A collection of Satyajit Ray’s movies will always be incomplete without his 1969 release Charulata. It was adapted from the short story, Nastanirh by Rabindranath Tagore, whom Ray, as well as his contemporaries, hailed as the artist par excellence. Ray contributes to this still-celebrated author’s story with his vivid visual imagery, set into motion on the expert set design by Bansi Chandragupta, Ray’s art director/production designer. In fact, the set design is crucial to the enhancement of Ray’s own dominant motives through visual imageries.
The widely discussed opening of Charulata
The first scene is often hailed as the epitome of visual storytelling. It is there itself that one gets a glimpse of the vitality of the set design. When the camera moves away from her focused sewing, the first glimpse of the beautifully designed cot is itself a very testimony to Charu’s social stature. She lives in a lavish house and undoubtedly belongs to a well-to-do family. The other rooms and hallway, no less magnificent come into focus further.
Charu’s running across windows with her binoculars to watch passers-by further establishes the enormosity of the house. The set, now, becomes clearer. With it magnifies the intensity of Charu’s entrapment -confined in a large house akin to a golden cage.
Charulata‘s golden cage (Charulata 1969)
The set design works laboriously towards the enhancement of this feeling of entrapment in a golden cage.
Charu has books, musical instruments, but nowhere to exercise any ambitions out at. Since there are servants in the house, she also need not perform household duties, expected of married women in 1870’s India. Also as a married woman in those days, it was only a norm for Charu to stay at home. She reads and sometimes strums on the piano, but doing so does not result in her any satisfaction. She is, after all, confined -with everything, still nothing to do.
This is unlike Bhupati who is ambitiously dedicated to his English political paper “The Sentinel”.
The expensive set is not only reflective of Charu and her husband, Bhupati’s living conditions, but also of how Charu, in spite of having everything around her, is, however, lacking a purpose. In fact, the negligence of Bhupati towards Charu -something of prime focus- is also possible due to the enormous space the house provides. It is not too difficult for him to go on his way with Charu unnoticed in a corner.
Proximity of locations
Charu’s act of watching her husband through a pair of binoculars is an oft-discussed scene. That this is a symbolic act of desperately pulling Bhupati to her close proximity, but in vain, is something we are aware of. However, that Bhupati’s workplace happens to be just downstairs of where Charu spends her time alone, often go unnoticed.
Charu calls out to the servant to serve tea to her husband in the “office” as soon as the clock strikes four. Apart from being reflective of the urgency of tea at a specified time and its earliest possible delivery, it also indicates the proximity of the “office” to “home”. Even Bhupati’s arrival at “home” -the haunt of the lonely Charu– in midst of his work is only aimed at collecting necessary material for his paper. Finding something useful in a book, Bhupati heads downstairs to his work, without even a glance at Charu.
Visual testimonies in Charulata 1969
However, it is not that Bhupati does not love his wife. He is a liberal man, and his upper class “Bhadralok” stature is apparent from his attire. As an educated man, he is undoubtedly familiar with Western lifestyles. He could acknowledge his wife’s loneliness, rather than go hard on her for responding
আমার কি সময়ের অভাব আছে…
(All that I do not lack is time)Charu, Charulata (1969)
Charu knows her husband’s love for books. To facilitate his interest, she inquires him of a book “Swarnalata”. However, instead of a contextual response or further discussion, she receives her husband’s blatant reassurance as a response.
আমার চারুলতা আছে। আর কিছুর দরকার নেই। নাটক, নভেল, কাব্য, কিচ্ছু দরকার নেই।
(I have Charulata. I have no need for anything else. Plays, novels, poems -I need none of these.)Bhupati, Charulata (1969)
We say this scene is of reassurance not merely based on the couple’s conversation. Again, the set design is self-reflective in establishing this fact.
The house consists of piles of books and paintings. Apart from testimony to Bhupati’s liberalism, it also bears evidence of his firm love for literature and reading. Hence, when he assures Charu that he does not need anything excepting her, it is only a momentary consolation; it was made as a response to the dilemma of a sudden acknowledgment of Charu’s loneliness.
The exteriors of order
It is only following the arrival of Amal, Bhupati’s younger cousin just out from college, that we are given a glimpse of the exteriors of the house. Perhaps it is also likely after quite a long time that Charu decided to step outside herself. One may connect it to a sudden joyous sentiment in her, stirred only by Amal’s presence.
It is perhaps the season of fall, with leaves scattered all around. There are notable signs of wilderness, in contrast to the orderly nature of the interiors. Amal suggests his ideas of a pond and ducks. The conversation furthers between Charu and Amal in an exchange that never possibly resulted between Charu and Bhupati in an organized environment.
Given Amal’s youthful spirit, the wilderness is only a trope among many. One may remember, in addition, Amal’s arrival in a thunderstorm, or the echoes Amal sends out ringing throughout the interior halls with his joyous singing.
Amal stirs the power of Charu’s creativity, and Charu indeed becomes quite fond of him. The swing outdoors creates a necessary distance for Charu to maintain, only to realize the need to bring even Amal closer through her binoculars.
Apart from such a symbolic connection, the placement of the swing itself matters a great deal. For instance, it enables the smooth movement of a single shot in the scene following Charu‘s disappointment after her attempts at writing. The single-shot covers Charu’s own gaze, fixated downwards while thinking. It then moves towards Amal’s writing notebook on the mat. Moving upwards, the camera finally rests on Charu in a deep state of thought.
The marriage of set design and narration in Charulata 1969
We can concur from these observations that quintessential elements of Charulata‘s set design serve as an aid to the movie’s motives themselves. More than being just props, the presence of material things in Charulata is utilized to the fullest extent. Sometimes, they even enhance emotions. An instance can be that of Charu hugging a pillar in the house prior to her final breaking down in front of Amal. She hugs Amal in a grasp similar to the one with which she holds the pillar, paving way for the utmost clarity of her feelings for Amal to see. The departure of Amal is quite like the shifting from underneath of a supporting pillar that uplifted her, now that she has known Amal’s company.
Although with their presence in a film, the objects on set function quite like the minimalist objects in dramas. The only exception is that, unlike dramas that have limitations in the number of objects, the objects here are multiple and precise in detail and form. Their presence is absolute and does not demand viewers to imagine a concerned object. Still, they fulfill the standard of dramatic art; it is in the sense that every object on the set seemingly has a purpose to fulfill. Of course, some objects are merely decorative; even they, too, may seem purposeful given the upper-class setting of the movie itself. In a way similar to the pillar aiding the reflection of Charu’s emotions without her even uttering a word, no object occurs in isolation. They take a part in the narration, often conveying the unsaid.