The close-up is perhaps one of the most cinematic techniques that distinguishes cinema from the theatre, and like many film auteurs, Satyajit Ray has used it magnificently in all his films. So it is a difficult task to choose one Ray film over another to talk about the close-up. But for me, his 1964 Charulata, regarded as one of his finest films, is a perfect example where this framing serves many purposes, including creating a sense of intimacy that so matches Ray’s approach to filmmaking. In his 1976 book, Our Films, Their Films, when speaking specifically of Charulata, he wrote that he had chosen “the field of intimate cinema… of mood and atmosphere rather than of grandeur and spectacle”. And there was no better way than using the close-up to convey the inner life of Charulata, the lead character.
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Played by the brilliant and beautiful Madhabi Mukherjee, Charu is a young woman who rarely gives voice to her true feelings—partly because of her own temperament, and coupled with the fear of crossing the line of what was deemed acceptable for women in 19th century Bengal. Without the need of dialogue, the close-up perfectly reveals her thoughts, and allows us to discover who she is and what she feels. In his excellent biography, Satyajit Ray, the Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson highlights a scene in the film (for the curious, it’s around 47 minutes 30 seconds into Charulata), in which the narrative context and the use of close-up play a pivotal part: “It is transparently clear from the tiny ripples that flit across her face that her feelings are in turmoil: one of the most memorable moments in all Ray’s films.”
Ironically, the close-up is also the way Charulata herself observes the world. In an early scene in the film, she watches, through her opera glasses, the comings and goings on the street from the house windows. Charu does not engage in life beyond her home, but lives it through a magnified yet distant and unengaged view. She secretly observes the people who share her world in the same way. Without him being aware, she fixes her eyes on Amal (the charming Soumitra Chatterjee), the young cousin of her husband, Bhupati Datta (sensitively played by Sailen Mukherje), with whom she has fallen in love.
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There are so many astounding close-ups in this movie. My personal favourite is preceded by a scene in which Charu, who is unsuccessfully trying to write her first article, has crumpled up bits of paper into balls and thrown them away—the story she wants to write isn’t clear to her. A single extended shot then follows. We first see the discarded balls of paper and scattered fallen leaves on the ground as the camera keeps tracking from left to right. We do not know where the camera will stop and when it will finally does, it tilts up to reveal a big close-up of Charu’s face and there it stays. It’s a technically difficult shot—a slow track to a perfectly in focus big close-up, and, as usual with Ray’s films, it has been seamlessly achieved by ace cinematographer Subrata Mitra. Just when you’re taken aback by Charu’s beauty and gazing eyes, a rapid montage of characters appear in quick dissolves over her face. Coming from her imagination, these images show Charu the form that her article must take. At the end of the shot, Charu gets up from the swing where she has been sitting and walks away.
Charulata is an ode to the close-up. But I wonder whether Ray would agree with Charlie Chaplin when Chaplin wrote that “Life is tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.”
Nasreen Munni Kabir is a writer and film-maker.