“I have a feeling that the really crucial
moments in a film should be wordless,” the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray once
said. He was speaking of his 1964 masterpiece Charulata, whose action
consists largely of soulful looks passing between a married woman (Madhabi
Mukherjee) and her husband’s cousin (Soumitra Chatterjee) as they fall
casually, then guiltily, in love. In that film—which is based on a great, bleak
novella called The Broken Nest, by Rabindranath Tagore—there’s plenty of
talk, and even a song or two, but almost nothing anyone says or sings touches
on the heart of the matter, on what’s crucial to the hero and the heroine and
her preoccupied husband (Shailen Mukherjee). The three main characters are, in
their different ways, writers, yet the words they publish in their newspapers
and literary journals don’t help them either. All they can do is look at one
another, and keep looking until they see.
When Ray got hold of an
aesthetic idea, he followed it through to the end: he hadn’t finished exploring
the power of silence with Charulata. His next film, Two, was a sly—and completely
wordless—fifteen-minute short about a pair of little boys trying to one-up each
other across a short but apparently unbridgeable distance: a rich kid in a
fancy house and a poor kid playing outside. (The film is reminiscent of the
virtuosic, dialogue-free opening sequence of Charulata, in which the
heroine flits from window to window, watching the world pass by below her.) And
a year later, he reunited his Charulata stars, Madhabi Mukherjee and
Soumitra Chatterjee, for another painful domestic drama, The Coward (Kapurush),
in which words are again no use and the seeing is all.
The Coward, based loosely on a short story by Premendra Mitra, is among Ray’s most
graceful, most musical films, but it isn’t very well known, perhaps in part
because of its awkward length. It runs just sixty-nine minutes, and opened in
India in 1965 as half of a double
feature whose other (somewhat lesser) half was a satiric
comedy by Ray called The Holy Man (Mahapurush). According
to Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson, “Kapurush failed to make the
impression Ray hoped for when it was shown at the Venice Festival in 1965, its
first and almost its last showing outside India.” Years later Ray told
Robinson, “I have a pretty high opinion of Kapurush myself and I was
disappointed by the response.” As far as I can tell, the film never had a
theatrical release in the United States.
But it’s now available, as an extra on the Criterion edition of The Big City (Mahanagar, 1963), and it streams on the Criterion Channel. While the film might not be a revelation, exactly, to those of us who know and love Ray’s other work, it’s a satisfyingly pure (and compact) expression of his complex sensibility—a distillation, particularly, of the melancholy, Chekhovian comic elements that run through his work, from The Apu Trilogy in the late fifties to Kanchenjunga (1962) and Charulata before it, and Days and Nights in the Forest (1970) and The Home and the World (1984) after. The Coward’s scope is small, but Ray’s vision is clear, and wide.
The film begins at night, in a lonely auto repair shop in the Bengal countryside, where a Calcutta man named Amitabha Roy (Chatterjee) is hearing the distressing news that the broken-down taxi in which he has traveled from the city can’t be repaired for a couple of days, and, no, there really isn’t much in the way of hotel accommodations in this neck of the woods. A rotund, cheerful man in baggy shorts, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bannerjee), overhears and offers to put Roy up in his own home; on the drive, we learn that Roy is a screenwriter of sorts, hoping to gather some local color for a script, and that Gupta is the manager of a tea plantation. When they arrive at Gupta’s well-appointed bungalow and the planter introduces his wife, Karuna (Mukherjee), it’s obvious to everyone in the audience that Ami and Karuna have met before, and not casually. Ami, as big-eyed Chatterjee plays him, looks absolutely stricken, gobsmacked; Karuna looks down, a little too quickly, then quietly leaves the room. Gupta shows him to the guest quarters, where, left alone for a moment, Ami slowly turns around until he finds his reflection in a mirror and stops to look, as if he were trying to see what Karuna might see when she looks at him. But when she enters his room to bring him a towel, she doesn’t look at him at all until he addresses her directly, and for the rest of the rather uncomfortable evening, she mostly averts her gaze from him. He can’t take his eyes off her.
