Kapurush O Mahapurush (1965)

Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man) isn’t one film, even though these two short films—each just over an hour long—were released together, as a sort of ‘combined pack’. Unlike Satyajit Ray’s other well-known set of short stories-clubbed-together film, Teen Kanya, the two component stories of Kapurush O Mahapurush have barely anything in common (except possibly a central male character who drives—or does not drive—the story). I watched these two short films one after the other and thought of writing separate reviews for each—then decided that they’re best reviewed the way I saw them. Together, one after the other.

A scene from Kapurush

First, Kapurush.

Kapurush (The Coward), based on a short story (Janoiko Kapurusher Kahini) by Premendra Mitra, stars Ray favourite (and mine) Soumitra Chatterjee as Amitabha Roy, a scriptwriter who is driving through the hills when his car breaks down. The mechanic at the garage says repairs will take time, and that the car won’t be ready before at least the next day.

Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bannerjee), the wealthy owner of a nearby tea estate, happens to be at the garage at the same time and overhears the conversation. Amitabha is planning to stay at a nearby hotel—the only hotel in the vicinity—but Mr Gupta dissuades him: the hotel isn’t worth staying in. Instead, he invites Amitabha to come and spend the night at his own bungalow. When Amitabha protests at this welcome but surely unwarranted generosity, Mr Gupta assures him that the pleasure is all his: he is starved of company.

Amitabha meets a hospitable stranger

Mr Gupta’s plight becomes more obvious as the evening wears on, at the Gupta bungalow. This man is frustrated, restless, bored to death. His nearest neighbour (worth socializing with, as Gupta is quick to point out when he explains the rigid caste system which prevails in the plantations) lives all of 19 miles away. Gupta spends his days working, his evenings drowning his boredom in drink. Lots of it.

The shock that Amitabha receives when he arrives at Gupta’s bungalow, however, arises from his being introduced to Mrs Gupta, Karuna (the beautiful Madhabi Mukherjee). Karuna was once, several years back, Amitabha’s girlfriend, and this sudden meeting affects them differently. Amitabha is flustered, embarrassed; Karuna is dignified and cool.

... and gets a shock when he enters Gupta's home.
They do not acknowledge their being acquainted in front of Gupta, but later that night, when Amitabha is in his own room, he remembers…

… the last time he saw Karuna, when she came to his tiny bachelor pad in Kolkata during a storm. A storm, both literal (it was pouring outside) as well as metaphorical: Karuna’s uncle, with whom she was staying, had been transferred to Patna. She would leave in three days’ time.

Karuna had wept, clung to Amitabha and pleaded with him: let’s get married; I’ll stop going to college and get a job instead. And if we’re together, we’ll somehow manage to make ends meet; it won’t matter so much if we’re together.

Amitabha had turned away, and Karuna had understood. She had gone away.

Amitabha and Karuna, in days long gone

And now, here she is again. Gupta’s wife. Cold and indifferent to Amitabha—or is she? Can life have given Amitabha another chance? Can Karuna’s refusal to admit she’s unhappy with her marriage be only a way of denying that there could be something different in store for her? Dare Amitabha hope? And if he hopes, should that hope be for what Karuna’s answer will be to his question—or should that hope be that he will be able to ask that question?

Kapurush is very aptly named: Amitabha (and Soumitra Chatterjee does a brilliant job of this portrayal) is a spineless man. Romantic, yes; loving and attentive, even flirtatious, yes—when circumstances allow it (as is shown in a couple of flashbacks, when he’s thinking about the happy times he shared once with Karuna).

Finally, though, what comes through is Amitabha’s cowardice. What could perhaps be construed on his part as a deep-rooted sense of reality, a desire to see things from a selfishly practical point of view, but which comes across as too selfish to be anything but sheer pusillanimity. This man loved Karuna in his own way—he hasn’t forgotten her in all these years, he hasn’t even married anyone else—but that love was not enough for him to take her in when she came crying to him for help. And the second time round? Who knows if Amitabha will be able to summon up the courage to tell Karuna to leave her husband and come away with him instead?

