not his biggest "mistake", as he sends for his handsome cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to keep his wife company, obviously trusting her but not displaying much common sense, as she falls in love with this new arrival. Though there are further tensions when we ponder whether Charu loves him for what he represents and the gratitude for a little attention, rather than because he's a real catch, as actually he is as much caught up in his own thoughts as her husband is. This was a potent set of circumstances, and nothing less than sympathetically played by the three leads, but that intense, gradual examination of their foibles is not going to be for the more modern Bollywood cheerleader, nor is it for anyone who prides action over the inner life. Undoubtedly skilfully crafted, but soporific if you're not in the mood. Ray composed the music, too (it gets close to a musical at various times).
[The Criterion Collection release this on Special Edition Blu-ray with these features:
New 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New interview program with actors Madhabi Mukherjee and SoumitraChatterjee
Adapting Tagore, a new interview program featuring Indian film scholar Moinak Biswas and Bengali literature historian Supriya Chaudhuri
Archival audio interview with director Satyajit Ray by film historian Gideon Bachmann
New English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp and a 1980s interview with Ray by his biographer Andrew Robinson.]