Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Hero’ Revisited

Pico Iyer in the New York Review of Books:

The-hero-criterion1It was 1974 and I was a teenager on holiday from my English boarding school, meeting cousins, uncles, and my parents’ ancestral homeland for the first time. The monsoons were heavy that year, but I suddenly found myself rattling all around India—Bombay to Secunderabad, and thence to Bangalore and Madras and Ahmedabad, and finally to Delhi—on never-ending overnight trains. Vendors selling tea clamored around the compartment windows, eager to pass tiny clay cups to passengers; old men sat lecturing everyone on any topic under the sun; the waiter in the dining car assured us, not without obsequiousness, that there was no tea, no coffee, nothing to be had but Coca-Cola.

That curious mix of civility and cacophony came back to me joltingly as I watched the film that Satyajit Ray had made just eight years before my visit, Nayak, or The Hero. In it, Ray sends a handsome star of the silver screen from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a prize. As soon as he boards the train, the professional heartthrob, named Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), finds himself, by turns, released from his public role and obliged to play it constantly. Everyone recognizes him, sighing over his legend, yet as soon as he’s alone, he’s overcome by memories and dreams that move him to ask himself whether he made the right choice in deciding to become a commercial icon.

For Ray, after a series of films widely acclaimed across the world—and as different as possible from the madcap escapism and song-and-dance routines of Bollywood—The Hero was a chance to meditate on the nature of role-playing, to reflect on the costs of make-believe, and to address perhaps the dominant theme of his middle period, the place of conscience.

More here.