Understated: Madhabi Mukherjee
Understated: Madhabi Mukherjee

No director has bridged the gap between the cultures of East and West as convincingly as the Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray. And no film has done it quite so thoroughly as his 1964 masterpiece, Charulata, which is given an extended run from today at the BFI Southbank.

Actually there are a number of Western details in the film that Bengali viewers could well find difficult to understand, and also many allusions in the story that only Bengalis would appreciate. Even so, Charulata (sometimes titled The Lonely Wife) remains easy for both East and West to admire in its main thrust, which concerns the unspoken love affair between Charulata, a married woman, and Amal, her brother-in-law.

Amal is brought to stay with the family by Charulata’s husband in order to prevent her being lonely as he pursues his time-consuming career as a newspaper editor.

Throughout the film we wonder whether the friendship between Charulata and Amal will blossom into an affair. But, like Brief Encounter’s would-be lovers, it never does. Charu and Amal part because they have to.

Otherwise emotional disaster might lie ahead for all three characters. The story takes place in 1880, largely in an upper middle-class house where Charu and Amal discuss art, music and literature as the husband busies himself in his increasingly precarious profession.

In a way it is much more than a story of unrequited love. It is also about the liberation of a woman for whom looking after home and husband will never be enough.

The interplay between the always understated sophistication and its utter simplicity of expression is what makes the film so substantial. That and the performances of Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee (who acted in 14 of Ray’s films) as Charu and Amal. The direction is unerring and so is the production design.

Amazingly, Cannes rejected the film but the Berlin Film Festival awarded it Best Director. A bed-ridden Ray was eventually also given a career Oscar not long before he died in 1992. He always said that Charulata was his most perfect film, though it isn’t all that cynical to say that it is quite likely half of those at the Academy who voted for his award had never seen it.

Charulata is at the BFI Southbank until Sept 18