KAPURUSH (The Coward)
Chale Nafus
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society

Satyajit Ray’s romantic drama KAPURUSH and the farce MAHAPURUSH were released as a double feature in India on the same day (7 May 1965), but I decided to show them separately because they are so different in tone. KAPURUSH also neatly closes the “Bengali love trilogy” which began with MAHANAGAR and continued with CHARULATA. Simplistically we could say that in MAHANAGAR (The Big City) the love between a husband and wife is strengthened by the woman going out into the city to work and learn about a larger world while gaining self-confidence. In CHARULATA the love between husband and wife is threatened by a poetic cousin and by the husband’s total focus on running his political newspaper. Only after he realizes that his wife was in love with his cousin, who has now fled, can the husband try to find forgiveness and perhaps resolve to work with her on a joint publishing venture and give her more of his time and affection, but that can only be surmised from the open ending. In KAPURUSH we see unrequited love being given a second chance, while the love between a husband and wife is ambiguous. Nonetheless, in all three films Satyajit Ray seems to consider the husband/wife pairing the one most worthy of retaining and the one most socio-culturally correct. 

For the foundation of his screenplay for KAPURUSH, Ray chose a story by the well respected and prolific Bengali author, Premendra Mitra (1904-1988). “Janaiko Kapurusher Kahini” was one that Ray had read in his youth. But, as always, he took great liberties with his source material and forged his own story to be told cinematically. 

For the three principals in his new love triangle, Ray chose actors with whom he had already worked. There was no question but that Madhabi Mukherjee would return to play Karuna in KAPURUSH, after her great success as Arati in THE BIG CITY and the title character in CHARULATA. Soumitra Chatterjee was called on to play the tormented young student and successful but lovelorn screenwriter Amitabha Roy. Chatterjee had played the young student in the final installment of the Apu trilogy, THE WORLD OF APU (1959), and had just recently played the amorous cousin in CHARULATA. Haradhan Bannerjee, who had excellently portrayed Arati’s knitting-machine boss in THE BIG CITY, was a great choice for Karuna’s boorish husband Bimal Gupta in KAPURUSH. Obviously Satyajit Ray was developing an entourage of excellent actors in Calcutta. They would all go on to have highly successful careers in cinema: Madhabi Mukherjee with 61 films, Soumitra Chatterjee with 150 film credits, and Haradhan Bannerjee with 68 films (according to IMDB).

The story contained in KAPURUSH is deceptively simple. Two young students, Amitabha and Karuna, deeply love one another. Karuna wants to run away with the young man because she is about to be married off to someone else by her uncle, who disapproves of Amitabha’s economic situation as a poor student. But because of social conventions and his desire to be established in a job before marriage, Amitabha is too fearful to leap into the unknown with the woman he loves, even though she is willing. Thus, the title of the film – THE COWARD. We learn of their relationship in a flashback when Amitabha accidentally (fatefully?) is invited to the plantation home of a tea-grower, whose wife turns out to be Karuna. Amitabha, now successful in the Bengali film industry, finds his unrequited love fiercely burning once more and believes he can do “the brave thing” this time. 

Deep emotions run beneath the surface both in the present and in the three flashbacks. Karuna in the past and Amitabha in the present seem to be on the verge of bursting forth with precipitous embraces and kisses, but of course Indian censorship rules could not allow such to be depicted at the time. That makes the seething passions almost unbearable since they can’t fall into one another’s arms. Instead, their words and facial expressions must convey all. Uncertainty, hesitation, and fear pervade Amitabha’s face and body language in the flashbacks, while Karuna must remain composed and almost distant in the present. Counterbalancing the two younger people, the husband Bimal may seem quite happy with his lot in life – wealthy, married to a beautiful trophy wife, owner of a large tea plantation. But his alcoholism and his excessive effusiveness imply something buried. He even talks about having lost his social conscience in order to make life easier. Bimal made his peace with the “British caste system” based on one’s position in society, especially in the business world, a remnant of the 89-year British colonial system in India. In a sense, he is also a coward, resigned to living with his wife and servants in a remote area with few friends and lots of whisky. The character of Bimal allowed Ray, a determined post-colonial filmmaker, to critique many elements created and left behind by the British Raj.  

Ray described KAPURUSH as focusing on a “certain type of cowardice and a certain selfishness, which seem to be concomitants of modern middle-class sophistication. The stress of modern living, and the uncertainty of getting a foothold and retaining it, are important causes of these complexes.”

Satyajit Ray cleverly parodies one film cliché through the words of Bimal, who is belittling Amitabha’s profession of writing scripts for films: “Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.” Does Bimal know he is describing the relationship between Amitabha and Karuna during their college days? Or is he even more deviously crowing about his own success in capturing the beautiful woman? Ray chose to make Bimal a rather ambiguous character, superficially boorish, but perhaps underneath it all quite perceptive. 

Ray’s mise-en-scene in KAPURUSH is beautifully composed. In a number of shots, the three main characters are all seen, but in different planes of background, mid-ground, and foreground, all separated but connected in a triangle. Although dialogue is important, once more Ray wanted basic situations and meanings revealed visually. 

For music Satyajit Ray employed more songs by his cultural mentor, Tagore – heard on the radio or even being hummed by Karuna. Interestingly he starts the film with a bit of jazz featuring a saxophone (reportedly the only time he ever employed that instrument on his soundtracks). That contemporary music introduces us to Amitabha, the modern city-dweller involved in the film industry, a 20th century occupation. Jazz would be just the right kind of music for him, but he is on a mission to learn more about the past in the Bengali countryside by gathering “local color” for a new screenplay. That echoes Ray’s own preparation for writing his rural APU trilogy. Naturally being an Anglophile, Bimal Guptal sings/tortures the British song, “Isle of Capri” – a 1934 composition about a summer romance stymied by the fact that the object of the man’s love is married. This was a perfect choice of songs in so many ways, strengthening the possibility that Bimal knows very well that Amitabha loves Karuna but cannot have her. This makes me wish that we could also understand the lyrics of the Tagore songs in this and other films by Ray.

That is the brilliance of Satyajit Ray. He makes films which can be understood and greatly enjoyed by viewers from all over the world because of the visuals, acting, and stories, but for his Bengali audience he packs in so much more – the subtleties and poetry of the Bengali language, cultural references, and poignant music lyrics. 

In order to try to reach an even wider audience in India, Ray had KAPURUSH dubbed into Hindi and replaced Tagore’s songs with snippets of Hindi film songs. Outside of India, KAPURUSH was shown only at the Venice Film Festival which had been so welcoming to Ray’s earlier films. No other festivals and no American or European distributors picked the film up. In fact, it was not seen in France until 1994 in a Satyajit Ray retrospective. What condemned this film to near oblivion: its short length or the pairing with the comedy MAHAPURUSH? Ray was quite disappointed in the response to KAPURUSH, since he admittedly had great affection for this film. That is certainly one of the virtues of the digital revolution, which now allows us to see works never distributed in the US before.
•Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. University of California Press, 1989.
•Premendra Mitra,
•British Raj,
•Rabindranath Tagore,
•“Isle of Capri” (song),
•Frank Sinatra, “Isle of Capri,”

Return to KAPURUSH page