... and now. Gupta, Karuna and Amitabha

What I liked about this film (and this is going to be it, because there’s nothing I didn’t like):

The way in which Ray tells the story. This is a simple tale, and with basically only three characters (there are a few extras who appear as servants etc, but Amitabha, Karuna and Gupta are the mainstays of the film). The characterizations are superb, and they emerge in telling sequences. Gupta, for instance, peppering his conversation with English (in fact, more of his dialogue is in English than in Bengali), drinking endlessly, boasting of the hierarchies in the tea estates: all of it points towards a moneyed but dull, boring life tucked away in a godforsaken country. A life, too, which Karuna has to tolerate—and probably to a worse degree, since unlike her husband, she doesn’t have work to keep her occupied part of the time.

Karuna’s characterization, too, is interesting: she comes forth in two fairly different personas, both as the romantic, hopeful girl, bright-eyed and with a touching faith in her lover and his love; and as the dignified wife of a planter: a woman who tries to occupy herself with the paintings she creates as a hobby.

A scene from Kapurush

And there is Amitabha himself: talented, obviously (since he is a successful scriptwriter). Charming, as can be seen from those flashbacks. When he unexpectedly meets Karuna again, tormented by the realization that his long-ago cowardice has probably wreaked havoc with her life. Yet, not the hero. Not at all.

Soumitra Chatterjee as Amitabha in Kapurush

There are the little details Ray uses, the symbols both in visual and audio, that go into Kapurush. The scarf Karuna ties firmly about her head when they go out, all three of them, for a picnic en route to the train station where they’ll drop off Amitabha. Along with the sun glasses she keeps on, they’re a subtle way of blocking Amitabha out, even as he tries to plead with her, to ask her if she’s really happy. A way of telling the world (including, perhaps, her husband?): This is my life, my privacy. Stay away.

Leave me be: Madhabi Mukherjee as Karuna

There’s the ironic tune Gupta whistles as he goes off, near their picnic site, to fetch water: Auld Lang Syne. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

This is a brilliant film, and even though it may be considered among Ray’s ‘minor films’, I still think it’s a classic that deserves better appreciation.

 

On to the next film, and a very different one: Mahapurush, or The Holy Man. 

The eponymous mahapurush of this film is a certain Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh), a robed, cloth-capped figure with a smile of oily benevolence as he tosses out prasad from a basket to a mob of devotees gathered to see him off at a railway station before dawn. Within the first couple of minutes itself, with barely any words being uttered, we learn a lot about this character: how revered he is (and by educated, fairly Westernized people too, going by the suits and all), how easily he accepts their devotion (there’s a brilliant scene of him, standing on the step of the moving train, holding out his big toe for passing devotees to touch and move on), what a fraud this Birinchi Baba really is.

Birinchi Baba blesses his devotees

Birinchi Baba is accompanied by a young acolyte (Robi Ghosh). The two of them find themselves sharing a compartment with Gurupada Babu (Prasad Mukherjee) and his daughter Nilima ‘Buchki’ (Gitali Roy). Gurupada Babu has been watching Birinchi Baba with something akin to awe, and is further awed when Birinchi Baba talks of being able to control the sun—and even makes it rise by waving his arms and commanding it to rise!

Gurupada Babu has been going mad about the fact that he’s not being able to find a good husband for Buchki, and sees the solution to all his problems in this all-powerful Birinchi Baba. So much so that he invites Birinchi Baba to come and stay at their home.

... and attracts a new follower on the train

We catch up with the consequences of this in the next scene, in a completely different setting. In a Kolkata home, amidst the clutter of what seems a rather relaxed bachelor-like existence, four men get together: the professorial Nibaran (Somen Bose), and his friends, who include Nitai (Satya Bannerjee) and the young Satya (Satindra Bhattacharya).

