Kapurush (The Coward, 1965), directed by Satyajit Ray, screenplay by Ray based on the story "Janaiko Kapuruser Kahini" by Premendra Mitra.
Where Ray's Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963) is expansive and humanistic, his Kapurush is brief and bitter. A hired-car breakdown strands Amit (Soumitra Chatterjee) in a small town on his way elsewhere. A friendly local tea grower, Bimal (Haradhan Banerjee) offers to put him up for the night so that he can catch the next day's train. When the two arrive at Bimal's plantation, Amit is stunned to recognize Bimal's wife Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee):
And she recognizes him:
In flashback we learn that in their student days, Karuna was Amit's lover. When her wealthy family learned of her affair with the poor Amit, Karuna came to his apartment and boldly proposed that they elope. Amit lacked the courage to seize the moment, though, and the lovers were separated. That failure has haunted him ever since.
Back in the present, as the uncomfortable hours crawl by in Bimal's bungalow it becomes clear that while Amit's host is affable, he's also a bit boorish, stolidly conventional, and a heavy drinker. Amit asks Karuna for some sleeping pills, and when he has a moment alone with her, questions her about her happiness (questions she refuses to answer). The next day, on the way back to town so that he can catch a train to his destination, Amit sees a chance to relive the moment of his failure and change the outcome. He takes advantage of Bimal's brief absence to propose that Karuna leave her husband and go away with him.
The ending—spoiler alert!—is deeply ambiguous: Karuna does meet Amit at the train station, but only to ask for her sleeping pills back; as she says, "I need them." Is Karuna now the coward, unable to act because she has become too accustomed to the comforts supplied by Bimal's wealth? Having once seen Amit's failure of nerve, is she unable to trust him again? Does she feel that it is impossible to recapture the past? Or does she feel that Amit is acting weakly and selfishly once again, as he did at that earlier moment of decision?
My preferred interpretation is that she is making a Tatyana-like sacrifice of her feelings because she is unwilling to violate her marriage vows (see the post on Eugene Onegin for more on Tatyana's renunciation scene). But Ray doesn't resolve the question of her thoughts and motives; Karuna remains for us, as she does for Amit, a haunting enigma.
—End of spoilers—
Kapurush, perhaps because of its ambiguity, was not a financial success when it was released. But it offers a very different role than Ray's earlier Mahanagar for the superb Madhabi Mukherjee. She is no less convincing as the unflinching Karuna than as the anxious, sheltered Arati, and her performance is reason enough to see the film. As an added incentive, Ray employs some almost Hitchcockian touches to ratchet up the tension: when the husband apparently falls asleep after a picnic and Amit tries to use the opportunity to ask Karuna to run away with him, we watch a cigarette slowly burning down between the husband's fingers, knowing (as Amit also does) that when ash reaches the husband's fingers he'll wake up. If, that is, he's really asleep...
Kapurush is available in a dark, grainy print of what seems to be the dubbed Hindi version on YouTube, from Rajshri Films. A crisp transfer of the original Bengali version with English subtitles is included as a part of the Criterion Collection's 2013 DVD reissue of Mahanagar.
Last time: Danger and possibility in the big city: Mahanagar (1963)