For Satyajit Ray on his 100th birthday, with love and spoilers
There’s a subtle yet particularly cruel visual touch at the end of Satyajit Ray’s short feature The Coward (Kapurush), an added sting in an already cruel scenario. A man sits on a bench at a train station for hours, hoping against hope that his now-married ex-girlfriend, encountered by chance years after he disappointed her when she needed him most, will leave her husband and run away with him. Darkness falls; he nods off. Awoken by the whistle of a train, he’s startled and then delighted to see the woman standing beside him — until he discovers that she simply wants to retrieve the sleeping pills that he had borrowed while staying at her house. “Let me have them, darling,” she says. That “darling,” whether sincere or sardonic, is a devastating touch in its own right, as is the way she vanishes into the blackness of the night when she walks away from him a moment later, her pills recovered. Any viewer is able and apt to appreciate these details, but it takes a familiarity with certain other Ray works to grasp the full significance of a brief shot that falls between them: a close-up of the woman’s extended hand as she waits for the man to turn over the bottle.
Can three films be declared a trilogy on the basis of a shared gesture? In the 1950s, Ray had his Apu Trilogy, following the eponymous character from birth to adulthood; in the 1970s came the Calcutta Trilogy, its films thematically linked by their focus on the challenges of contemporary life in the director’s tumultuous home city; in the 1960s — why not call it the Outstretched Hand Trilogy? To be sure, the most obvious common denominator in The Big City (Mahanagar), Charulata and The Coward (released in 1963, 1964 and 1965, respectively) is Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays leading roles in all three, yet it seems like something beyond mere coincidence that every one should find Mukherjee’s character holding her hand out to a man in the final scene. It’s the simplest of actions, natural, even unavoidable in some circumstances. (The woman in The Coward could hardly take her pills back otherwise, unless she either waited for her ex-boyfriend to drop the bottle into her bag or wrested it from his fingers.) Even so, each of these gestures is imbued with meaning, reflecting and crystallizing much of what precedes it in its own film; each one, too, is enriched and amplified by the existence of the others.
From the moment Mukherjee, as the character Arati, makes her first appearance a few minutes into The Big City, the busyness of her hands is striking: she brings her husband his tea, buttons her young son’s sweater, prepares her father-in-law’s medicine, tidies up here and there as needed. Still, for all of her efforts, the young housewife feels that she should be doing more for her family. Her husband, Subrata (Anil Chatterjee), works at a bank and tutors on the side in order to support himself, his wife, his child, his aging parents and his teenage sister, all six of whom live under one roof, and money is perpetually in short supply. When he happens to mention that a friend and his wife are both working outside of the home, the news surprises Arati, but it’s not long before she decides to seek paid employment of her own in order to ease Subrata’s burden.
Along with Arati’s busyness, another element that stands out from the earliest scenes in The Big City — and all the more so when contrasted with Charulata and The Coward — is the strength of the central marriage. It’s clear that Arati and Subrata love each other deeply. They enjoy being together; they converse easily and openly, seriously or playfully; they work through problems together; they make each other smile. Sometimes their love manifests itself in physical affection, as when she rubs his shoulder and nestles against the nape of his neck while announcing her resolution to find a job, but it often takes more prosaic yet no less meaningful forms. Again, hands play a role: he fixes her sari when her hands are full with his father’s medicine, she gets change from his pocket for him while his hands are occupied in hurriedly combing his hair before going out to collect money from a student he tutors. At one point Subrata, talking to his mother from outside her line of vision, carries on a kind of sub-conversation with Arati via a series of gestures. She understands. They make an excellent team, true partners. How natural, then, it seems to Arati, that they should both provide financially for their household. Although Subrata dissuades her (with at least a hint of facetiousness) when she first suggests getting a job, once she makes up her mind, he does everything he can to help.
“What’s this? Your hand’s ice-cold! How can this be?” Subrata says when Arati places her hand on his the morning of her first day of work selling knitting machines door to door. She replies that this has happened to her once before: “Our wedding day.” Coming on the heels of a comment from his sister, who remarks on the fact that Arati and Subrata are eating breakfast together for once, “like a bride and groom on their wedding day,” it indicates just how monumental, frightening and exciting this moment is for Arati — not unlike entering into a marriage. Moreover, by equating her new career with a new marriage, it sets up a love triangle of sorts, where the third party is not a person (regardless of whatever unfounded suspicions Subrata may harbor about Arati’s boss) but the job itself.