A bunch of friends meet and discuss Birinchi Baba

Satya comes bearing news: he tells them about Birinchi Baba—whom Satya, of course, has immediately slotted as a charlatan—and tells them what the mahapurush has been up to. Birinchi Baba claims to not merely control the sun; he’s also mastered the art of going back in time. He claims to be over 2,000 years old and mentions, during his discourses, his many interactions with everybody from Plato to Christ to Gautam Buddha (“that child?”), to Einstein (to whom, of course, Birinchi Baba imparted the theory of relativity).

As if this wasn’t bad enough, it appears Buchki—whom Satya is in love with—is also now thinking of becoming a disciple of Birinchi Baba’s. The last time Satya visited, with a poetic love letter in hand (which Buchki immediately recognized as being part Shelley, part other poets), she told him so. Now Satya is terrified that Buchki will become a Birinchi Baba devotee, and then where will that leave him?

Buchko expresses a desire to become a disciple of Birinchi Baba's.

The friends get together, therefore—with Nibaran spearheading the mission—to expose Birinchi Baba.

Mahapurush is, throughout, an amusing film, a light-hearted satire about godmen, conmen, and superstition, and how even education does not make people immune to it. The dialogues are funny, the completely outlandish claims made by Birinchi Baba are hilarious, and the gullibility of his devotees, while (if you think about it) unsettling, is not bereft of humour.

What I liked about this film:

The satire, the poking of fun at blind superstition. And that too done in the guise of something pretty light-hearted. This isn’t the serious look at life that Kapurush is; it’s fun, frivolous—and yet it addresses a very real social evil. But always with a light hand, always with a subtle humour that you could miss if you weren’t paying attention. For example, there’s this scene where Birinchi Baba and his assistant are loitering about in their room before a session. The assistant, who’s going to be masquerading as Natraj in an upcoming summoning of the deity by the Baba, is trying out his costume, fake arms and all. “I can manage it, all except these Natraj dancing poses,” he complains—and practises the poses in front of the mirror while on a radio nearby plays a Hindi song, Main naachoon mera mann naache (“I dance, my mind dances with me”).

What I didn’t like:

The somewhat hurried and confusing end of the story, which doesn’t really expose the Baba in a convincing way. Rajshekhar Basu’s story Birinchi Baba, on which this film was based, had a rather more fitting exposé for Birinchi Baba, which I personally found more satisfying. I will add one thing, though: Ray brings in a quirky little twist to the story right at the very end which adds to the humour of the film.

Comparisons, comparisons:

And, since we’re talking about these two adaptations of stories, a note on that too. I think Ray does an excellent job of adapting both stories: he does not follow the original story to the letter, but he retains the essence of it—and even adds to it, to give it greater depth. For example, in the case of Kapurush, the husband—who is barely there in the original story—is given a major role, and it is his boredom, his love for drink, that encourages us (and Amitabha) to think (hope?) that Karuna could not possibly be happy with a man such as this.

Similarly, in Mahapurush, Ray changes things, tweaking them here and there to make the story more coherent (Birinchi Baba does have rather a lot of characters, and I must admit I got slightly confused with some of the minor characters while reading the story). The film, I thought, was more lucid than the written story, but managed to retain and even add to its humour.

And, one last word about the end. Ray changes, ever so slightly, the end of both Kapurush and Mahapurush from what it was in the original story. In Mahapurush, the end, as I mentioned, seemed to me not as satisfying as in the story—but in Kapurush, he makes the end far more subtle, yet more hard-hitting than it was in the story.

Both films watch a watch. Several watches, actually, especially Kapurush.

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29 thoughts on “Kapurush O Mahapurush (1965)

  1. I read only the first review this time & it is brilliant! I would request you to have bigger fonts that would be more reader friendly. That way, I would not have had to come back another time…

    • Thank you.

      Regarding the font size, I replied to your comment on my Shashi Kapoor songs post, but it appears you missed that. Here it is, again:

      The font size is, unfortunately, part of WordPress’s theme, and cannot be customized. But you can change your browser settings to view it as a larger font. For instance, if you’re using Google Chrome, clicking on the ‘Customization and Controls’ button on the extreme right upper corner allows you to zoom in as much as you like.

