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Deep Dives

The Silent Gaze in Satyajit Ray’s Almost-Love Story

“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.

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