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.
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.
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.
… 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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?
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.
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.