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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.
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.
“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.
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 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.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.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.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. 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.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.