In epics, sagas, legends and folklore, the hero is always Mr Perfect. Brave, bold, truthful, chivalrous, noble. In the Bombay-manufactured masala movies, add hot, handsome and macho – and don’t bother to strain the brain cells too much! For over three-and-ahalf decades, the one hero who blazed the screen and scorched the imagination of millions, was the towering charismatic Amitabh Bachchan.
In recent times, the likes of the Khan trio, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan clash swords for that coveted slot. In serious cinema (parallel cinema/art house), the concept of hero and heroism is not quite as bombastic. Here, there is no specific agenda to titillate the wish-fulfillment aspect of the turned-on viewer. He does not spew armpit rhetoric aimed at the front benchers nor indulges in superman heroics. He is a flesh and blood character, acting out real feelings with identifiable honesty, sensitivity and feeling.
Agreed, he doesn’t always win, but who does? Not you or me – only the larger than life caricatures in masala land! The heroes of Satyajit Ray’s films are a breed apart. They are even more rooted to the soil and milieu of their environment. Observes iconic film critic Chidananda Das Gupta with rare perception in the most definitive book written on the maestro, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: “The natural character of an actor was important to Ray, not only in the case of the non-professional but professionals as well. He must, in real life, reflect some of the basic qualities sought in the character to be portrayed.
Acting against the grain of the actor’s nature is unacceptable in Ray’s scheme of things. That is precisely why Ray’s actors exude more or less the same impression of themselves in real life as they do on screen. Soumitra Chatterjee, Dhritiman Chaterjee (Pratidwandi) or Pinaki Mukherjee (Jana Aranya), all have the unmistakable imprint on them of an intellectual pursuit and contemplative nature. The characters they play on screen are very much like themselves.”
Let’s start with Apu in Apur Sansar, the third and last of his unforgettable (Pather Panchali, Aparajito) trilogy. Apu is a young man who marries, writes his first novel and then loses his wife in childbirth. This tragedy sends him staggering into the wilderness. His pathos are summed up in one magnificent image as he casts away the sheets of the novel. They flutter down the hillside in the luminous light of dawn, evoking an overwhelming sense of melancholy.
Apu is filled with nostalgia but when at last he is reunited with his son, it gives him a new vitality and joy with which to face the future. Thus the wheel has turned full circle and the trilogy closes with Apu carrying his child just as it began with his grandmother rocking him in the cradle. