Charulata: A film by Satyajit Ray

on Monday, April 4, 2011

NOBODY but Satyajit Ray could have made "Charulata."

Indeed, had not the distinguished Indian moviemaker been represented in the New York Film Festival, as he was last night at Philharmonic Hall, the current international event would be sadly lacking. To put it baldly, as the Ray camera could never do, the picture is an artistic masterpiece, impeccably performed, but diluted in impact and power by a stately, inchworm pace that accentuates a plot as old and familiar as the hills.

The Indian import was preceded yesterday by a showing of "Camille Without Camelias," a 1952 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. But Mr. Ray's festival contribution was obviously the main event of the evening.

Produced by R. D. Bansal, it comes to us laden with prizes from overseas. This time the man who made the memorable "Apu" trilogy is delineating an emotional marital triangle that develops in a comfortable Bengali household. Not only has the director fashioned a scenario from a story by Rabindranath Tagore, but also Mr. Ray has composed a tremulous musical score, with two vocal interludes for good measure.

What happens on the screen? Actually, very little. Husband, a liberal newspaper publisher, neglects pretty young wife. Wife is attracted to husband's young cousin, a dashing derelict. He nobly departs just in time, and the couple begin again—yes, older and wiser. That's it. It takes nearly two hours. As do all Ray films, it moves like a majestic snail.

As usual, Mr. Ray has composed the picture in the most literal sense of the word—and exquisitely. He has made the most of beautiful young Madhabi Mukherjee, who gives a lustrously affecting and almost mind-readable performance as the yearning heroine.

In a sense, the very opening shot—Miss Mukherjee's hands darting a needle into an embroidery hoop—keys all that follows. Arranging every single camera frame to convey nuance, mood or tension, Mr. Ray has photographically embroidered a steady flow of quiet images with precise, striking acuity. One montage—when the day-dreaming wife, in a garden swing, rocks to and fro like a pendulum—is unforgettable. And the final shot in the film—a stop-motion close-up of two hands—is a memorable period to Mr. Ray's structure.

But it remains a long, long trail a-winding over familiar dramatic terrain, India or no India. And even with Miss Mukherjee ably supported by Sailen Mukherjee (no relation) and Soumitra Chatterjee, "Charulata" is not top-notch Ray. But, again, nobody else could have made it.

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