Filmed immediately after Charulata (The Lonely Wife), Satyajit Ray's Kapurush (The Coward) unfolds like a brief reprise with the same unhappy love triangle scenario, only with more emphasis on the male third wheel. Ray even recasts two actors from Charulata to repeat their unfulfilled lover roles: Soumitra Chatterjee as screenwriter Amitabha Roy and Madhabi Mukherjee as Karuna Gupta. Based on Premendra Mitra's short story, not all that much happens during the short 74-minute narrative nor do the characters undergo any significant changes, but Ray sketches a memorable character portrait—especially of enigmatic Karuna, who resolutely refuses to reveal her unspoken secrets.
The story is set up when Amitabha's car breaks down in a remote area, and boorish Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bannerjee) invites him to spend the night at his tea plantation bungalow. An ambitious hedonist who prides himself on his economic prowess, Bimal worked hard to establish his successful tea business, yet he remains unsatisfied. He's married to beautiful, supportive, independent Karuna, but he tells Amitabha that he's lonely due to the caste system prohibitions about associating with his hired workers. Bimal also talks excessively, drinks too much, and snores loudly when he inevitably passes out.
As soon as Amitabha enters the bungalow, we realize that he has a history with Karuna. She does her best to remain formal, carefully guarding her familiarity when they initially sit for tea—her husband acting as a screen between the two former lovers here and in every frame that they share throughout the film. Bimal remains blithely ignorant about their past relationship.
Obviously troubled, Amitabha persistently attempts to connect with Karuna, but she continues to treat him indifferently, no matter what inner turmoil she in turn may feel. The tension increases as Bimal gets drunker and more loutish, and even Karuna objects when her husband begins talking critically of Bengalis with their guest (both Amitabha and Karuna are Bengali). When they retire for bed, Amitabha anxiously awaits, hoping for a sign of recognition and a chance to talk more intimately with Karuna, but she remains cold and distant.
An opportune time for a flashback, and Ray delivers a well-conceived snippet when they were students in Calcutta, to a critical day in their life journey. This is where the English name for the film comes to play, as Amitabha has a chance to marry Karuna before she must leave with her uncle—a "love" test that requires immediate reaction. Amitabha freezes with fears—he's just starting work, has no resources, Calcutta is such a huge city, etc. So Karuna walks out of his life, until now. Will he have the courage this time, or will she even be willing to leave her situation? Just what does her silence mean?
Despite playing out predictably, Kapurush has a great deal of charm, most notably in the wordless acting prowess demonstrated by the two lead characters. Through their subtle eye movements and small body gestures, we are able to discern their unspoken turmoil. Just like real life, the emotional issues remain a constant undercurrent are not overplayed. Ray also displays visual cues in this area—take his juxtaposition shots pairing Karuna's tender hand gesture towards Amitabha (in flashback) with the jeep ride where Karuna's hand gently touches her husband's shoulder, and the immediate reaction shot of Amitabha's eyes. That moment alone communicates the heartbreaking pain of a lost opportunity, and the short film features a number of other examples.
Not nearly as strong a portrait drawn in Charulata, this film ends unsatisfactorily—far too abrupt and arbitrary. But that's often how a love story ends in real life; the rewards along the way make this a worthy Netflix rental.