The Outstretched Hand

The Coward

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.

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Six Favorites from the Sixties

6 from the 1960s Blogathon

If I had to pick one decade as my favorite for movies, I think I would have to go with the 1960s. Picking my six favorite movies from that decade? That’s a little more difficult. (It’s hard enough to limit myself to six favorites from a single year of the decade.) After much debate, I’ve decided on the following films (listed chronologically), though there are probably about two dozen other titles that could just as easily have made the cut.

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Boy Loses Girl: The Coward (1965)

Karuna Ami

After 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.

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Through the Looking-Glass, and What Arati Found There: The Big City (1963)

At the beginning of Satyajit Ray’s 1963 film The Big City, Subrata “Bhombol” Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) returns home from his job at a Kolkata bank and discovers that his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), has borrowed tea from a neighbor. In light of their financial difficulties — he’s the sole breadwinner for a household consisting of four adults, a teenager and a child — he finds the act embarrassing. “What choice do I have?” Arati asks. “If you don’t have your tea when you get home, you kick up a fuss.” Subrata has to admit that she’s right, yet he looks and sounds rather dubious when he adds, “You pay no attention to appearances.” It’s a brief exchange, a matter of seconds, seemingly incidental. Shortly thereafter, he prepares to go out again in hopes of collecting payment from a student he tutors. While he combs his hair, Arati can be seen reflected in the mirror, although her image is repeatedly obscured by her husband’s elbow. Again, this is a minor thing, so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable, but like the conversation about the tea, it foreshadows much of what will follow.

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