What's new again: Satyajit Ray's The Coward (1965) | Bleader

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's new again: Satyajit Ray's The Coward (1965)

Posted By on 12.14.11 at 10:14 AM

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In his recent review of Young Adult, J.R. Jones noted “the movie suffers from the sort of self-pitying fog that can envelop a writer when he dives into his own malaise.” This fog is nothing new, of course: Henry Jaglom’s been lost in it for decades. But that’s not say there’s no great art on the theme of a writer’s malaise, as evidenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Letter to Sara Hutchinson,” Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, or this lesser-known Satyajit Ray feature about a disaffected screenwriter.

Like those other examples, The Coward (aka Kapurush) transcends self-portrait by considering the writer’s relationship to the society he inhabits. Its protagonist, Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), earns the title of coward by allowing himself to be intimidated by the social codes he professes to despise. In flashbacks, Ray presents Roy’s romance with the woman he loved but refused to marry, since he couldn’t provide her with a comfortable middle-class existence. In the present, Ray observes the writer’s frustrated visit with his old flame, who’s now the wife of a boorish tea executive and living on a plantation in the Darjeeling countryside. The movie builds on a clever rhyme scheme, mirroring the writer’s former, tragic cowardice with his comic acquiescence to the husband’s worst habits, such as excessive drinking.

Ray shared with the great French director Eric Rohmer a deep knowledge of man’s capacity for self-delusion. What makes The Coward such a strong depiction of this universal weakness is its admission that writers are just as susceptible to it as anyone else—which makes the film anything but self-pitying. It’s also a witty portrait of Indian class anxiety, a theme to which Ray returned in many of his best films, most notably Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), which elaborates on The Coward’s city/country fission.

Still best known in the US for his epic Apu Trilogy (1955-59), Ray was also a master of the short-form narrative. Case in point, The Coward fulfills all its ambitions in just over an hour, and the Region 1 DVD includes another featurette Ray made the same year, The Holy Man (aka Mahapurush). That film, a Tartuffe-like satire about a widower who takes in a false prophet claiming to be 2,000 years old, is lighter in tone than The Coward, though both films deepen considerably when viewed back-to-back.

The Coward/Holy Man DVD is available for rental at Facets Multimedia and Odd Obsession Movies.

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