When the taxi in which he’s traveling breaks down at the start of Satyajit Ray’s 1965 film The Coward, Kolkata resident Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee) finds himself stranded in the countryside, unable to reach his brother-in-law’s house in the town of Hashimara. There’s no chance of leaving before the next day — the car needs a new ignition coil that the local garage doesn’t have in stock, no other taxis are available, the last train has gone — and the only nearby hotel is reportedly a less than pleasant place to stay.
“What’s your line? Tea or forest?” asks a stranger (Haradhan Bannerjee) who has taken an interest in his troubles; after all, why else would anyone be out in the middle of nowhere like this? The stranger himself, Bimal Gupta by name, owns a tea plantation, and he invites the young man to spend the night at his bungalow. As they drive there, Amitabha explains that he’s a screenwriter seeking local color for his next scenario, a romantic tale. “Boy meets girl, boy loses –” Bimal begins, but Amitabha corrects him: “Boy gets.” “Boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Right?” he says. “Exactly,” his guest replies with a laugh. A simple formula — real life proves a bit more complicated.
Upon arriving at the bungalow, Amitabha makes a startling discovery: Bimal’s wife, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), is his own former girlfriend, a woman he lost several years earlier through hesitation and cowardice. After a year and a half together, Karuna came to him one night with news that her guardian uncle had accepted a transfer that would take her away from Kolkata. In her opinion, he did it solely to separate her from Amitabha, then a poor man of whom her affluent family disapproved, and she finally had enough of their efforts to control her life. “I’ll get a job. I’ll give up art school and get a job,” she declared, asserting that Amitabha would be able to find a job as well if he tried. “This is a ruthless city,” he replied warily, but she remained optimistic: “Things may be tough for a while, but that’s nothing!” At last, though, she realized that Amitabha lacked the courage to take the plunge, was willing to lose her instead facing an uncertain future with her — and so she left him. (This scene, presented as a flashback, plays out like a pessimistic alternative version of the ending of Ray’s 1963 film The Big City, also starring Mukherjee.)
Now, rediscovering each other in starkly different circumstances, she treats him with cold politeness. Whatever agitation she might feel in his presence is well-concealed; the same can’t be said of his own emotional distress, though naturally he does his best to hide it in her husband’s presence. When they have a chance to speak in private, he begs her to tell him if she’s happy in her marriage to Bimal. “What do you think?” she asks him, to which he responds that he can’t decide. “Then let it remain a mystery,” she says.
Her marriage is a mystery to both Amitabha and the viewer, because she and Bimal hardly seem like an ideal match. Besides the fact that he’s quite a few years older than she is, he spends the entire evening drinking and encouraging teetotaler Amitabha to do the same — a habit that he blames on plantation life. “It helps to forget the boredom… the tragedy,” he muses, gazing at his glass of whiskey. Laughing constantly, mostly at his own speeches, he comes across as something of a good-natured cynic, perhaps even a disillusioned idealist. As he tells Amitabha the following morning at breakfast, alcohol also helps him silence his guilty conscience. “There’s a rigid caste system operating in these parts,” he says, explaining that managers can only mix socially with other managers, never with anyone below them, and that the same setup that existed while India was under British rule. “At first I couldn’t quite accept it either,” he continues. “It kept bothering me. Then I realized that if I just accept it, life becomes easier, smoother. So now I just don’t think about it.” He notes, too, that he can’t be expected to carry out a one-man revolution — another failure of courage.
Bimal, then, may simply be a decent man worn down by an unjust world and a dissatisfying existence, but it’s hard not to think that there could be a more sinister side to him. At times, he appears to be provoking Karuna, as when he addresses her after making an ostensibly innocuous remark to Amitabha about how nice it is to have a visitor:
Bimal: As I said, your loss is my gain. Or, rather, our gain. Right, darling?
Karuna: You talk too much.
Bimal: You enjoy seeing the same face day after day?
Karuna: Very much.
Bimal: What an actress!
Is he just lamenting the dullness of life on the plantation again, or does this thinly veiled antagonism stem from deeper problems in their marriage, problems about which outsiders can only speculate? One almost wonders if he’s brought this handsome young stranger home in order to test his wife, either out of suspicion or self-loathing, though there’s no indication that he knows about their past relationship.
There are other hints, however, that theirs is not the most harmonious of marriages, hints that may come across as more important than they actually are if the viewer, like Amitabha, is disposed to look for meaning in everything that goes on between the Guptas. For example, Karuna complains that she hasn’t seen a Bengali movie “in ages. It would be easy when we went to Kolkata, but you never let me,” she says to Bimal — because he’s controlling, or merely because it’s inconvenient? Then there’s the fact that Bimal was unaware for the first three years of their marriage that former art student Karuna could paint; he blames her modesty, but his ignorance of something so important to her suggests a serious lack of communication.
To Amitabha’s eyes, it appears that this woman who has everything going for her — intelligence, talent, youth, beauty — is throwing her life away in the middle of nowhere with a middle-aged drunk who can’t possibly make her happy. In desperation, he asks her to run off with him. (No doubt a sweeping romantic gesture is less frightening now that he has a job.) “Don’t you have grounds for leaving him? All that drinking — has he never mistreated you?” She doesn’t answer, not that he gives her a chance to do so at that moment, but at last she gets to have her say:
Karuna: What if I said I no longer have feelings for you?
Amitabha: You love that man?
Karuna: You think you know him? You think you can know a person in a day?
Amitabha: Maybe not, but —
Karuna: You don’t know him at all. You’re jumping to conclusions.
Amitabha: It just seems unbelievable.
Karuna: Why? Maybe I’ve changed too.
Significantly, Karuna told Amitabha that “it’s hard to really know a person” when she left him years earlier, having discovered some unpleasant and unexpected truths — not only that his fear outweighed his love for her, but also that he saw her as a pampered rich girl who wouldn’t be able to bear a life of poverty for his sake.
This difficulty, this inability to know another person completely, manifests itself in many ways throughout the film, through a variety of barriers. Some of them are geographical: the Guptas and their closest neighbors live almost twenty miles apart; Karuna’s uncle was going to take her away from Kolkata and from Amitabha. Others are the result of economic and social differences; Bimal, for instance, admits that there are numerous people who live within that twenty-mile radius, members of the plantation staff, but he can only interact with them in a business context because they’re not considered his equals. Smaller social niceties complicate matters as well. In a flashback to their courtship, Amitabha reads Karuna’s palm, then confesses that it was only an excuse to hold her hand. “You think it wasn’t an excuse for me to offer it?” she asks. He hates having to meet in unromantic places and wishes they could love each other openly, like young people in England. She thinks that would be taking things too far, but insists that “when the time comes, we won’t let anyone stand in our way,” full of youthful optimism and blissfully unaware of how their relationship will end.
Because Ray inserts the film’s three flashbacks out of chronological order — first the break-up, then Amitabha and Karuna’s initial meeting, then the palm reading — the viewer is also placed in a fitting position of ignorance, forced to learn about these characters and their relationships bit by bit, and still the Guptas’ marriage remains shrouded in mystery. Karuna, so open-hearted in the flashbacks, has become evasive and elusive. (Amitabha is shown staring at her photograph on the wall, her shadow moving under a door, the back of her scarf-covered head, as if he’s grasping for any fragment available to him.) Does she want to punish the man who broke her heart? Is she trying to make the best of a bad situation, possibly by deceiving herself? Is she, in fact, happier than she appears? Amitabha may have misjudged her before, but now he can’t seem to understand her at all.
Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl — the past can’t be rewritten as easily as a film script.