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On the Politics of Caste and Feminine Joy in Satyajit Ray’s Classic Charulata


In a St. Louis library in 1990, I watched our people—speaking our language, eating with their hands—on an American big screen for the first time, in Satyajit Ray’s iconic black-and-white film, Pather Panchali . This is the first film in his Apu Trilogy, a bildungsroman of the lives and tragedies of a young man named Apu. There was never any question of whether we, as Bangladeshi Muslims, saw ourselves in these Hindu characters living in rural West Bengal—they were our people too.

Whereas books, the form I felt most drawn to, let my imagination run wild, I revered the emotional textures of this film. You cannot look away, neither from the suffering nor the joy. I wept when his sister, Durga, died from a fever, after dancing in the monsoon rains. I wept in the next two films, when Apu loses his mother, and his wife. The beauty of the trilogy imprinted itself on me as an artist, but so did the realization that feminine joy is short-lived in Satyajit Ray’s films.

In 2021, I revisited Ray’s prolific oeuvre. First up: Charulata , a story about a young bhadramahila, an upper-caste gentlewoman, set in late 19th-century Bengal. It felt so relevant […]

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