The striking opening sequence, all of the first almost ten minutes, captures the entire universe of the eponymous Charulata with an effortless grace. The depiction of desolation and ennui, usually more associated with Antonioni, is portrayed with a lucidity and perfection that is rare.
Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) glides through her palatial mansion, its set design meticulously constructed to reflect the era in which the story is set. Its vast emptiness mirrors Charu's lonesome existence, while her newspaper owner husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) continues to be preoccupied with his work, which he is also quite passionate about, even comparing it to Charu, stating it to be her Souten or a second wife (translated as 'rival' in the Criterion English subs!).
A lover of literature and poetry, a big fan of Bankim Chandra Chaterjee and perhaps a hidden literary genius herself, we see Charu biding her time roaming about, browsing through books, humming songs and sewing. But more importantly, she also kills her boredom by taking a curious look at the outside world through the half covered windows with a gaze that often switches between contemplative and childlike. The latter quality is more evident in the way she moves from window to window, simply to catch a glimpse of a portly man with an umbrella passing by, her opera glasses always acting as her lens to observe a world that seems distant or inaccessible to her.
In a not-so-subtle manner, Ray shows how Charu feels at a distance even from her husband who fails to notice her as he walks past, following which she fixates the opera glasses on him, watching him walk out of the frame.
Bhupati isn't the stereotypical wife-neglecting husband, however. He does love his wife. He is just so preoccupied in his business and passion of voicing out his political beliefs through his paper (Charu's rival, as mentioned) that he is temporarily unaware of his wife's presence and her needs. It suddenly strikes him that she may be lonely when he finally notices that she has enough time to embroider a nice handkerchief for him! He is also quite the naïve one, bestowing his trust on his family members without giving it second thought. One betrays him, the other stops short of doing so! Bhupati is a well written flawed character; a good human being, designed to be sympathized with, but one who's so preoccupied with his paper and armchair activism that he is totally ignorant of what’s brewing under his very nose; including his wife's loneliness, her attraction to his cousin and an evil scheme at work.
The dark void of Charu's existence sees some light with the arrival of Amal, Bhupati's younger cousin, who is introduced with an overtly symbolic entry of a storm (a literal storm brings in an emotional storm to come!). Amal is a young, vibrant chap, quite passionate about literature and poetry. Charu is gradually swept away by his charm and a common interest. She feels liberated, merely in experiencing this attraction! The fabulous garden scene that's a highlight of the film, demonstrates this perfectly.
Some great camera wizardry at display right there; with the camera itself possibly mounted on a swing and capturing the beautiful Charu humming away and then cutting to Amal, who sways in and out of her line of sight. The joyous stupor comes to an abrupt halt, however, when Charu notices a woman with a child and is reminded that she is also childless; and perhaps can never have one with her husband. And then the worried gaze shifts towards Amal; a sense of sudden guilt perhaps makes her quickly snap out of it!
What's often brought up as a commonly applied motif is the women shot behind bars of windows, obviously symbolizing a woman's emotional imprisonment despite the lavishness that surrounds her. It isn't just Charu but Manda (Gitali Roy) and others as well, filmed behind the bars, perhaps extending Charu's plight and making her an epitome of the 19th century Indian woman, a prisoner of her own fate and of the male-dominated society, married off to some rich man in an arranged ceremony and forced to give up her personal freedom. It was an era when it was not very common for married women to venture out or socialize and hence the entrapment was a real deal; emotional as well as physical, symbolized further by the caged birds.
Ironically, Charu's husband is an advocate of liberalism, a vocal supporter of the renaissance movement as well. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the father of Indian renaissance is mentioned; he was famous for abolishing the infamous Sati system in which a woman was forced to die with her husband in his funeral pyre! And despite his liberal views, Bhupati also belongs to this very segment of society in which women are left to languish in their trapped existence, rarely at liberty to be independent, and forced to be at the mercy of their spouses.
Charulata's empty existence does find some meaning eventually when she goes ahead and writes and publishes an article in vengeance, just because Amal asks her to "show some respect". Bhupati's reaction to this is a complex one; one of astonishment, shock and embarrassment, at being made aware of his wife's talent by his drunk friends. For a second he doesn't know what to think, and it is stupendously conveyed.
For a film so delicately balanced and executed, the denouement, specifically when Charu breaks down into an unrealistic monologue, "Why did you leave me Amal?" conveniently timed, just as Bhupati happens to be at the door is a tad clumsy, contrived to deliver him the double blow and eventually reach the broken nest, tragic freeze frame. It feels like a cop-out, and an obvious writing deficiency. There could have been other well thought out ways to make him aware of the fact that Charu loved Amal. Also, one wishes the line delivery of Shailen Mukherjee was less affected and artificial, especially when he speaks in English.
Amal fleeing overnight because of Umapada's (Shyamal Ghoshal) betrayal is a bit abrupt as well. Why not stay around and offer his cousin some moral support instead? While Charu's feelings for Amal are quite explicitly exhibited, Amal is never shown reciprocating to that extent, hence it seems a bit of a stretch for him to act so impulsively and clear out fearing another betrayal.
Lilting music, great cinematography, great writing, carefully executed mise en scène and an extraordinarily splendid performance by Madhabi Mukherjee make the film.