  2. Hi Madhu, I read this carefully because for me Ray is so important. I liked the way you paid attention to the details in Kapurush, but I wonder if you wouldn’t need to watch the film again (you say so yourself!) to give attention to more! And yes, her way of telling the world “this is my life, stay away…” but it seems to me you don’t delve enough into the reasons which might explain why this woman doesn’t want “happiness”: what does she want then? An examination of her hidden motives could be a way of getting at what inspires Ray: his feminism? And also, you don’t comment on why Ray has joined the two films together…?

    • Yves, I must admit I watched these films and wrote up this review a couple of months back, when I had some time. Now I am so swamped with work (besides having a lot of other things going wrong with my life, including my health) that I cannot see when I will get the time to watch them again. In fact, it’s quite possible that the next few posts for a while will all be stuff I’ve written up previously.

      I’d appreciate it if you could share your insights on the questions you’ve raised… I’d be interested to learn.

      • I had started here: http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-kapurush-the-coward-or-women-s-own-right-to-happiness-107657897.html
        and here (http://www.letstalkaboutbollywood.com/article-mahapurush-or-religious-profiteering-108755187.html) but reading your interesting posts made me wonder about these aspects which I hadn’t yet grappled with. You see, through my watchings of Ray’s cinema (I might have told you this already) I’m looking for what is his main drive, his artistic core, and as yet I’ve not yet found the one thing – if it exists – which could satisfactorily sum up his art. What would you say?

        • Thank you for those links to your posts, Yves. I’ve just finished reading them, and found them very interesting (your observations on Karuna’s happiness in her marriage, the significance of the sleeping pills, “only two” especially made me want to watch the film again – if only I had the time!) I really do wonder why Ray chose to club these two films. The contrast between Amitabha and Birinchi Baba – one a coward, one audacious; one running away from the world, one making the world dance to his tune – seems the most likely reason. Could sheer practicality also have had a hand in it? After all, the original stories are very complete in themselves, and making either of these a full-fledged 2- or 3-hour long film would’ve meant unnecessarily dragging them on. Ray probably realised that both of these were best dealt with in a short film format.

          Talking about Ray’s artistic core… no, I will not comment on that right now, simply because I’ve watched too little of his work to be able to claim any true knowledge of what moved him, drove him, inspired him. One thing that (as I’ve mentioned in another comment on this page) strikes me is that Ray was far more versatile than he’s generally given credit for.

          • Goodnight Madhu,
            Sheer practicality, for sure, why not? Perhaps also financial reasons…But there is also the possibility that he found the two representing two contrasting attitudes towards society: the over-respectful (better for me than the cowardly, because, in spite of the title, it isn’t cowardice which characterizes Ami’s attitude, it’s more conformism) and the contemptuous (or the irreverent): one is blocked by his lack of initiative and self-assertive drive, the other flaunts all established rules and beliefs. Neither can find the proper balance between social norms and personal originality. In fact, Ray is exploring the quandary of action of the individual within the frame of society. He might be saying that in order to reach the right degree of freedom, you would need to exert the right amount of discretion for the freedom of others (that’s in direction of Brinchi Baba), but humanity means also that people will accept a certain range of new ideas and bold moves from their fellow men, otherwise life in society is just too repetitive and alienating (this is what Karuna is asking from the man she would have chosen)?

  3. Loved the review(s), Madhu. I watched both films in my late teens when my college organised a retrospective of Ray. I loved Kapurush though I remember the teenage me being extremely scornful of poor Amitabha. ‘Why did he bother falling in love if he couldn’t be bothered to stand up for that love?’ I remember asking. I wonder whether my reaction will be different so many years later.

    I was amazed at Mahapurush. Simply because I had no clue that Ray had made a satirical comedy. I’d him pegged as this serious auteur who, as Nargis claimed, ‘peddled India’s poverty abroad’. Mahapurush was a revelation. I don’t remember the ending being rushed, but then, it’s been ages since I watched it. Perhaps it is time for a re-watch.

