If the most disarming fourth wall break in cinema occurs in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 film Oedipus Rex, then the finest might exist here, three years earlier, in Satyajit Ray’s domestic drama Charulata.
It occurs in the middle of the film. Charulata herself (Madhabi Mukherjee) is the wife of a successful and idealistic newspaper editor (Shailen Mukherjee). He is passionate about his work, and even jokingly likens his paper – The Sentinel – to a mistress. This dedication is not without sacrifice, however. And while their marriage is comfortable, Charulata’s life is close to empty. When she surprises her husband Bhupati with an embroidered handkerchief, he is touched but also amazed that she had the time to make it. She responds that she isn’t short of free time, speaking of a listlessness that will become the film’s focus, and also her husband’s benevolent lack of awareness.
The catalysing event is the arrival of her cousin-in-law Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), who fills the house with song, debate and creativity. A young, attractive and invigorating presence in Charulata’s humdrum day-to-day, Amal jostles her out of her placated existence and provokes a renewal of her own creative interests. When Amal has a short story published in a periodical, Charulata is inspired to attempt her own.
Arriving after the significant critical and commercial success of his Apu Trilogy but by definition a smaller endeavour, Charulata finds Ray playing more dynamically with the camera. Several moves announce themselves boldly, and he frequently pushes closer to his actors than in previous works. By this time the French New Wave was causing ripples worldwide, and it’s not inconceivable to think that this made an impression on Ray, whose work here feels similarly emboldened. His previous films already exhibited the poise and temperament of a master, but Charulata – which could easily have played out as a purely detached observational piece – is pocked with moments that feel as creatively invigorated as it’s characters are becoming (the Godardian ending in which still images transition us out of the picture like a handful of dropped photographs is a prime example).
Still, none is more dramatic than the sequence we’re focusing on here. While sat on the garden swing, Charulata has her moment of clarity. Of inspiration. Ray’s camera pushes in close. So close that her gaze can’t fall anywhere but back into the lens. Mukherjee’s eyes are infinite black pools. She stares vividly at us while images from her memory and imagination overlap her face. This is not a unique or revelatory act of superimposition. Ray wasn’t the first to do it and he most certainly wouldn’t be the last (it is strongly reminiscent of a sequence in Part 17 of Twin Peaks: The Return). But the sequence is startling in it’s effectiveness, and the way in which it breaks the picture in two. Mukherhee’s eyes themselves have a lot to do with the power of the sequence, but (as with Lynch’s more recent endeavour) it is also the length of time we are held in her gaze. Until, it seems, even we might be objects of her imagination, discovered by those unblinking eyes.
The division of the film is clear. Beforehand Charulata is searching and somewhat uncertain of her trajectory. After she is emboldened. She suggests to Bhupati that the very nature of his paper change; that it become a collaboration between them. He will cover politics – in English – and she will handle more creative expression – and, importantly, in Punjabi. Provocative as Bhupati’s political coverage may be, it is still inherently tied to British-ruled India and the spin and conjecture that goes with it. Charulata’s more artistic efforts, however, penned in her native language, symbolise new avenues for India. A modern, reclaimed India. Even a future India. Evolution achieved through artistic expression and through Charulata’s own seized sense of agency.
The heartbreak comes when Bhupati realises that her muse is, in fact, Amal. Charulata is a subtly played provocation; a drama about the potential for an illicit romance, observed mostly with the kind of nuance you might more commonly expect from Ozu. But it is also a quietly radical film, one that questions India’s then-oppressive rule by Britain and looks forward, optimistically, to a liberal cultural evolution. This tension between old and new is echoed in the seemingly contradictory sensibilities employed by Ray.
Charulata is a tussle between bold overtures surrounded by exercises in judicious (and ultimately heartrending) restraint. Two disparate sensibilities that might not feel as balanced if they weren’t stitched down the middle by Ray’s central showstopper of Mukherjee staring at us. The eye of the storm. The eyes of Mukherjee.
When she looks into us, a moment of pure cinema is born, big and bold enough to hold two disparate approaches in one film. In overlapping Mukherjee, Ray overlaps himself and a classic is made. It isn’t the sole moment of it’s kind in Ray’s oeuvre (1960’s Devi – another female-centric tale – also features some truly indelible imagery that reshapes the picture that surrounds it), but this moment in Charulata is among his most breathtaking.