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The Hero: Depths and Surfaces

How does one make art while also appealing to the man on the street? Divert the viewer and yet extend her too, toward her depths? Such questions trouble every serious artist, but Satyajit Ray faced them with perhaps particular intensity. He was working, after all, in India, a country where a great many of those men on the street might quite literally be living there. And yet to explore their condition in earnest would take him in the opposite direction from relieving it. Meanwhile, this great pioneer of the “parallel cinema”—as art-house filmmaking has been called in South Asia—was surrounded by the largest film industry on earth, busily mass-producing hits full of drama and showbiz and escapism, guaranteed to make tens of millions of people across the planet profoundly happy.

By the time he directed The Hero, or Nayak, in 1966, Ray had already expressed his eagerness to reach a wider audience, but he was by no means ready to let go of the thoughtfulness and complexity that distinguished his art from the spectacles of Bollywood. So he made a film that somehow stirs glamour and introspection together into an unexpectedly soul-searching inquiry into the compromises of art, the nature of acting, and what may be the deepest obsession of his middle period: conscience, both social and artistic. In some ways, The Hero—only Ray’s second original screenplay; the first was for Kanchenjungha, four years before—deepens the central questions of the film he’d made one year earlier, Kapurush. In that story, a screenwriter confronts a past failure of nerve when he meets again the old love he was once too weak to marry. Now, right after a film whose name means “The Coward,” Ray made one whose title, The Hero, clearly carries several layers of irony.

To complicate his meditation further, Ray cast as his leading man in this film about the agonies of leading men the most celebrated matinee idol in the history of Bengali cinema, who appeared in over two hundred movies before his death at fifty-three. Uttam Kumar was such a titanic figure that traffic stopped across Kolkata when he died in 1980; both a street and a subway station in that city are now named after him. In his sleek urbanity, he embodies everything we might expect of an eponymous hero who knows it’s his job to turn himself into a two-dimensional dream figure in shades—even as a part of him wonders if he shouldn’t aim higher. One of the film’s haunted concerns is whether “a film actor is nothing but a puppet,” as the hero’s theatrical mentor has asserted. Yet if Kumar is a puppet, it’s in the hands of a filmmaker whose questions startlingly reflect his own, albeit from a different direction. “If you have a conscience, you suffer,” a character declares in Kapurush, and in The Hero, Ray explores how that applies to both commercial moviemaking and overscrupulous art.

To some, this inward-looking experiment might seem a world away from the 1955 debut that made Ray’s name worldwide, Pather Panchali. Where the single most famous shot in that film is of village children watching a train whoosh past, here we’re inside that train, seeing the same fields from the other end of the telescope. And where Pather Panchali is graced with the linear chronology of a classic story, here the narrative flies off into dream sequences and flashbacks, which sometimes feel weighed down—as is seldom the case in Ray—by the influence of other directors, especially the Fellini of 8½. Yet what Ray is doing, at every turn, is asking himself what the point of cinematic make-believe might be, and what the cost. Much as Robert Altman does in his 1992 film The Player, he takes a theme we think we know already and makes it poignant where we expect it to be satirical, heartfelt where we anticipate formula, and deeper than anyone has a right to expect.

In some ways, The Hero fits the pattern of much of Ray’s earlier work: as ever, the onetime commercial artist, now in his midforties, crafted the script, outlined every scene in a red notebook, and composed, or helped compose, the music. Yet as soon as you hear the broad, almost bombastic chords under the opening credits, you know you’re in for something very different from the world evoked by Ravi Shankar’s fast-flowing sitar in The Apu Trilogy.

Ray is cherished for being a director very much of his place; nearly all his films are set in Bengal, usually around his native Kolkata, where he spent almost his entire life, often in a cluttered flat without air-conditioning. Yet The Hero is distinctly of its time as well. The Philips electric shaver in the opening scene—a novelty, surely, in the midsixties—tells us something about the cosmopolitan world its central figure, a professional heartthrob, inhabits. Very soon we’re in a thicket of Mad Men details, from a BOAC bag in the background to a reference to cocaine. Kumar even looks like an Indian Mastroianni, with his blend of debonair, sulky good looks and rumpled vulnerability. The high-end furnishings give a mainstream audience some of what it craves, perhaps, even as the questions they raise are those of a more inward-looking art-house movie.

The film is anchored at every moment in Kumar’s performance, and for me, it’s an astonishment. Everything about his appear­ance­—his soft hands, his designer socks in two-tone shoes, his baby-faced insouciance—gives us a sense of spoiled entitlement; here is a man who thinks nothing of decorating his home (and his office) with large framed glossies of himself. Yet the beauty of Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee is that he has the capacity to surprise us, again and again. He can be witty and charming and kind. As Ray and Kumar push beneath the leading man’s smooth surfaces, we expect, perhaps, demons and sleepless nights; but we may not be prepared for such grace. The professional hero helps an old man open a bottle, is patient with an elderly scold who dislikes all “talkies,” even uses one of his glossies as an instrument of compassion to help an ailing child. She may be the rare soul who doesn’t need him to be anything other than what he is.

For as the film settles into the protected sphere that is the Kolkata-Delhi train—a neighborhood on the move, in effect, a rolling therapist’s couch and a rare chance for a fantasy figure to escape his public role—we realize that what follows will be in part an essay on projection. Everyone has some idea of who Arindam Mukherjee is: he’s a “modern-day Krishna,” in the view of one smitten woman, observing him in the dining car; too “godlike,” according to her seatmate, the high-minded editor of Modern Woman magazine. Others are no less convinced—since they’ve read the papers—that he must be the devil. Yet the power of Kumar’s performance, which changes with every tremor, is that he can inhabit the movie star and the real man in the same shot; he knows just how to give the world the glamorous hero it demands—and perhaps needs—even as he is never slow to slough off his mask and claim a richer humanity.