What starts out as nothing more than a means of making money, even a necessary evil, soon becomes something much more than that to Arati. It isn’t just that it allows her to help pay the bills and buy presents for her loved ones, delightful though that is to her; she genuinely enjoys the work itself and proves to have a talent for it, growing in confidence as she develops and makes use of skills she never realized she had. She blossoms as a person — yet Subrata can only see it as change, uncomfortable change. Dealing with his conservative parents’ disapproval of working wives and his own feelings of inadequacy as a provider is bad enough (all the more so once he loses his own job), but the shift in the balance of his relationship with Arati may be even more difficult for him. While much of this is tied to traditional gender roles, there’s also the sense that she has her own new world from which he’s excluded, a world that’s turning her into a stranger in his eyes. “You wouldn’t recognize me on the job,” she tells him at the end of her first month, prompting him to reply, “What about at home? Would I recognize you at home?” Little things unsettle him: the informal way she refers to her boss, the discovery that she’s started wearing lipstick at work. He finds the lipstick in her bag while fetching money at her request (a reversal of the earlier scene in which she took the change from his pocket), and when she sees how it upsets him, she doesn’t hesitate to throw it out the window. “Do whatever you like, but please don’t misunderstand me, darling,” she says.
To be misunderstood and misjudged by the man she loves as much as ever, for whom she took this step in the first place and who always understood her so well in the past, is something that Arati can’t bear. She can tolerate her in-laws’ coldness, and her own father thinking that she’s been forced into working against her will, and even her son’s unhappiness with the change (though he’s easily bought off with toys), but not the ever-increasing distance between herself and her husband — which is why it’s such a relief when they find themselves on the same wavelength in the final scene. Indignant over the unjust firing of a co-worker (whom their boss insists on misjudging), Arati impulsively quits her job. Before she manages to get out of the building, the impact of what she’s just done settles in, the knowledge of how rash and foolhardy her decision must appear to the rest of the world. Subrata has as much reason to be upset by it as anyone, even more than Arati realizes: her boss had offered to help him find a job, which is why she runs into him outside. “You’re angry. I can tell you’re angry,” she say after telling him her story, then starts to sob. “Who can I turn to now?” But she’s wrong. He understands why she did it and even expresses admiration for her courage, and when she continues to weep over her fear for the future, he tenderly replies, “Why? I’m by your side.” Magic words. What was lost has been regained, strengthened by trials, and though neither one knows what the future will hold, they’ll face that future together as equal partners. “You’re not afraid anymore?” Subrata asks when Arati expresses her happiness, irrational though it may seem at that moment. She offers him her hand, which he takes with a smile. This time, one can only assume, it’s as warm as their hearts.
Charulata, Ray’s next film, picks up the hand motif immediately: its opening credits run over a close-up of the title character’s hands, Madhabi Mukherjee’s hands, as she embroiders a handkerchief, finishing off the leaves that surround a capital letter B. At first glance, sewing might appear to suggest industriousness, the sort of women’s work that’s proverbially never done and that keeps Arati so busy — except that this sewing is decorative rather than necessary. The B is Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), Charulata’s husband, and the handkerchief is a gift for him. Is embroidering it an act of love, or is it primarily a means of filling her empty hours?
Charulata’s world is vastly different from Arati’s. Instead of struggling to make ends meet in the bustling, crowded, modern Kolkata of the 1960s, she’s an affluent woman of the late nineteenth century, leading a quiet, comfortable, even luxurious existence in a large house complete with a servant to bring in her tea. (Unlike Arati, she never has to run next door to borrow tea from the neighbors.) Quiet, comfortable, luxurious — and deadly dull. With her hands, it’s idleness that stands out, restlessness. Once she finishes the handkerchief and tosses it aside, she pauses for a moment, and then her hands start seeking something, anything to do. She picks up a book, pages through it, puts it back on the shelf, selects another; she takes her binoculars from a drawer and goes from window to window with them, observing the goings-on outside; she sits down at the piano and lightly touches a few keys. Nothing seems to satisfy. When she hears Bhupati coming down the hall, she goes to the doorway to see him. Twice, he walks right past her, absorbed first in his own thoughts and then in a book, utterly oblivious to her presence.
