Dir. Satyajit Ray. Starring Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Haradhan Bandopadhyay
For much of the movie (which translates in English as The Coward), it appears that Karuna (Mukherjee) is not a woman much given to second chances. Upon discovering that a woman he’d loved for eighteen months in his younger days is a married, a proper memsahib on a tea plantation, Amitabha (Chatterjee) is gooey with hope at recovering a dead past. In one stolen conversation with her—in the movie’s present, virtually every conversation the two of them have is within earshot of her husband, Bimal (Bandopadhyay)—he tells her that he has never been able to love again since he lost her. She appears almost indifferent, but maybe it’s the polite facade that she presents which chilled him at first meeting her again. Is that my fault? she asks. Over and over again, more times than you’d think possible in a movie that’s only seventy minutes long, he goes to her and says her name, spoken like an incantation or thrown in front of him like a talisman. Each time, she is so far away from him that he can barely come to the point without stammering his way through. He is a screenwriter now, a profession fairly far off from what he went to school for; lines for moments like these are for him to screw out of his brain and write down, not speak in a convincing voice himself.
It’s difficult to blame her. On a steamy night some years ago, when he was an economics student and she an art student, when he was penniless and she was wealthy, she came to his boarding-house. (His room, it had three corners; three corners had his room, etc.) Her guardian intends to transfer to a distant city and take her with him, as a way to forfend her love affair with someone outside her class. When she makes the offer to stay with him, he hesitates. Ray does not give us much room to understand why he does so in that moment, and he does not give us much reason to understand it later on, either. In that moment, Ami tells Karuna that he worries about her ability to live a life without money or hope of material comfort, given her background. (This is ironic; his economics education is primarily Keynesian, and who should know better about how to operate better with a deficit than a Keynesian?) They ought to at least take a second to think it over, he tells her. On another woman, the stare she gives him might be icy, or angry, or disappointed. Yet Mukherjee, whose eyes are wide and beautiful like you might only see on one person in ten thousand, does not have such a look for him as another single tear runs down, bisecting her cheek. Her look is as profound as what she says to Ami: if you need time to think about it, you need something else instead. From then on, every look she gives him is profound, pregnant, cutting, and most of all, innocent. The lack and the failure of that sordid and embarrassing night are not hers. She has rushed to him at the first opportunity and offered her entire self to him, proven that she is willing to abase her position, and at receiving this precious gift Ami has rubbed his hands together and said, “Well, I don’t know…” She can be forgiven for not giving second chances after such a failure of will, especially when it is so humiliating and disappointing as this.
In truth, though, this was the third chance. She’d given him a second chance even before this one. On an early date, the two of them are sitting across a table from one another. He’s telling her fortune by reading her palm, and then, unnecessarily, tells her that he doesn’t actually know how this works. I just wanted to hold your hand and so I did that, he tells her. Her eyes are already less inviting than we’d seen them when they first met on the train, when she lost her ticket and he bought one for her and immediately arranged a second meeting. On the train, she was practically lost in him. She smiles more widely in a single shot than we see in the rest of the film. Here, her smile is firm. You shouldn’t have to make excuses, she says. Ami tries again, proffering a slightly elaborate request for her to accept, and then they hold hands across the table with one another. That was his second chance, and given how spectacularly Amitabha fails later in their relationship, it is tragic that he’s blown through it so quickly, and on such a frivolous, unnecessary moment as this one. He knows that men in other places are much more forward with women, in fact laments in front of her that in England boys and girls do all sorts of things that they cannot do in India. (She replies, a little gravely, that they take things too far.) Yet despite wanting to take her hand, he has to resort to a crude trick, the “What’s your sign?” of physical affection, and worse still he has underestimated her. When he admits to her that it was a way to hold her hand, she looks back at him and asks why he thinks she consented to this obviously fake little session. It’s a gorgeous moment, a knowing moment, and even if this movie took place on a linear track rather than jumping between the present and past, I think it would still be a little bit chilling. Kapurush is not what I’d call a sexy movie or anything, but that moment where she tells him that she’s entirely in control of herself is a sexy one. Her composure is as appealing as his flakiness is malodorous, and yet despite how sexy it is, she is laying down a warning in neon letters which is stories high: don’t chicken out on me again. He does just that when the stakes are far higher than they are in this moment, and the chicken loses its head.
The husband she has chosen—and how could it have been any other way?—is chunky, balding, too quick to laugh and even quicker to reach for whiskey to alleviate his boredom. Bimal runs a tea plantation and wears his wealth easily enough. While he complains of having little to do and thus having taken to drink, he doesn’t seem unhappy. He has a beautiful and talented wife. He has a terrific view and a lawn to practice his putting. He whistles frequently, and as is appropriate for a character who breaks into English pretty often, the tunes on his mind are from the British Isles. We can hear him break into melodious versions of “Auld Lang Syne” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” of all things. He is precisely the kind of man about whom even a viewer might say, “She can’t love him,” and while he has passed out in the sun, Amitabha takes his opportunity to say basically the same thing to Karuna. Her retort is that it’s arrogant in the extreme to think that he can know someone in a day; maybe she has changed, too. Yet the answer is easy enough for us who have known Bimal for only an hour or so at that point. It is impossible that he would ever disappoint her the way that Amitabha disappointed her. He will not leave her because he is tethered to Mrs. Gupta with, as G.K. Chesterton might have put it, with an unseen line and invisible hook. In other words, he is reliable in just the ways that Ami is unreliable, and even if that means she has sacrificed a great romance, it means that she will never sacrifice her dignity the way she did in that three-cornered room.
Kapurush is shot in two modes, in ways which basically reflect Amitabha’s mood. In one, the camera is steady. This is the rarer of the two, saved mostly for earlier times when he is confident. There is no back and forth, no movement in the camera itself when he is meeting her on the train, say. The more common choice is for the camera, wherever it’s situated, to shift back and forth, to pace with the characters themselves. It’s possible to read this as an ambivalent camera, meant to make us weigh those options that Amitabha and Karuna face throughout the picture, but I am more enamored of a different reading. When the camera is at his vantage point, it is overwhelmingly still. On the train, he wants Karuna and he is sure of it; he can see the back of her head and the contour of her jaw and it’s enough to know he wants her. In the jeep, when Bimal is driving him to the train station, he sees the back of her head again and her hand on her husband’s shoulder. (She can see him in the back without having to move her head an inch; Ray has found room for her amusingly ’60s sunglasses to fill the rearview mirror.) In those cases, the camera will zoom but it will not shift. When Ami is hemming and hawing, refusing to make a decision, failing to commit to someone who it seems impossible that he wouldn’t commit to, then the camera begins that shifty-eyed walk, like the slow disbelieving shake of a head.