When a movie is about somebody in the movies, you can bet a pound to a pudding that it has, at the very least, a message for the viewer about the nature of making movies. Kapurush (The Coward) does this by sign-posting the trajectory of the movie in a single throwaway line uttered by Bimal (Haradhan Bannerjee), when talking about the story of the film that Amitabha (Soumitra Chatterjee) is writing – “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back…”- there’s a beat, then -“… boy loses girl”. It may be throwaway, but it tells you where the film is going.
Amitabha and Karuna (Madhabi Mukerjee) were together in college, but the caste system got in their way. It didn’t bother Karuna, but Amithaba just didn’t have the balls to maintain the relationship – making him the coward of the title. There had to be one. Years later, Amitabha, now working as a screenwriter, is on a trip to see his brother for movie research. His car breaks down near a tea plantation and the owner, in a fit of generosity – perhaps tinged with just a little bit of boastfulness – offers him a place to stay for the night.
Amithaba discovers that Bimal is now married to Karuna, his old college girlfriend, and seeing her brings back all the feelings he used to have for her, probably never lost. Their relationship remains very understated – she unfailingly polite, he mournful and passionate, but knowing that it’s probably too little too late. Their slow-burning relationship gives life to the film, and adds a delicious tension to the scenes with the three of them (Amithaba, Karuna and Bimal) together.
It’d be a real shame to give away the ending, but suffice to say that it will probably surprise you. Never assume to predict how a Satyajit Ray film will end, because he always finds a little twist to throw your way.
It goes without saying that the film is beautifully shot, and Ray’s regular cast are as brilliant as ever. The film is a loving meditation on bravery, and a look at the social mores of the time. It’s beautiful, understated, and very worthwhile. Bhimal’s big personality adds colour and fun to the intensity between Amithaba and Karuna, but is occasionally overbearing. That is his character, so it’s just a case of the actor giving a performance that is too good, if that is possible. He is too successful at being annoying.
Just watch it. It’s out now on Blu-Ray, so you don’t really have an excuse.