Kapurush (The Coward)
The UCLA film archive is in the midst of its Festival of Preservation, and last weekend, it exhibited two rare short features Satyajit Ray released in 1965 as a double bill: Kapurush and Mahapurush (The Holy Man). Sixteen of Ray’s films (deteriorated by India’s humid climate) have been restored since 1993, but you wouldn’t know it given the abysmal dearth of Ray’s cinema on DVD in the US, which amounts to four films (including the Apu Trilogy) that were unceremoniously dumped on barebones discs by Columbia. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve had the chance to see several of the restored prints the past few years, and it’s a mystery why they aren’t more widely available.
Kapurush (74 minutes) and Mahapurush (65 minutes) are narrative sketches that allowed Ray to subtly experiment with form and style; as such, they worked against expectations at the time (“Many of Ray’s critics think that Ray is making too many films in too short a span of time,” scoffed one Bengali journalist) and were largely dismissed upon their release. But according to Andrew Robinson’s book on Ray, the filmmaker said, “These are twin films I have considerable affection for; I have a pretty high opinion of Kapurush myself and I was disappointed by the response.” I’m leaning toward Ray’s assessment.
Mahapurush–the lightest of the two–was based on a story by satirist Rajsekhar Bose and has been accurately described as a farce about a charlatan posing as a holy man (evidenced by “miracles,” esoteric rituals, and outlandish claims of having taught Einstein and palled around with Plato, Jesus, and Buddha) and his impact on a group of characters, both doting and skeptical. “People call it crucifiction,” the man says imperiously. “I call it crucifact!” With a kind of ’60s British playfulness, the movie utilizes animation, freeze frames, and exaggerated performances to convey its story about the charlatan and his ultimate exposure. What makes the film especially acerbic is Ray’s skewering of the charlatan’s adda group (including a scientist and a lawyer) who blithely forgo their education simply for the emotional excitement and social notoriety of affinity with the “holy man.” In Ray’s eyes, the charlatan is merely a swindler but his followers deny their own intelligence.
Kapurush is a much more subtle–even somewhat Antonioniesque–film about a Calcutta screenwriter named Amitabha Roy who finds himself stranded in a remote region that he is researching for a story; a tea plantation owner offers him lodging, where Roy is shocked to discover that the man’s wife, Karuna, is his former lover. Their reunion–enmeshed with awkward social niceties and the man’s monologues on bourgeois living–sparks memories of a past when Roy was a student and emotionally unwilling to elope with Karuna when their situation demanded it. Karuna now appears stifled and unhappy in her marriage, and Roy must re-evaluate his decision.
Ray develops delicious irony through the fact that the screenwriter is researching the region in order to discover greater emotional verity (“You must write what you know,” he dully repeats) but in doing so, comes face to face with a moment in his life when his emotional integrity was utterly compromised (hence the title). Given the similarity in names and occupations between filmmaker and protagonist, one wonders if this might be an open self-critique, a laying bare of Ray’s own grapplings with conscience.
Confessional or not, it’s a deeply felt and observantly rendered mood piece that pivots on setting, camera placement, actor positions, and an editing structure that incorporates flashbacks via emotional associations: Roy’s sleepless night in bed reminds him of his last conversation with Karuna in his (ironically designed) three-cornered student apartment; a jeep tour of the countryside reminds him of his first meeting with Karuna on a public bus; Karuna’s hand reminds him of a time when he pretended to read her palm. The psychological sophistication of the film’s structure belies its simple story of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl,” a formula repeated by the jovial plantation owner to summarize the screenwriter’s craft. (Ray includes several similarly self-reflexive notes, such as having the husband ask to appear as a character in Roy’s developing screenplay, but not as a villain, a sentiment Ray upholds by emphasizing the plantation owner’s intelligence and self-awareness despite his shortcomings.)
The flashback to Roy’s student room is the film’s pivotal scene, thematically and plot-wise, in which he fails to act on his love for Karuna, and it’s a beautiful crescendo of silent intensity, beyond the couple’s initial dialogue, to a moment of painful, dawning awareness. In the sweaty, cramped confines of the three-cornered room with traffic sounds increasingly audible offscreen, Ray captures Karuna’s distressed face in the foreground with Roy receded (emotionally and physically) in the background, emphasizing the moment in a way that imprints it on the mind of the viewer; the scene hovers over the rest of the film.
Ray so often composed his own scores, which added immeasurably to the atmosphere of his films, and Kapurush is no exception; the film is graced with a beautiful, unexpectedly bluesy saxophone piece that perfectly embellishes the film’s low-key emotional tensions. A filmmaker much more diverse than is commonly assumed given the meager availability of his films in the West, Ray’s musical versatility should also come as no surprise.