To the world, he is the first Indian and non-European to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and to Indians, he is the man who penned our national anthem Jana Gana Mana. But for Bengalis, Rabindranath Thakur means much more. The fact that his stories get adapted, analysed, deconstructed and reimagined even today is a testament to the timelessness of his literary ethos. Bengali literature has never lacked strongly-written female characters, replete with their own strengths and flaws and he was one of the authors who would often put his female characters at the fore of his stories. His work explored the banality of our society’s hyper-moralism and hypocrisy when it came to treating women, and the women in his stories, in turn, questioned everything – from untouchability to the caste system and even religious jingoism.
Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) was adapted into the film Charulata – perhaps the finest example of what society does to a woman’s potential by choosing to relegate her to the confines of her home, tying her down with stereotypes and by teaching her to strip off her own ambitions. Satyajit Ray, paying his centennial tribute to Tagore in the 1960s and thereafter, presents the movie Charulata to a more permissive post-colonial generation for whom the stained glass windows of the andar mahal of Victorian mansions had long since collapsed. Talking of such a dilemma of depicting Charulata’s barely-controlled extra-marital passion for her brother-in-law Amal, he found people still sensitive to the issue sixty years later. “A lot of people seemed to think it was a very risky subject because of the illicit relationship. I never had any such doubts at all. I made the film and it was proved that I was right because it was very widely accepted,” remarked Ray.
The emergence of the ‘New Woman’ (nabeena) towards the end of the nineteenth century – educated, liberated, dressed differently from her more traditional counterparts and exposed to the ‘provocations’ of ‘literacy and literature’, yet confined to the andar mahal, precipitated a serious clash of personalities. It is this clash that Tagore exteriorises through the study of repressed female sexuality and Ray through a series of symbols signifying the dramatic turmoil within women like Charu. These are portraits of lonely, sensitive, dissatisfied women locked away in ornate affluence in enormous Victorian mansions. These women are counterpoised in both the story and the movie against their more traditional counterparts (pracheena). Instances of the latter are seen in Manda (Charu’s brother’s wife and one of a large retinue of dependants thriving on her husband’s generosity).
Charulata opens with a shot of Charu (played by one of the finest actors of her time, Madhobi Mukhopadhyay) wandering restlessly around the huge mansion, picking up a volume of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay‘s novel Kapalkundala, focusing her lorgnette through the closed shutters of the window at the roadside scene, while the grandfather clock chimes in the background. Bhupati enters lost in thought, passes her by without being aware of her presence, picks up a book and returns to his work. Again she picks up her lorgnette and this time focuses it on him.
The sexual imagery is less explicit mainly because the more youthful Charu is scarcely aware of her physical needs and her sexuality.
Charu remains unaware of the growing demands of her blossoming body and the consequent restlessness as she flits bored and impatient from one inane task to the other, with time hanging heavy on her hands and no one to make demands on her. With the nabeena’s periphery still in transition, these husbands, by not being ‘demanding’, left unsatisfied the wife’s desire ‘to give’ in a marital relationship. This desire was rooted in the traditional ‘dharma‘ of womanhood with near-religious fervour. The implication is that if a man does not make demands on his wife, he is considered to be weak, lacking in masculinity and does not command respect from his wife.
Into such a scenario enters the third of the love triangle. The arrival of Charu’s young brother-in-law (played by the brilliant actor and matinee idol, Soumitra Chattopadhyay) is heralded by a storm in Ray’s film, in which shutters bang, the birdcage swings violently and the room is in turmoil. The sexual imagery is less explicit mainly because the more youthful Charu is scarcely aware of her physical needs and her sexuality. Husband and wife exchange no more of physical proximity than an arm around her waist and a fatherly kiss on her forehead.
Nor is Amal initially aware of her fatal attraction for him because the younger brother-in-law traditionally enjoys a very intimate and tender relationship with the elder brother’s wife in Bengal. Their early song and dance sequence bear testimony to that. The only hint of a sexual connotation in Ray’s film is in the offering of pan, the betel leaf that reddens the lips and has embedded within it a hint of sexual intimacy when shared with a man who is not the husband.
