A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Coward (Satyajit Ray, 1965)

Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Haradhan Bannerjee in The Coward
Amitabha Roy: Soumitra Chatterjee
Karuna Gupta: Madhabi Mukherjee
Bimal Gupta: Haradhan Bannerjee

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a story by Premendra Mitra
Cinematography: Soumendu Roy
Film editing: Dulal Dutta
Music: Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray's romantic drama The Coward owes something, I think, to that greatest of romantic dramas, David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945). Both are drenched in what might have been, and both have directors who know how to create tensions that are never resolved. There's no resort in either film to the feel-good ending. The characters in both films are trapped in custom and convention. But this is explicitly a Satyajit Ray film -- a minor one, perhaps, but a gem nevertheless. The still above is an almost perfect encapsulation of the essence of the characters and their relationships: Karuna masked by sunglasses and giving the coldest of shoulders to Amitabha, whose desire and cowardice are written on Soumitra Chatterjee's expressive face, while Bimal lies passed out in the background, oblivious to what's going on between the other two. Or is he? It's one of the delicious ambiguities of Ray's screenplay and Haradhan Bannerjee's performance that we're never entirely certain that Bimal doesn't know that Amitabha and Karuna knew each other at university and were once in love, and that Amitabha hopes to renew that love in her. Bimal is a man enjoying his power and wealth, and he's not above employing it to abuse not only his wife but also the other man. He taunts the teetotaling Amitabha into drinking alcohol, first a glass of sherry and later a swig of whiskey from his flask, enjoying the coughing fit that the latter brings on in his victim. Ray beautifully builds tension in the scene above by occasional cuts to the cigarette between the supine Bimal's fingers as it burns down and eventually wakes him up. Meanwhile, Amitabha is making typically tentative moves toward Karuna, attempting to remedy his past mistake: When they were students, she tried and failed to persuade him to elope with her after her wealthy family objected to her relationship with a poor student. Even now, the best the dithering Amitabha can do is leave her to make the decision once again: He scribbles a note to her, asking that she leave Bimal and meet her at the train station. Once a coward, always a coward, it seems. 

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