Their marriage, too, is vastly different from the one at the center of The Big City. Bhupati is a good man, undeniably so, a veritable paragon of virtue, intellectual, idealistic, gentle and kind. Charulata can admire and appreciate these qualities, and there’s obvious mutual fondness, but their relationship often feels curiously platonic, especially on her side. Perhaps it’s due in part to an age difference: at thirty-five (as he declares himself to be at one point), he looks as though he could be ten or fifteen years her senior. If that’s not enough to make him a full-blown father or authority figure to her, it might at least set them on a somewhat unequal footing. Besides that, he’s too busy to spend much time with her, time that would allow them to get to know each other better and develop a greater intimacy. Determined to defy the “idle rich” stereotype, he devotes his hours and energy to his own politics-focused newspaper, The Sentinel — and his passion as well. “You know what this paper is to me? Your sister’s rival,” he tells Charulata’s brother Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal), who comes to work for him. Occupied as he is, he gives little thought to how his wife spends her days and is amazed that she’s found time to embroider his handkerchief. “It’s not like I lack for time,” she says. As if it’s never struck him before, he suddenly realizes how lonely she must be, and when she tells him that she’s used to it, he replies, “Loneliness isn’t something to get used to, Charu.” His solution is inviting Umapada to bring along his wife, Manda (Gitali Roy), as a companion for Charulata, though she doesn’t do a great deal to relieve her sister-in-law’s boredom: she likes to spend her time playing chance-based card games that require no mental exertion whatsoever. Another houseguest proves much more stimulating.
Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) bursts into Charulata’s dull life with the force of the violent windstorm that accompanies his arrival. A recent college graduate, he’s come to the couple’s house “to relax, pursue my writing and… and relax some more.” Bhupati, who’s only willing to indulge him so far, insists on his doing two hours of proofreading per day for The Sentinel and also give him another assignment: he wants Amal to help Charulata develop her own writing talent, because she loves to read and he was impressed by the letters she sent him at one point when he was away from home. “The trouble is, I have no time to give her any guidance,” he explains, reinforcing the paternal aspect of their relationship. (Earlier in the film, he promises to explain politics to her someday; he intends to find time for that, anyway.) Even if time weren’t an issue, Bhupati hardly comes across as someone qualified to judge another person’s writing skills. His is a literal rather than a literary mind. It’s one thing for him to scoff at “the maudlin tragedies writers turn out these days” that distract the Indian populace from the real issues and tragedies of life under British rule but, intellectual though he is, he appears wholly incapable of comprehending the metaphorical, the abstract, the figurative. The best illustration may be the scene in which Amal attempts to read Bhupati an essay he’s written, “Light of a Moonless Night.” Bhupati is baffled before his cousin can get past the title. “So it’s about startlight? A scientific article?” When he learns that there’s no moon, no stars and no literal night or light, that’s enough for him; he abruptly changes the subject. He has intelligence but no imagination, which proves to be his undoing in more ways than one.
Aside from any natural inclination toward literature, it’s no surprise that Charulata spends so much time reading, filling her hours and escaping into lives richer than her own. It’s nothing that she can share with Bhupati, who’s only interested in politics and real-world issues and who actually laughs when she asks if he’s read a particular novel; Amal, in sharp contrast, greets her by asking whether she’s reading Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Ananda Math as soon as he enters the house. Kindred spirits, and seemingly closer in age than Charulata is to her husband, they have an easier rapport than she has with Bhupati: they tease each other, they play impromptu word games, they talk about books. Their tastes and opinions don’t always align, but that’s a good thing, encouraging deeper discussion and critical thought. Amal’s presence also gives Charulata occupation for her hands. Some of this is purely practical — setting up his bedroom, mending his torn overshirt — but she also gives him embroidered slippers she had intended for Bhupati and goes out of her way to make a special notebook for him. While he scrawls away in it out in the garden, she watches through her binoculars, observing his hand and its output so closely that she notices when he misses a single stroke. She takes up writing herself, too, composing a piece about her native village. (Is it a mere accident that there appears to be a tiny hand at the end of her pen?) When she receives a copy of the magazine in which it gets published, she strides directly to Amal’s room to show him, literally hitting him over the head with it and pointing out her name printed on the page; Bhupati has to learn about it from a friend.