The relationship between Amal and Charu initially revolves around their shared passion for poetry which she believes is a secret bond between them that shuts out the world, including Charu’s uneducated sister-in-law Manda. The relationship is carefully built up by both Ray and Tagore and though the film is naturally more physically explicit, the only hint that we get is in the famous scene where Charu is on the garden swing, swinging in ever-widening arcs with the sky as the background and Amal spread-eagled at her feet singing a love song. The scene invokes the archetypal image of Radha and Krishna on the swing in the festival of Spring.
The publication of Amal’s article in a literary journal is for her a terrible betrayal of her trust and the desecration of the secret world they have built around themselves. As he becomes an acknowledged literary figure growing in the eyes of the world around, including that of the gullible Manda, she feels her hold on him slipping away. It is then that the physical aspect of her attraction manifests itself in her jealousy of Manda, her casting of herself into the unwilling Amal’s arms. Amal leaves abruptly so as not to betray his elder brother’s trust. His departure, like his arrival, is announced in the film like those sudden summer storms which are a characteristic feature of Bengal.
Rabi’s women questioned society, its archaic and unfair rules, and became the voice of a generation of women who were raised to adhere to societal norms and conventions.
But as the enormity of the truth dawns rather belatedly on Bhupati, he rushes headlong from the mansion, wandering brokenly around in the storm in his hackney coach. The storm has overtaken his marriage as well and destroyed what he had always believed was an indestructible sanctuary even when all else failed him. Evening falls, Ray’s camera catches Charu in front of the large ornamental mirror. It is time for traditional married women to tie their hair and to put the vermillion dot on the forehead before offering the evening prayers. Charu hesitates a moment and then slowly puts the vermillion dot back on her forehead. The storm has abated, Bhupati comes back and in the dim light of the evening lamp, Charu holds out her hand. ‘Come,’ she says, but the film ends without the two hands meeting.
Analysing the chasm between the two, Rabi Thakur says, “Bhupati probably had the traditional conviction that a man did not have to earn his hold over his wife. A wife was like a pole star, self-luminous, a light that no wind could blow out, that needed no fuel to burn brighter. When the world outside the home began to betray him, it never even occurred to Bhupati to find out whether cracks had developed within the home as well” (Tagore, Nastanirh).
The cracks that develop within the marriage announce Charu’s awakening to the realisation of her own sexuality and the dissatisfaction in a largely asexual marital relationship with a man many years her senior with whom she had nothing in common. This is finely captured in the emotions where the eyes convey even more than the spoken dialogues. Her portrayal is very relatable as the story of every bored housewife who is talented but undermined. The relationship with a younger brother-in-law teetering dangerously on the sexual was the natural outcome for women frustrated in marriage who had no access to male company other than this.
Charu is portrayed as the most intelligent character in the story as well as the most mysterious. There are only a few moments in the film when Charu takes any decisive action, and yet Bhupati and Amal scarcely exist except in relation to her. Visually, she’s equated with a caged bird and the slow plot development forces viewers to share some of her frustration. For all the detail specific to a long-vanished past – the oil lamps and fountain pens, the literary discussions filled with obscure names – Charulata is far from a stodgy period piece. Ray’s exercises his liberty, but this still continues to be the apt homage to the work of Rabi Thakur.
Rabi’s women questioned society, its archaic and unfair rules, and became the voice of a generation of women who were raised to adhere to societal norms and conventions. On one hand, his stories followed the nationalist ethos of the country prevalent at that point of time. On the other, he drew a parallel to the lack of freedom that Indian women enjoyed in the same society that wanted to emancipate itself from the clutches of a foreign, imperial power. His women were rooted in their contemporary surroundings, but their stories surpassed the boundaries of time because their struggles are still socially relevant.
Read Nastanirh here.
The English PDF of Nastanirh can be found here.
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Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: BFI