Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law,Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own brother, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education. However, after several months, Charu and Amal’s feelings for each other move beyond literary friendship.
Charulata is an adaption to film of Tagore's novella "Nastanirh" (The Broken Nest).Calcutta, Bengal 1879.Starved for company, Charu embroiders a B for her husband Bhupati. Charu's days are spent by herself reading novels in their large house. She also watches passers-by through opera glasses from the upstairs windows. Bhupati on the other hand is a newspaper editor/owner, if not for that diversion he would be one of the idle rich. The newspaper is struggling financially, which keeps him continually busy, and neglectful of Charu.At a meal Bhupati informs Charu that her brother Umapada, an under-employed lawyer, has written to Bhupati about finding Umapada work in Calcutta. Bhupati has written back offering Umapada work at the newspaper to ease the load on Bhupati.That night, Bhupati is up late working, when Charu presents Bhupati with the embroidered handkerchief. Bhupati realises from the effort put into this gift that Charu has little to occupy herself and is lonely.Charu looks for another book to read: she finds "Swarnalata". Bhupati is amused at this choice. Calling Charu "Charulata" he tells her he will ask Umapada to bring Umapada's wife Mandakini to Calcutta as well, as a companion for Charu.(Mandakini seems to arrive first, Umapada only later, or this is a flaw in the scripting.)Mandakini and Charu play the card game snap, which bores Charu – who would rather be reading Swarnalata. After the card game finishes, Mandakini goes looking for tea. Charu is reading when a storm strikes Calcutta, just as Umapada arrives. The wind rushes through the house disturbing curtains, paperwork and the caged parrot.Bhupati takes the work-averse Umapada on a tour of the printing works in another part of the house. He shows Umapada the next issue of the paper The Sentinel, whose motto is "Truth Survives". He explains Umapada is to work as the new manager of The Sentinel, although whether the paper itself will survive as a business is unsure.The paper has a political focus. At the time (& like now), Britain was engaged in a war in Afghanistan, and Bhupati's editorial thrust is to be critical of the government policy. Indians have no say in the government policy as they have no political representation.Discussing the paper's future, or lack thereof, a divide open betweens Bhupati and Umapada over whether the paper should constrain itself to truth and integrity or liven things up for a wider market by introducing humour and scandal. Umapada favours making money at the expense of virtue. Bhupati attempts to reform Umapada's lack of enthusiasm for the ethos of The Sentinel by giving Umapada additional responsibility by way of the keys to the safe and control of the financial side of the business. Bhupati confides to Umapada that The Sentinel rivals Charu as the two most important things in his life.Next Bhupati's younger brother Amal, a 23 year old university student and fledgling author, arrives. While helping him to unpack, Charu suggests at his age Amal should get married. Mandakini brings a plateful of confections for Amal. Amal can tell Mandakini is interested and that Charu did not make the confections from the number of them on the plate. If they had been made by Charu, Mandakini would have brought fewer.
Amal begins to help Bhupati with the grammatical correction of newspaper articles. Amal and Bhupati discuss literature versus politics, their respective strengths. Then they arm wrestle against a piano lid. Bhupati, the older brother, wins. While he was away from Calcutta once, Charu was necessarily writing letters to Bhupati. From these letters Bhupati has recognised that Charu has a literary ability . He asks Amal to spend time with Charu so as to foster and guide whatever talent can be drawn out from Charu.Mandakini, Amal and Charu talk together about poetry, embroidery of slippers, snap, and women who lie on beds looking at themselves in the mirror. While Charu and Amal get into the merits of various Bengali authors and their female character creations, Mandakini falls asleep on the bed and starts snoring.Charu tells Amal to collect a mat with a peacock image on it, and with it they go out into the garden. The garden is untended and overgrown. There is a swing rigged from the branch of a tree. Charu gets Amal to push her, and he unwillingly does so. Charu starts singing about nature, youth, and cuckoos. With Amal by now flat on his back on the peacock mat, Charu starts asking him what he is thinking. Amal is thinking about writing.