    • Thank you, Anu. Glad you enjoyed the review(s). And, I am certain that if I’d watched these films in my teens, I’d not have sympathised at all with Amitabha’s character in Kapurush. I have grown up now, a bit, and can discern shades of grey where earlier I saw only black and white. :-)

      Mahapurush does come as a bit of a surprise to anybody who associates Ray only with the image of the serious auteur (that quote by Nargis, even if somewhat unkind, does fit). I do think, however, that he was far more versatile than he’s given credit for – look at films like Chiriakhana, or Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne – so very different from Charulata or Kapurush or Jalsaghar

  4. Where Ray is concerned I cannot honestly say that I am a diehard fan though I have really loved some of his films. When he adapts the stories of others, it is there that my feelings are what shall I say – a bit iffy- if I were to describe it that way. However as I haven’t seen Kapurush -O-Mahapurush, I will take your word for it that he has done a good job of adapting the original stories for the film.
    My experience has been totally different, I have already talked about my disappointment with Shatranj Ke Khiladhi. There are two other films, Aranyer Din Ratri and Jana Aranya that were adapted from very popular Bengali novels. My mum was completely horrified and disappointed when she saw Jana Aranya. The essence of the story was completely ruined by the changes made by Ray. As for Aranyer Din Ratri, the story writer had himself in an interview expressed his disappointment at the changes made by Ray. He observed that Ray obviously had no knowledge of the kind of life that he (the writer) was trying to depict in the story and therefore could not empathize with what he had written
    Maybe I should take some time out to see this film.

    • Yes, I remember you telling me about your feelings regarding Shatranj ke Khiladi. So Jana Aranya and Aranyer Din Ratri were also badly adapted? I haven’t seen either of them (or read the originals), so can’t comment. But I’ll try to get hold of the novels. When I read, earlier this year, 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, I found that most of the stories which I had also seen the cinematic adaptations of, were well done. Kapurush, in particular, is one I really liked. Ray’s version is more nuanced, less melodramatic than the story. Or so I thought.

      But I know what you mean about iffy adaptations. I didn’t care for Chiriakhana; it had some very needless digressions and changes which made no sense at all.

  5. Madhu,
    I have not seen this film(s), but your lovely review has encouraged me to look for it. Do you see elements of Charulata in Kapurush? Bored, lonely wife in an aristocratic setting; the husband has not only money, but also class; a young man enters, causing some silent stirring. Of course, Charulata is lyrical, which Kapurush may not be. But, it might make an interesting comparison, how Ray addresses a woman’s relation with marriage, and romantic love.
    AK

    • That’s an interesting comparison, AK. Yes, there is a superficial resemblance to Charulata (reinforced, in my mind, by the fact that Madhabi Mukherjee plays the wife in both films), but I think the important thing here was that Karuna, unlike the wife in Charulata, has gotten over her love for the young man. I get the impression that, having seen him for the spineless sort he is, she doesn’t really want to be with him. She may be lonely and sad, but given a choice, she would probably still not go away with Amitabha.

      Do watch the film. I would love to see your views on it.

  6. Hey, No idea how I missed reading this! I remember you telling me about these two movies the last time we met, but haven’t watched either.

    However, I did read that Bhaskar Chattopadhyay book (based on ur recommendation) – 14 stories that inspired Satyajit Ray – so the stories are fresh in my head.

    Loved your review, Madhu. Makes me want to watch these, but no time, really :-(

    • I watched these two movies because of that book, Harini! When I’d read Kapurush, I’d liked it so much, I decided I wanted to see it. It turned out even better than the story.

