This story of a man too cowardly to follow his heart is a short but very beautiful film. A screenwriter (Soumitra Chatterjee ) looking for material in rural Darjeeling gets stranded in a small-town petrol station when his car breaks down; there are no trains and no taxis. A rich manager of a tea plantation (Haradhan Bandopadhyay) gives him a lift and brings him to stay to his house for the evening. There he meets his wife Karuna (Madhabi Kukherjee ) who to his shock turns out to be his old love, the woman he’d been too cowardly to marry. Years before he’d been a poor and struggling writer; she came from a rich family and was willing to give everything up for him. But he was too afraid of the burden those class differences would place on him, particularly in a culture where ‘caste’ and ‘keeping face’ are so important. Now he’s successful; she’s given up her painting and is living a very comfortable life but married to heavy-drinking boor. He wants her back but will she take him?
The film is disciplined and restrained but full of feeling. Flashbacks return us to what happened in the past; first the break-up, then the first meeting. However, what happens in the flashbacks also gets refracted onto the film’s present in that the screenwriter’s acquiescence to social convention, what lost him Karuna, are still evident in him, still sadly his central characteristic in relation to Karuna: he tries to win her in secret, in silence, behind closed doors, by running away; he constantly defers to the husband and never once publicly declares himself for her — even his attempts to win her become a display of his cowardice. The film has other themes knit into the major one, artistic life vs bourgeois conformity, the ideological structures and strictures of caste and class, but the perspective through which we’re shown these social and structural problems is an existential one of individual choice and responsibility.
What Ray gets out of camera movement, a glance, a hand, even a shadow moving behind a closed door, is extraordinary and should be of interest to anyone interested in cinema. Unless you’ve learned to be attentive to the various ways cinema can show and tell, you might not notice what a tour-de-force of directing the opening scene is: there’s nothing showy about it until you realise that the first scene is also the first shot, all 4 minutes and seven seconds of it.
The first image is a composition of a man smoking on the right. An open hood of a car is on the left of the screen. A sign, slightly out of focus, saying ‘welcome’ is in the middle. There’s a little window where the garage’s office is in the background and also out of focus. The man paces as the credits unfold then the dialogue starts when the credits end. We’re told the car is broken and won’t be fixed for a while. The protagonist goes into the office but the camera waits outside the window, theatrically, as if we were witnessing a play. We see his problem is the car won’t be fixed for a while and in the meantime he’s got no way to get out of town and possibly no place to stay. The camera then gets closer, seeming to expand so that the film frame is now also the window frame. We get a closer view of what we will be shown to be two of our protagonists, two opposing social types, the artist and the businessman, and two potential rivals in love, though as we can see by who needs and who is in the position to offer help, the battle has already been lost. The tea planter offers the screenwriter a place to say because his brother is a Doctor: they’re of the same class. Then the camera pulls back again to allow for the conversation of our two protagonists, pulls back even further once the planter offers him a place to stay, then even further practically to where we started so that we see the Welcome sign from Esso in focus, and seeming much larger. Then the husband and the former lover get into the jeep all without a single cut for the four minute and seven seconds duration. In the meantime, we’ve been told who these people are, what they’re doing, where they’re going, and the whole scene is set for the drama to follow. It’s extraordinary.
Looking at that opening scene which is also, yet also much more than, the opening shot, and so much less showy and attention-seeking than comparable ones by Welles, Scorcese, or the like, you realise that The Coward is also, but also much more than, the story of ‘boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy wins/loses girl’. It’s a film that creeps up on you slowly, sadly, full of intelligence and regret, showing life to be such that only a pill or a drink makes it bearable, and shown with a technique that is unobtrusive; but it all creeps up on you and at a certain moment, after you’ve understood the themes and felt for and with the characters, you realise and go ‘Wow’; a film where the exclamation, the explosion, is not shown on the screen but created in you.
A special treat is the extraordinary beauty and the delicate performance of the great Madhabi Kukherjee as Karula.
The film, along with The Big City and The Coward, has been shown as part of the Ray retrospective at the NFT. If you don’t have access to the retrospective, Ray films are available to rent from Lovefilm, this one in a lovely blu-ray transfer from Artificial Eye.