And so, bit by bit, the husband-wife-job love triangle, a variation on the situation in The Big City, is superseded by one with a flesh and blood third party. (Love triangles upon love triangles, in fact: Charulata finds herself competing with Manda for Amal’s attention, with both of them offering him food and preparing paan for him.) Has Charulata ever felt for Bhupati anything like the feelings that Amal awakens in her? One notable scene has Amal singing a love song to his cousin-in-law. There’s a playful quality to it, and music sometimes plays a prominent role in Ray’s films (in 1958’s The Music Room, for instance), but the non-diegetic instrumentation backing up Amal’s singing is unexpected here. Like the storm that marks his arrival, it’s an expressionistic touch suggestive of the romance that he’s brought into her drab existence. Meanwhile, Bhupati is oblivious, never considering the possible consequences of throwing Charulata and Amal together like this, never noticing anything that might cause concern or even raise doubts, never regarding his cousin as a potential rival. (When he challenges Amal to an arm wrestling match, hand to hand, it’s about physical strength; any deeper symbolism seems lost on him.) Just as he fails to understand his wife’s interests, he fails to understand her and the other people around him — which is why, in his well-meaning idealism, he gives Umapada the keys to The Sentinel‘s safe, eventually bringing about the newspaper’s ruin.
Once Umapda’s duplicity comes to light, Amal, who comprehends Charulata’s feelings for him and fears further betraying his already-wounded cousin, hastily decamps. Bhupati, seeing nothing suspicious in Charulata’s distress over Amal’s departure, assumes that his cousin simply doesn’t want to be a burden to him in his current financial straits. It’s not until he finds Charulata sobbing over a subsequent letter from Amal and literally crying out to him (“Cousin-in-law, why did you go away?”) that understanding arrives like an electic shock, or like the fierce storm blowing open the windows of their house, an echo of the one that swept Amal into Charulata’s life. Shaken to his core, he goes out for a grim, tearful ride in his carriage. In his absence, Charulata rips up the letter, adds more sindoor to her forehead and the part in her hair, retrieves the embroidered slippers that Amal has left behind and places them under Bhupati’s chair — all indications that she wants to move on from this episode. When Bhupati returns, both of them are timid and hesitant at first, but it’s Charulata who finally makes a move. “Come in,” she says, and when he continues to hang back, she repeats it and holds out her hand to him. He slowly steps forward, reaches toward it… and then the image freezes, and the film ends with a series of stills highlighting various portions of the frozen picture.
There are signs, after Amal’s departure and before Charulata’s breakdown over the letter, that their marriage could evolve in a positive manner. They talk about starting a new paper to which they would both contribute, Bhupati covering politics in English and Charulata covering other topics in Bengali, and he tells her that he likes her writing because he actually understands it. Writing, then, becomes a potential means of unification, not only by allowing them to work together but also by allowing Charulata to reveal herself to her husband in a new way. “Come in,” she says, inviting him into the house and, perhaps, into her inner life as well. However, his realization about her feelings for Amal must cast doubt on how well he’s grasped her writing after all, he with his concrete mind. Ostensibly simple things can hold profound meanings: a pair of slippers, a magazine, a song, a hand. The desire to move forward with greater openness and understanding is there, but the outcome remains unknown, suspended in the air between their fingers.
The Coward sees Satyajit Ray and Madhabi Mukherjee returning to a contemporary setting, this time a remote part of India where screenwriter Amitabha (Soumitra Chatterjee), on his way to Hashimara in search of local color for his next script, finds himself stranded when his taxi breaks down. With the necessary ignition coil out of stock at the garage and no train available until the next day, he needs to find accommodations for the night. He inquires after a hotel, but a friendly tea plantation manager (Haradhan Banerjee, also Arati’s boss in The Big City) who’s overheard his dilemma offers another solution: he can sleep in the spare room at his bungalow. Though Amitabha is a bit hesitant at first — whether because he’s wary of staying with strangers or because he doesn’t want to impose — he accepts. Things seem to be proceeding smoothly enough until the two men walk into the bungalow and Amitabha lays eyes on his host’s wife, Karuna (Mukherjee, naturally). His hands, fingers curled, fly up to chest level, and hers do the same in a slightly more restrained way — gestures of stunned recognition.
