“Kapurush” - Satyajit Ray (1965)

Satyajit Ray’s Kapurush (The Coward, 1965) is a low-key romantic drama that was released as part of a double feature with another film that Ray made at the same time, the comedy Mahapurush (The Holy Man, 1965).  Actually, the two films are not really thematically connected to each other, but since each one had a running time of a little more than one hour, Ray decided to put them together as a double feature. Given the light-hearted and romantic nature of the double feature, Ray fashioned a Hindi-language-dubbed version of the films, but it was not a commercial hit and not ranked as a Ray masterpiece [1].  Nevertheless, I think Kapurush is an outstanding work and deserving of more recognition.

In fact Kapurush is much more closely linked with Ray’s two preceding films, Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) and Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), and there has been some suggestion that the three films form a trilogy [2].  After all, all three films feature a married woman who struggles to cautiously assert herself while at the same time maintaining decorous behavior within the confines of Indian social expectations.  And in all three of these films, the actress who plays this married woman is the gifted Madhabi Mukherjee.  Ms. Mukherjee always presented an understated, but still naturally sensuous, demeanor that subtly conveyed her feelings just through emotive glances and gestures.  Indeed, maintaining an ambiguous emotive posture was something that she probably had to artfully practice in real life, since Ms. Mukherjee and Satyajit Ray were rumored to have had a romantic relationship during this period.
Kapurush is based on contemporary Bengali writer Premendra Mitra’s story “Janaiko Kapuruser Kahini” (“The Story of a Coward”), and it is narrowly focused on just three characters involved in a romantic triangle.  For this, Ray recruited three of his most accomplished and effective actors.  Besides Madhabi Mukherjee, the film also featured
  • Soumitra Chatterjee, who starred in fourteen Satyajit Ray Films over his career, including Charulata, and
  • Haradhan Bandopadhyay, who appeared in five Ray films, including Mahanagar.
Of course romantic triangle stories are quite common, but what makes this particular instance interesting is the light that it sheds on the mysterious and ephemeral nature of romantic love, itself.  This is due to Ray’s artistry (as usual, he was responsible for the script, music, and direction for the film), as well as the nuanced acting on the part of the three principal characters.

The story of Kapurush revolves around a man’s chance meeting of a woman with whom he had once had a serious love affair.  She is now comfortably married to another man, but because circumstances have now thrown the three of them together in an isolated location, uncomfortable memories and feelings are resurrected.  The narrative unwinds over three basic acts.

1.   The Unlikely Meeting
In the opening scene, Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), a film scriptwriter from Calcutta (Kolkata) is shown discussing the breakdown of his car with an auto repairman in a remote town some 600 kilometers north of Calcutta.  Amitaba (aka Ami) learns that the needed repair parts are not locally available, so he will have to stay in the area while waiting for his car to be fixed.  Fortuitously, a local tea plantation owner, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bandopadhyay), witnesses this conversation and graciously invites Ami to stay at his nearby bungalow over night while his car is being repaired.  Ami is delighted by such kindness, and the two of them set out in Bimal’s car.  All this is shown in a single, bravura camera shot lasting 4:08 and featuring multiple compositions as the camera tracks in and out over the course of the shot.

When they arrive at Bimal’s house, Ami is introduced to the man’s wife, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), whom Ami is stunned to recognize as the woman with whom he had once been madly in love.  Upon seeing Ami, Karuna frowns slightly, but her countenance is otherwise opaque, and the two of them do not acknowledge their past in front of Bimal.

As Bimal and Ami socialize over dinner (Karuna is present but relatively taciturn), we get to see just how different the two men are.  Although both men are convivial and the types of men you run into all the time, they are by temperament almost exact opposites.  Ami is sensitive, thoughtful, and modest.  Bimal is a boastful motormouth who loves to hear himself talk.  He is continually making rhetorical comments, laughing at his own jokes, and talking while his mouth is full of food.  In fact if we were to identify the two men in accordance with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) [3], Ami would be characterized as INFP (i.e. Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving), while Bimal would be characterized as the opposite, ESTJ (Extraverted, Sensing, Thinking, and Judgmental).  There are plenty of INFPs and ESTJs in the world, but they are very unalike.

