Pico Iyer Essays

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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.

“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.

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—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.

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.

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