Charu decides herself to make Amal a notebook for writing (with her own hands, Amal has previously bought a notebook from a store). She later gives this handmade decorated notebook to Amal on the condition that nothing he writes in the notebook can ever be published.There follows a montage of Amal writing various stories in the notebook. During one of these compositions, Charu is watching him from the swing through the opera glasses. But her view moves away to a window where a woman is holding a child in her arms. This sets Charu thinking.Charu gets Amal to read her out loud his latest composition. Mandakini is watching this from the house. Amal requests Charu's opinion on his work. Amal suggests Charu try writing something herself out of her own experience.Amal asks Mandakini her choice of which magazine he should try to get his essay published in. Mandakini is at a loss to answer, and while Amal goes to get ice cream for Mandakini, Charu walks past and scolds Mandakini for failing to bring in the washing.That night Bhupati lets Charu know that a very good proposal of marriage with Amal has been received from a family in Burdwan. This piques Charu who makes a barbed remark. Amal is resistant to the idea of this arranged marriage. But Bhupati reveals that whoever marries this daughter will be sent to England by the new father-in-law. Charu waits by the window as Amal and Bhupati discuss the attractions and opportunities of England.Eventually Amal decides to reject the offer. Charu laughs and claims she knows Amal will agree, given a few days to think about it.At night in bed, Umapada suborns Mandakini to prove her love of him by lying for him in regards to something he is planning.Another day, Amal is playing the piano while singing when Charu arrives with snacks for Amal, which Amal does not eat, but rather continues singing a love song, possibly mocking Charu. Charu's attention is caught by a pair of slippers on the floor, while a letter arrives for Amal. The letter brings news that Amal's essay has been accepted for publication. Charu is upset at this and locks herself in a room to quietly weep. Amal goes off for ice cream. She is still locked in when Bhupati arrives on the scene and he is in a quandary as to why the door is locked. Bhupati has come to see Charu because he is excited about the prospect of a change of government in England: Tories (Gladstone) versus Liberals (Disraeli). Amal returns with the ice cream and is also told the news by Bhupati. Charu now does not want the ice cream, nor does Mandakini, and Amal gives it to a cat. Amal argues with Charu that he was right to get his essay published. Charu verbally defers but inwardly rejects this contention.Charu is spurred by this to try to write a story of her own. She has trouble starting, until she comes up with a line beginning "The cry of the cuckoo", but changes "cry" to "lament". Thinks some more, then destroys the page. Numerous destroyed pages follow a trail across the ground in the garden. Sitting on the swing, Charu imagines boats on the river and dancing figures.A story results, which is published in Bishwabandhu. After Charu shows her name in print in the magazine to Amal, Charu throws out the pan prepared for Amal by Mandakini, and instead assumes for herself (from Mandakini) the task of making pan in future.Charu brings Amal pan she has prepared, along with a pair of embroidered slippers she has made, but Amal ignores the slippers and instead praises Charu's writing abilities. All this is however an emotional wrench for Charu. Charu tearfully blurts out she will never write anything again.When the liberals win the election and form a new government in England, Bhupati consequently wins a bet he placed on the outcome, and a party is held with the winnings. During this Bhupati gives a speech honouring Rammohan Roy. A musical soiree ensues. Musicians begin playing and singing. While the audience's attention is taken, Umapada leaves the room and makes his way to the office safe which he unlocks and then steals cash from inside it.Charu and Amal are in another room discussing whether he will go to England. And if so, then his eventual return to Bengal, and to Charu ?Umapada and Mandakini come to let Charu and Amal know they will be leaving the next day because they have received a telegram that Mandakini's father is sick. Umapada comes up with some money to repay that he had previously borrowed from Charu and gives it to her. Mandakini maintains fixed eye contact with Amal while she insists that Amal send her a copy of his magazine essay. Charu determines that Amal must now stay to manage The Sentinel in Umapada's stead, so long as The Sentinel survives.Back at the soiree it winds up with a complaint-come-celebration that the ignorant Bhupati has not been telling the other guests how his wife has become a published author on page 23 of the May issue of Bishwabondhu. He is carried around the room on the shoulders of stronger guests.At a paper supplier it emerges that 2700 rupees is owing (about 300 pounds at that time, 1879), money that Umapada allegedly paid to the merchant 3 months ago (but in fact did not pay). Bhupati discovers the embezzlement.That night something appears to be wrong as Bhupati has not come home. Charu and Amal are waiting for Bhupati, and Charu wants Amal to promise he will never leave, no matter what happens, or has happened. Amal will not make that promise.Amal locates Bhupati and learns The Sentinel is ruined. Bhupati expresses his difficulty at living with people when someone so close as his brother and friend Umapada can both betray him and show no appreciation.Bhupati finds Charu and remonstrates with her that he was so embarassed at the soiree because she had not told him about her story, and he only learnt about it from Nishikanta (another businessman). Charu explains she did not tell him because he was always busy. Bhupati informs Charu that he is getting rid of her rival (meaning the Sentinel) and he will not be busy any more.Meanwhile, in the changed circumstances, Amal also packs up to leave the house, but does not take the embroidered slippers with him.During an idle day at the beach, Bhupati wants to get Charu to write another story, as, unlike other stories, Charu's story in Bishwabondhu was the only one Bhupati could understand. Charu makes the counter-suggestion that if Bhupati starts another newspaper she will write for that. They reach an agreement that part of the paper will be politics in English, and part of the paper will be other things in Bengali. They form a plan to bring in Nishikanta as a third partner.A letter arrives letting Bhupati know friends have seen Amal in Madras. Bhupati gives Charu the letter with the news and exits the house. Outside the wind begins to howl. Charu collapses crying on a bed. Bhupati returns and discovers Charu in this condition. Bhupati only now comprehends what he has not been seeing. He leaves the house again, sitting by himself in a closed horse-drawn carriage as it drives around a darkening Calcutta.The film ends when Bhupati returns home to Charu that night.