Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Kapurush (The Coward)

Satyajit Ray’s noirish Kapurush (1965) concerns a screenwriter who discovers his former love married to a boorish planter on a remote Bengali tea estate. The moralizing title refers to his cowardice in refusing to marry her years ago, before his success. But Ray implies that his facility with conventional narrative—“boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl,” as he explains to his host—is part of his failing as well. That Kapurush could be the double of the story its protagonist is writing in the movie opens up the possibility that we're watching the film made from his script.

Soumitra Chatterjee’s tense, expressive Amitabha Roy is in a line with Ray’s artist anti-heroes Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and (especially) Uttam Kumar’s sell-out celebrity in Nayak. Like them, Roy begins the movie at a superior remove from the persons around him, but through the course of the plot a flaw’s exposed that puts him at the mercy of the “ordinary” characters, a favorite Ray device. By framing the love triangle within a story about a writer seeking “local color” for his script, Ray's able to explore his pet theme of the artist’s conflicted relationship to society.

The plot turns on Roy’s history with his old flame Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), which we get in fragments through a series of moody flashbacks. But it’s the connection between Roy and Karuna’s husband, Gupta, that seems closer to the film’s real interests. Gupta is a balding, pot-bellied, hard-drinking businessman, set up at first as toad to Roy’s prince. Isolated by caste and distance from regular company, Gupta badly needs someone to talk to, while Roy wants (or Gupta assumes he wants) ideas and regional touches for his next script. Gupta quickly offers himself up as a subject for Roy’s film, sharing his troubles and dreams partly out of boredom, partly from drink, but also with the understanding that his life might end up in a movie.

The privileged distance that the artist enjoys from his subject, even a subject as willing as Gupta, quickly begins to vanish. We learn that both studied Economics in college; make money at jobs they find unsatisfying; accept convention—from “boy meets girl” hack work to caste distinctions*—because it makes their lives easier; and feel themselves above the milieu they’re stuck in within the film.

Both are also connected through Karuna, who removes herself from them by a punctilious fulfillment of her role as a prosperous manager's wife. Where Roy and Gupta feel hobbled by the conventions that circumstances have forced them to accept, Karuna gains power by retreating into a type. Consequently, she’s the only character in the film whose inner life we don’t have access to. While this plays into a long tradition of figuring woman as the unknowable Other, it also highlights Ray’s concern with the power in detachment. Like Sharmila Tagore in Nayak, Karuna enjoys a role in the story not unlike that of the director behind the camera. While Roy writes other people's stories for the screen, it's Karuna who gets the final edit over his own.

If we imagine that Kapurush is the film Roy eventually writes, it would mean not so much that he's broken away from from the "boy meets girl" formula of his earlier scripts, but that he's learned how scripted and formulaic his own life has been. His youthful gripes against social norms that he never really found the courage to defy end in the recognition of how much he shares with a vulgar businessman like Gupta, whose own story deserves more sympathy and nuance than Roy's stereotypes allow for. ("You can't know him in a day," chides Karuna, though 24 hours is all the film gives us.)

If Kapurush is Roy's film, it would also mean that the movie doesn’t end with the final scene, but spills off the screen to include our experience of watching it, extending the recursive loop (a film about a screenwriter writing a film) to include us: audience, society, stereotype, and unknowable other all in one.

*which, Gupta tells Roy, aren't Indian, but were left behind by the British.

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