At supper and after, Gupta does almost all the talking, becoming more garrulous as glass after glass of whiskey disappears; tea is his job, but alcohol is his pastime. He’s a happy tippler, though, laughing loudly at his own jokes in between sips of booze and puffs on his pipe, and he’s apparently quite oblivious to the charged atmosphere in the room. Before retiring, Ami has a chance to speak to Karuna alone, face to face, and although she’s perfectly polite, when she does look him straight in the eye her expression is eerily empty of emotion—no love, no hate, no anger, no regret, nothing but, perhaps, the faintest trace of annoyance. And when he lies on his bed, he remembers—in the first of the film’s three flashbacks—the last time they were together, in his student digs in Calcutta. She has come to tell him that her family is planning to take her to the country, to get her away from him, and to urge him to marry her, immediately, instead. He dithers and makes excuses and finally, feebly, pleads for “a little more time,” to which she replies, “What you really need isn’t more time, but something else,” before she turns her back and walks out the door. That’s a killer exit line, but what makes the scene is Mukherjee’s expression as she delivers it. Ray (who was his own camera operator) zooms in slightly, as if he knew he was about to capture something rare: an image of a young woman’s face at the exact moment love dies.
It’s a look no lover wants to see or, once having seen, to remember. And it is the look that Ami Roy is seeing again, in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and will see again the following morning and afternoon and maybe for the rest of his irresolute life. (It might remind you of the fate of another weak-willed screenwriter of sixties cinema, the one Michel Piccoli played in Godard’s Contempt.) I won’t spoil the very real suspense of how this delicate, melancholy story plays out over the last half hour of its brief running time; I’ll just say that after more drinking and talking by Gupta and more looking and not looking by Ami and Karuna, it ends the only way it can.
In this rich period of Ray’s work, he was beginning to assemble a company of actors capable of supplying him the crucial, wordless moments his movies needed. The Coward was the sixth of fourteen films Ray made with Soumitra Chatterjee, who was then thirty years old. (Apur Sansar  was the first.) He played many kinds of characters, from befuddled bridegrooms to cocky intellectuals to brilliant detectives, in the course of their long collaboration. But his role in The Coward may be the toughest Ray ever asked him to play, because Ami is neither a hero nor a villain nor even a clown, but simply an ordinary man with some extraordinarily unattractive qualities: it takes a strong actor to play a weakling, a brave actor to play a coward. Chatterjee meets the challenge, and then some.
As Gupta, a character who is entirely absent from the original short story, Haradhan Bannerjee creates a memorable, almost lovable character from a type that might easily have tipped into caricature. Ray knew the actor could play a hearty businessman in a relatively nuanced manner, because he’d done it a couple of years earlier, in The Big City; I suspect Ray wouldn’t have added such a substantial role if he didn’t think he had just the man for the job. (And it’s hard to imagine the film without Gupta’s garrulousness as a counterpoint to the ex-lovers’ tense silences.) Ray and Bannerjee made three more movies together, in the seventies.
But for Madhabi Mukherjee, whose deep, mysterious self-possession dominates the film, The Coward was the end of her collaboration with Satyajit Ray, after three remarkable performances. The director had cast her as the lead in The Big City after seeing her in Mrinal Sen’s powerful Baishey Shravana (1960), made when she was eighteen years old. Ray’s wife, Bijoya, wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Madhabi was quite remarkable—she was not only an excellent actor, but was also extremely intelligent.” That intelligence is especially important in The Coward, because Karuna’s function in the story is to judge her ex-lover’s character accurately, to see him as he is so that the viewer can too. Every look she trains on him is a look of appraisal, and thanks to Mukherjee’s superbly controlled acting, we can see that her appraisal is clear-eyed, and just.
Why did Ray and Mukherjee never work together again after The Coward? It has long been rumored that at a certain point their relationship became closer than that of a director and his star. Bijoya, without naming names, wrote that her husband “got into a relationship with another woman” in 1965, and hurt her “immensely.” Mukherjee, in her own 1995 memoir, admits that there was “yearning from both sides,” while stopping short of confirming an affair. Ray and his wife remained together for the rest of his life. (He died in 1992.) Mukherjee, now seventy-seven, continues to act in movies. What happened between Satyajit Ray and Madhabi Mukherjee is right up on the screen in The Coward. All you have to do is look.