At the 70th Venice Film Festival, which is now on in Lido, I was mildly surprised to see a packed auditorium to watch Satyajit Ray’s Kapurush (The Coward), screened as part of restored classics last evening. And why not?
The movie, made in 1965, still looks as good (thanks to the excellent restoration), and what is more, it is absolutely relevant today as it was then. Also, it is a story whose universal appeal cannot be doubted even for a second.
Kapurush opens in a remote North Bengal village, more precisely in a gas station, where Amitabha Roy (played to perfection by Ray favourite Soumitra Chatterjee) is worried because his taxi has broken down and he cannot hit his destination that night. A tea planter, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bannerjee), seeing Amitabha’s dilemma offers to put him up in his own bungalow for the night.
When Amitabha reaches the planter’s place, he is shocked to find that his former lover, Karuna Gupta (another excellent portrayal by Madhabi Mukherjee), is Bimal’s wife. During the night and the following day when the three go for a picnic lunch on the hills, Ray tells us through flashbacks woven beautifully into the main narrative how the two young people had met and separated.
There is not a single false note in the entire movie of about 70-odd minutes, and during those brief moments when Amitabha finds himself alone with Karuna, he asks her repeatedly whether she is happy married to the elderly planter. She refuses to reply, and a point comes when Amitabha asks her to run way with him and to meet him at the station where he plans to take the train.
At nightfall, she does arrive on the platform, not to elope with him, but only to take the bottle of sleeping pills she had lent him the previous night. In a hauntingly poignant way, Ray gives us -- and Amitabha – the answer to his question. Is Karuna happy?
Ray’s brilliant script, music and direction as well as Soumendu Roy’s cinematography help underline the most delicate of nuances in human behaviour. Nothing is loud, nothing is over communicated, and the chemistry between Madhabi and Soumitra is just marvellous.
Something which was missing in veteran French helmer Patrice Leconte’s A Promise, set in Germany during World War I. Leconte, who gave us such wonderful works as Girl on the Bridge, The Hairdresser’s Husband and Ridicule, disappoints us with his first English language outing.
Adapted by Jerome Tommerre and Leconte from Stefan Zweig’s posthumously published novella, Journey into the Past, the film has an otherwise good artist like Rebecca Hall in a rather unsuitable slot opposite Richard Madden. He plays Friedrich who finds a job in a steel factory whose boss, Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman), takes a fancy for the young man. When Karl’s poor health forces him to stay at home, Friedrich begins to visit him on office work. Karl’s much younger wife Hall’s Lotte cannot help falling in love with the helpful and impeccable Friedrich.
Friedrich’s going away to Mexico as the head of the factory’s new unit there leads to a forced separation that gets longer because the war breaks out.
The movie is quite predictable, and we know what would happen to the promise the two young people made to each other before he sails away. And unlike Kapurush, Leconte fails to get the magic working between Friedrich and Lotte – something that Ray achieves with rare depth and disarming simplicity.