Ami can’t help noticing that Bimal, though kind-hearted, is relatively insensitive to his wife.  Though Bimal and Karuna have been married for more than three years, only recently has Bimal learned that Karuna has artistic talents as a painter.  In fact Bimal spends a good deal of time bemoaning his boring provincial life and sopping his self-pity in alcohol. Ami must wonder how Karuna could have married such a person, who is not even a Bengali.

2.  Remembering How it Was
In his bedroom that evening Ami lapses into a flashback of a critical moment some years ago when he and Karuna were in love.  One evening Karuna boldly came alone to Ami’s disheveled apartment for the first time to inform him that in a few days her uncle (presumably her guardian) was moving hundreds of kilometers away to Patna and intended to take Karuna with him.  She affirms her love for him and tells Ami she wants to defy her family and stay with him in Calcutta.  Ami understands that she is basically proposing marriage, and he can’t help expressing his hesitation about this.  After all, he is just out of college and unemployed, and committing to marriage is the most important step in a man’s life.  He asks her for more time to think things over.  Ami’s reserved and “cowardly” reaction to her passionate love declaration crushes Karuna, and this ended their relationship.

Emotionally disturbed by this memory, Ami comes out to the living room and finally gets a brief moment to speak with Karuna alone.  He asks her doubtfully if she is truly happy (with her marital existence, he is presumably thinking).  But Karuna doesn’t even answer the question and only shows Ami polite indifference.  When Ami asks her for sleeping pills, Karuna gives him her bottle; but seeing the anguished look on his face, she mockingly warns him to take only two pills.

In the morning Ami is informed that his car won’t be fixed that day and that he might as well take the train that evening to his intended destination.  The rest of the day will be spent on an outing and picnic with Bimal and Karuna.  As they travel to the countryside in Bimal’s jeep, Ami has two more flashback memories of his old days with Karuna.  One is about how they happened to meet for the first time on a bus.  Another memory, occasioned during the drive when he sees Karuna’s beautiful hand linger on Bimal’s shoulder, recalls a moment when he used the excuse of reading Karuna’s palm to enjoy the momentary opportunity of just touching her hand. 

3.  At the Station
When they stop for their picnic, Bimal takes a snooze on the grass.  Ami, still in love with Karuna and unable to believe she loves Bimal, uses the opportunity to timidly approach Karuna again.  Karuna is serene but completely unresponsive.  So he hastily pens a note to her asking her to meet him at the train station that evening and run away with him.  He promises her that he won’t be a coward this time.

They drop Ami at the train station, and Ami waits for some time on a bench for the train.  Finally and much to Ami’s excitement, Karuna does come.  But she only asks him to return her sleeping pills that she had earlier given him, and then she departs as the film ends.

The ending of the film may remind some viewers of past masterpieces in a similar vein – the British film, Brief Encounter (1945) and the Chinese classic Spring in a Small Town (1948) – in which already-married individuals meet and develop heartfelt romantic feelings, but spurn them in order to return to their existing families.  However, on this occasion in Kapurush, the ending is more clearly steeped in regret. 

In fact this film is a melancholy reminder that one usually has only one fleeting moment to seize a magical, loving opportunity.  Ami had done it on the bus, but the risk level was low on that occasion.  But at the critical time when Karuna had come to him, he had blown his big chance.  There are almost never any second chances.  And now, as Karuna reminds Ami at one point, they had both changed since those old days.  She now seems to have made her peace with her now comfortable existence.  Perhaps this is more of a trait among women.  I am reminded of  the protagonist’s fatalistic comment in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog [4] –
"when a woman was done with a man she was done with him utterly."
And yet, we have to ask ourselves why Karuna bothered to come to the train station just to retrieve her bottle of sleeping pills.  Was she still bitter and doing this just to torture Ami?  It is possible, but I don’t think so. I think she was offering Ami a second chance.  By boldly coming to him at the station, she was offering him another opportunity to “seize the day”. What Ami should have done was to passionately embrace her. Of course, there were risks to this, and he never took risks.  She took all the risks (a common feminine theme in Ray’s films), and she may have been waiting for a passionate assertion of his love for her.  But he held back and thereby confirmed his nature as a coward.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 143, 199-201.
  2. Chale Nafus, “KAPURUSH (THE COWARD)”, Austin Film Society, (2014).  
  3. “Myers Briggs Type Indicator”, Wikipedia, (27 January 2017).    
  4. Saul Bellow, Herzog, Viking Press, (1964). 

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