Ray’s way with close-ups is as powerful as ever, whether in the confounding tears of an ambitious would-be actress or in the warm, inquiring glances of sari-ed matrons. When Sharmila Tagore, playing the disapproving editor, Aditi, takes off her glasses, she too turns into someone beautiful and sympathetic and undefended; we can see why Mukherjee senses that she may be more real as a leading lady than as the woman she presents to the world. “I have a feeling that the really crucial moments in a film should be wordless,” Ray said of his great film Charulata, from two years earlier, and just before Mukherjee falls into his first dream, we’re given almost two minutes of shots without speech that show us everything we need of innocence and experience, in the eyes of a young girl who’s running a fever, and in the self-satisfied preening of a silent figure who will turn out to be a publicity-hungry guru.

The train itself is a hive of designs. Almost everyone has a scheme, and almost every character, in this film about acting, is more than ready to pretend to be something he or she is not. As in Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, the compartments frame an intricate latticework of plots. A young woman wonders how much she should offer of herself to a predatory stranger, in answer to her husband’s pleas. Aditi muses on whether to abandon the high ground. Everyone, essentially, is reflecting back the movie star’s concern, about how much selling yourself to the devil may in fact be the right and selfless thing to do, if it can offer the suffering a respite from their plight.

In 1974, I took a series of train trips all across India, as my father introduced me to the relatives I’d never had a chance to meet in my faraway English schools and home. Every detail of The Hero clamored around our compartment: the faces at the window, waving tiny cups of tea; the moralists eager to lecture anyone on everything; the slightly obsequious waiter explaining that there was nothing to drink but Coca-Cola. None of us in the carriage would have been surprised that the man who pontificated most furiously on the importance of liberating women would prove to be the one most eager to exploit them; projection can take many forms.

In Ray’s film, however, we feel the personal itch of every self-betrayal. In many ways, The Hero seems a characteristically sinuous response to the critics (or the inner critic) who asked Ray whether he should not be entertaining viewers rather than just exploring their predicaments. And its pacing and dream sequences do seem to offer more diversion than a typical Ray film does. When we see Mukherjee’s friend urging him to become more involved in the cause of workers, we can imagine how many argumentative Indians assaulted Ray for being too detached, too refined, too committed to nuances beyond the reach of the common man. And when one chess player on the make says, “How many people here appreciate fine things?” one can almost hear the exasperated tones of a patrician-seeming artist, constantly being asked why he’s making films for New York and Cannes when the man down the road in Kolkata is in such a desperate state.

Meanwhile, the calls to conscience are unceasing, in the ringing phone of a dream, and in all the figures in Mukherjee’s flashbacks, urging him not to sell his soul to the movies. In Aditi, he finds not just his unlikeliest confessor but the gentlest incarnation of his better self. Yet when Mukherjee’s assistant notes, brightly, “This is the age of Marx and Freud. No rebirth, no providence,” he may, ironically, be reminding his boss just why larger-than-life figures such as himself are needed: who else can give ordinary people a sense of transcendence, the belief (for two hours, at least) that they can be or do anything they choose?

What results is a festival of ironies. When figures begin gathering outside the movie star’s window, he knows exactly how to give them what they want; it’s the tut-tutting editor—an emissary from real life—who’s sent into a frenzy and longs to screen herself from their need. Even as the privileged-seeming star wrestles with his angels, nearly everyone around him sees him as a way to advance their own interests.

Ray was never going to be a slick or supercommercial filmmaker, but throughout The Hero he keeps the wheels of his story spinning even as vexed questions are turning in his characters’ heads. And no detail is extraneous. As one aging curmudgeon admits to a love for How Green Was My Valley, as another boasts of his trips to America, we’re reminded—think of that dialogue about Marx and Freud once more—that, in its first generation after independence, India was constantly wondering how much to call on its own traditions and how much to become part of the global order. When Mukherjee speaks for the mumbled realism of Brando and Bogart—over the rhetorical declamations of an Olivier—Ray himself might be making his own declaration of independence from the cherished imperial forms.

In almost every shot, Ray picks away at our easy assumptions, and Kumar embodies just what a star should be, as Ray would put it in 1971: “a person on the screen who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything.” For me, the flashback scenes in The Hero are abrupt at times and pull us out of what could be an even more intimate and direct unraveling of poses; I’m not used to a filmmaker of Ray’s originality stooping to dream sequences about being buried under a quicksand of cash or references to companies called Fortune Films. Yet as we learn that the leading man is an orphan, no stranger to carrying funeral biers, we come to see, ever more painfully, how by succeeding in his art he can feel he’s failing on some deeper level.

In the end, what distinguishes the art-house film from the would-be blockbuster is that the former is more ready to fail. As the movie star in The Hero keeps talking about “my box office” and how much he needs to preserve his image, we see Ray scouring both depths and surfaces in the same frame. The fact that this film isn’t as seamless and single-pointed as Pather Panchali is part of what makes it so affecting, and enduring. The sign of a master is that he deals in questions, not resolutions­—that he pulls us away from the payoffs of plot and into the maze of unsettled inquiry. By that token, The Hero succeeds quite wonderfully, scattering far more questions than even Ray could begin to answer.

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