      Bookmark them to watch whenever you do have the time. :-)

  7. Madhu ji,

    When I saw this film first in my early 20s or so, I enjoyed Mahapurush more than Kalpurush. After many years, when I viewed the films again my insight and experience was much different.
    The regular switching over from two characters to three and vice versa aided the progression of the film, and in bringing out the mental turmoil that disturbed the peace of the two main characters Actually Satyajit Ray leaves much to the imagination of the viewers. There are several situations which can be interpreted one way or the other. Madhabi Mukherjee’s contrasting performance portraying the subdued passion as a married women and emotional generosity as a carefree lover is wonderful. The repetition of the idea ‘boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl’ was interesting.
    Kapurush failed to make an impression among the Bengali middle class. The depiction of cowardice and selfishness associated with the middleclass, I think, did not go well with the general viewers. The viewers in general saddled with complexities due to changes happening in the society, the stress and expectations of modern living, the associated uncertainties, were not ready to face reality in celluloid.
    .
    Mahapurush is not Satyajit Ray’s first attempt in making a comedy film. After Pather Panchali and Aparajito, he made Paras Pathar (1958) based on another short story by Parasuram (Raj Sekhar Basu). Paras Pathar was well accepted by the viewers.
    Mahapurush is different from Paras Pathar in the sense that it is full of typical Bengali puns, allusions and dialects. Although it was largely accepted, many Bengalis did not find it “farcical’ enough in comparison to Parusuram’s original story.
    The entire plot revolves around the chicanery of Birinchi Baba. Two things are worth mention here. The holy chants he makes during the prayers.’ O Mores, OMnificent, OMniscience, OMnibus, Omnivorous etc. The other one, Rays depiction of Time future and Time past by rotations of the index finger of right hand clockwise and the left hand anticlockwise. Most of us will find it difficult to do, but I am sure with practice it can be mastered. Because, Ray had a session of teaching Birinchi Baba and others and all of them practiced at their home for hours. Ray was good at it from his early childhood.
    BTW there is a dubbed Hindi version with pieces of Hindi film songs which replace the Rabindrasangeet.
    Of course, as in the past your review pushed me to view the twin films again. Thanks a lot for the nice review.

    • Venkataramanji, I read your comment with great interest – it is so insightful, and (as always) adds so much value to the discussion, besides teaching me so much. Thank you, very sincerely, for that.

      I did read the original story of Parash Pathar in 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, but haven’t seen the film. Now that you mention it, perhaps I should. Talking about Ray and humour, though, another film of his which I like a lot – though it’s not just humour, but more – is Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne. Just the memory of that film brings a smile to my face.

  8. Great reviews as always. Coincidentally, just re-watched ‘Mahapurush’ this week. In times of stress and depression movies like ‘Mahapurush’ helps me. As for ‘Kapurush’, I could never enjoy it. Seen too many Bengali middle class young men in real life, I guess. It’s a bit too real.

    • “Seen too many Bengali middle class young men in real life, I guess. It’s a bit too real.

      Yes, I can understand why that would not be appealing.

      Mahapurush is a hoot, though. And while I don’t like the much abbreviated ‘exposure’ of Birinchi Baba (the original story has a better plot in that sense), the way Birinchi Baba does have the last word is delightful.

  9. After reading your reviews I feel I have nothing to add. Very well written. Apart from the contrast in the two titles, Ray must have felt the need to have a light-hearted satirical film in order to counterbalance the more serious Kapurush. The trio in Kapurush have indeed done their job magnificently but the actors in Mahapurush are delightful too. Charuprakash Ghosh is a very powerful actor. In Ray’s Abhijan he plays a sinister businessman who deals in drugs and women. I also love the extremely uninhibited acting of Gitali Roy (Charulata, Chriakhana, Baksho Bodol). Among the others you may recognize Somen Bose from Nayak (he played the mentor of Uttam Kumar) and the delightful Santosh Dutta (Jatayu from the Feluda movies). I would recommend the movie Baksho Bodol if you like light-hearted romantic movies. This movie was not directed by Ray but he wrote the screenplay and composed the music. It stars Aparna Sen, Soumitra, Geetali Roy and Satindranath.

  10. Hello! Your site is going to be very interesting for me as I love to meet and interact with others that are different from me. I like to expand my world-view and understanding and I never would have heard of or read about these short films. So I appreciate you posting these and I look forward to reading more from you!!

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