To a certain extent, and especially in the scenes immediately following this meeting, The Coward feels like an updating or a kind of alternate universe version of Charulata. Once again, Madhabi Mukherjee plays a woman married to a well-to-do man quite a few years her senior whom she doesn’t appear to love with any great passion; once again, Soumitra Chatterjee plays a writer who stays at the couple’s house and has a romantic connection with the wife. Smaller details also evoke the earlier film. Karuna has artistic talent (painting rather than writing in this case) that her husband, Bimal, says he was unaware of until three years into their marriage. He laughs derisively when she mentions her desire to see Bengali films, echoing Bhupati’s laughter when Charulata asks him about a novel, and like Bhupati he points to popular entertainment as evidence of the weakness of the modern generation of Bengalis — and yet there’s something a tad unsettling about him, something that sets him apart from the oblivious yet well-meaning Bhupati. Perhaps the first clue is an offhand comment from Karuna, who notes that they could easily see Bengali films when they go to Kolkata, “but you never let me.” It may mean nothing, just some little annoyance; it may mean a great deal. Bimal throws understated barbs as well. “As I said, your loss is my gain,” he says to Amitabha, referring to the fact that the screenwriter has been forced to spend the night at the isolated bungalow and will provide him with much-needed company. He turns to his wife, eyebrow raised, and adds, “Or rather… our gain. Right, darling?” “You talk too much,” she replies. The fact that he insists on drinking to the point of near-stupor doesn’t improve the impression that he makes, even if his intoxication seems mostly innocuous, rambling instead of violent. Admiring his near-empty glass of whiskey, he tells the teetotaling Amitabha, “I didn’t like it much at first either. Now I love it.” Amitabha glances at Karuna, who’s been knitting, drinking orange juice and keeping to herself for the most part; her expression suggests something between loathing and numbness. The evening is a fairly quiet one, all told (this isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), yet it manages to feel claustrophobic and almost nightmarish as it goes on, as if Amitabha has wandered into his own personal hell.
Much of that feeling, of course, has to do with his prior association with Karuna. Quickly regaining her composure after the initial shock of seeing him in her doorway, she treats him as she would any other strange guest, all detached politeness. There’s no affection in the businesslike way she prepares his bedroom, like she’s a maid at a hotel. (How different from the lighthearted familiarity between Charulata and Amal when she prepares his room, even before she’s fallen in love with him.) He can’t get her to talk to him beyond what’s absolutely necessary, to acknowledge their past acquaintance, until he stands in front of the bedroom door to prevent her from leaving, and that drives her to sarcasm. (“I can’t bear it when you speak to me so formally. This is too much.” “You prefer I be rude?”) Before leaving the room, she softens a bit, calling him “Ami” and telling him to get some sleep rather than letting his imagination run wild about her, but that’s as far as she’s willing to let her guard down.
Despite her advice, once Amitabha is alone in the guest room he finds himself thinking back on the last time they met, a number of years earlier (more than three, since she’s been married to Bimal at least that long). The Karuna of his memories is radically different from the one in the bungalow, an open-hearted, emotional girl who’s desperately in love with him. One night, after they’ve been dating for a year and a half, she arrives unexpectedly at his boarding house with news that her uncle has accepted a transfer and plans to take her with him, away from Kolkata and away from Amitabha. The uncle disapproves of their relationship, in all likelihood for financial reasons: it’s said that Karuna lives in a nice house full of comforts, while Amitabha’s three-cornered room is borderline squalid. Determined to hold on to the man she loves and to lead the life she wants, not what someone else wants for her, she starts to talk about dropping out of art school and getting a job, and how Amitabha can find a job too if he tries. If the film up to this point has suggested a darker take on Charulata, this flashback suddenly becomes a darker take on the ending of The Big City. “Such a big city,” Arati says, gazing out at Kolkata. “So many different jobs. Surely one of us can find a job.” “Let’s try. I’m sure we both will,” Subrata replies, affirming both her optimism and their equality as breadwinners. Karuna shares their outlook, but Amitabha has a different take. “This is a ruthless city,” he says. Though Karuna tries to persuade him to take a chance, she soon comes to the shattering realization that he lacks the courage to marry her now and face an uncertain future together. He makes excuses, explaining that, having seen her house, he doesn’t want to take her from her comfortable life into a life of struggle and poverty (shades of Chatterjee’s impoverished aspiring writer character in 1959’s Apur Sansar, the third entry in the Apu Trilogy). “My house? Is that all you saw? Did you see the person there? Did you recognize her?” she asks. Her house — their class difference — blinds him to the woman he loves and who loves him, as Arati’s job blinds Subrata to Arati. Subrata eventually overcomes his issues, but that takes time that Amitabha doesn’t have. “I don’t blame you. It’s hard to really know a person,” Karuna says through tears. She walks out of his dingy room and out of his life, seemingly forever.
