There is no doubt about my Film of the Week. Not only is Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) profoundly beautiful, it also happens to be hard to find at at a time when cinematic art has become a commodity to pile high and sell cheap. It’s on Channel Four on Friday (19/11) at 03:00. Set your timers. You won’t be able to find it on the streaming services. You can buy an expensive Blu-Ray, if you want.

The film was Ray’s follow-up to Mahanagar (1963), and again stars the wonderful Madhabi Mukherjee. This time she plays the lonely, bored, somewhat artistic wife of a wealthy newspaper editor/proprietor (Shailen Mukherjee) in the late 19th century heyday of the Raj. In the almost wordless opening sequence, we see her wandering around her villa, taking a slim volume from the shelf, lounging on the bed and then observing the activity of the street through a pair of opera glasses. Ray’s direction (on this film, he took control of the camera for the first time, to the consternation of his usual director of photography) is as liquid as Charulata’s movements and brilliantly expresses her inner absence and detachment from the world.

In her sari, with the red bindi symbolising wisdom on her forehead, she reminds me of that poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes, 
Why then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes!

Next, when I cast my eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
– O how that glittering taketh me!

Charulata’s husband, Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), is deeply involved in the world of politics, and the beginnings of India’s chafing against British rule. His newspaper is serious, campaigning and permanently short of money. He leaves his younger wife to her own devices, but feels guilty, and invites a cousin, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to his house to distract her and keep her company. The young man is a would-be poet and devoted reader of fiction, as is Charulata. In time this shared interest brings the pair dangerously close, and the equilibrium of the household is disturbed, just as Bhupati runs into money trouble.

In a famous sequence, she rocks on a swing while he lounges on a mat nearby, reading and writing his verse. The camera stays on her face, locked into a tight close-up, and we see her move wordlessly through a range of emotions before seeming to settle on dangerous devotion.

The film is a moving personal story, but it is also about ideas. On the one hand, there is the world of ethics, economics and politics, as embraced by Bhupati and his male friends. On the other, there is the world of Bengali fiction and poetry, ‘maudlin literature’, which Bhupati sees as sapping the moral fibre of the emerging nation. Ray sees both sides.

The story is based on a 1901 novella by Rabindrath Tagore, sometimes thought to be autobiographical. The writer formed an attachment to his brother’s wife, who later committed suicide. Ray admired it for its western qualities, and the characters in Charulata are attached to British culture: the newspaper is in English. Ray’s own cinematic aesthetic tends towards the European, exhibiting the humanity and reserve of Bergman, Renoir and De Sica.

The director himself said Charulata contained his fewest flaws and was the only work which, if given the chance, he would make again in exactly the same way. It has long been a critical favourite and is warmly recommended, in its measured pacing and thoughtfulness, as an antidote to our present way of life.

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