KAPURUSH / THE COWARD (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1965, India) – The choices we make

It seems a little miscalculated that Criterion have packaged Kapurush with Mahanagar. The apparent logic may appear related with the presence of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in both films. Charulata has been released separately yet thematically Kapurush has much more in common with this film than Mahanagar. Firstly, Kapurush was the film Ray made after Charulata. Secondly, Kapurush continued the collaboration with both Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee from Charulata. Thirdly, Kapurush revisits themes about repression and the love triangle that Ray explored in Charulata. These three reasons are evidence enough that Kapurush is in fact a companion piece to Charulata, resituating themes in a contemporary middle class milieu. Less ambitious than Charulata, Ray distills the melodrama of a love triangle to its most basic by focusing solely on the relationship between a scriptwriter, married woman and her husband. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Amitabh a scriptwriter on the search for locations who ends up at the house of a tea planter after his car breaks down. Much to his surprise, the tea planter’s wife turns out to a former lover, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), whom he abandoned out of selfishness. 

I was always under the impression that Kapurush was a minor work from Ray but no Ray film should be thought of in such discriminatory terms since each film tells us something about Ray as a filmmaker, whether this be aesthetically or thematically. Unlike Charulata which seems to fracture the husband-wife bond, Kapurush keeps the husband at a distance so that a collision between the past and present through a series of revealing flashbacks creates an unbearable tension. Ray is interested in the question about a specific middle class selfishness and cowardice that privileges individual creative success over emotional commitment. Karuna is prepared to give up her family and status so that she can be with Amitabh but the flashback tells us he is too concerned with his underachievement’s as an artist. Ambiguity permeates the emotional state of Karuna in the present day and it is never made clear if she is happy. Additionally, we never come to know if her husband is aware of Karuna’s past relationship with Amitabh. While Karuna is critical of Amitabh’s cowardice, her decision to snub Amitabh at the train station at the end of the film underlines a cruelty personified through the symbolic significance of sleeping pills. It’s a shame that Mukherjee and Chatterjee never went on to work together more regularly since they were perfectly suited as an on screen pairing.


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