That idea of knowing a person, of understanding, is of particular interest here, and not merely because it’s a theme running through all three films. In both The Big City and Charulata, Mukherjee plays the main character, ensemble pieces though they may be to a degree. While there are numerous scenes in which she doesn’t appear, she is the central figure, and the viewer gets to see her interacting with the people around her and also in private moments, allowing for real insight into who Arati and Charulata are. In The Coward, however, Amitabha is the main character, appearing in every scene. Important though Karuna is to the story, the viewer essentially can only see her through his eyes, gains no insight into her character that Amitabha doesn’t share. The film’s three flashbacks, too, belong to him — how accurate are they? How much are they colored by his feelings and by the passage of time? If the distant Karuna of the present remains elusive to him, she must remain elusive to the audience as well. The same is true of Bimal and of the couple’s marriage. When, during an outing the next day, Amitabha insists to Karuna that she can’t possibly be happy with her husband, the conclusion seems reasonable but also presumptuous, as Karuna (who had already told him to let the question of her present happiness “remain a mystery”) points out. “You think you know him? You think you can know a person in a day?” She’s right, of course. There are suggestions of hidden if not very admirable depths in Bimal, for instance when he talks about his guilt over the strict social divisions in the tea-growing community, which bothered him until he decided to drown his conscience in alcohol. One wonders, too, how much he may know or suspect about his wife’s past connection with their visitor; some of his comments seem to suggest a certain awareness, though again that may result from seeing things through Amitabha’s eyes. Their marriage, improbable and unpleasant though it appears, is undoubtedly more complex than it looks to their visitor. At one point, when the three of them are traveling in Bimal’s jeep, a sharp turn causes Karuna to place her hand on her husband’s shoulder. It’s a natural reaction, and yet it lingers there longer than it needs to — out of affection? Out of a desire to hurt Amitabha, who’s sitting in the back seat and can’t help staring? Impossible to say.
The hand provokes another flashback, this one to happier days in Amitabha’s relationship with Karuna. Her eyes radiate love while he reads her palm, and when he admits that palm reading is merely an excuse to hold her hand, she replies, “You think it wasn’t an excuse for me to offer it? Where there’s no courage, one resorts to excuses.” Amitabha laments the fact that society holds them back from expressing their love openly and without this type of subterfuge, but Karuna has confidence that things will work out for them: “When the time comes, we won’t let anyone stand in our way.” Coming after the flashback to their breakup, and after so many scenes in the present, the whole exchange is bittersweet to the point of being painful. “Miss Karuna, I’m an aspirant for your hand. May I hold it?” Amitabha asks with new boldness. Like the hands at the end of Charulata and, in particular, The Big City, their hands represent their love, their unity, their hope for the future — all doomed by Amitabha’s lack of courage when it matters most. The camera cuts away just as her hand touches his, back to the present where her hand still rests on Bimal’s shoulder. A little while later, a dozing Bimal is sprawled out on a rock after a picnic, arm dangling, cigarette between his fingers. The hand with the cigarette is emphasized, shown in close-up, symbolic of how little time Amitabha has left to win over Karuna: once the ashes reach Bimal’s fingers, the burn will wake him and Amitabha will have lost his last chance. Failing to convince her to turn around and look at him, he hastily scribbles a note instead, promising to wait for her at the train station. “If you still love me, come. I won’t let you down this time.”
And so to the final scene, in which she does show up at the train station, raising and then immediately dashing Amitabha’s hopes by making it clear that she’s only there for the sleeping pills. It’s for the pills that she extends her hand, not for him, transforming what was a gesture of reconciliation in The Big City and Charulata into a gesture of rejection. The sleeping pills add a further ominous note. “Can I have them back? I need them. You can’t get them around here,” she says, looking somehow small and helpless, surrounded by darkness. Is this revenge, a foreshadowing of suicide, or an entirely innocent errand? Understanding is denied to the viewer, and to Amitabha as she vanishes from his life once again.
A simple gesture can say so much.