While the makers of the Tamil-language Kamal Haasan starrer Tamil-language Vikram (1986) deserve praise for persuading Dimple Kapadia to work beyond Hindi cinema, credit for showcasing the actor’s skill for playing layered characters goes to such directors as Govind Nihalani (Drishti), Gulzar (Lekin…) and Kalpana Lajmi (Rudaali). These projects demanded psychological complexity, rather than the usual glam vapidity that marked the distractingly beautiful movie star’s mainstream releases.

Did arthouse directors see Kapadia as an Indian Monica Vitti, the iconic Italian actor from Michelangelo Antonioni’s relationship films? One of Kapadia’s best-regarded performances is in Mrinal Sen’s Antareen (1993). Sen’s loose adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s story Badshahat Ka Khatimah channels her talent for playing nervy, ambiguous women.

The Bengali-language Antareen, which is available on MUBI, is simplicity itself. A woman (Kapadia) and a man (Anjan Dutt), both unnamed, forge a connection over the telephone. The conversations between The Woman and The Writer begin on a whim and continue through her anguish over her estranged husband and his attempts to write a story.

Between her red telephone and his green one, The Woman and The Writer find ways to combat their loneliness. She refuses to leave her beautifully appointed apartment. He has moved to a crumbling mansion in search of a story. Among the novels he refers to Rabindranath Tagore’s Kshuditha Pashan (Hungry Stones), which was the basis for the movie Lekin…

Although Kapadia’s voice was dubbed by Anushua Chatterjee, the inner turmoil of her character is visible in her shifting expressions and the nervous way she picks at the telephone cord. Dutt, who delivered some of his best performances in Mrinal Sen’s films, is equally excellent as the writer who wants to disengage from the world, only to be distracted by the phone calls.

Sen and cinematographer Shashi Anand make wonderful use of the confined spaces. The crisp runtime of 87 minutes folds in a wealth of insight into human relationships, an exploration of wilful isolation and the ability of human beings to create a rapport without ever laying eyes on each other.

Antareen (1993).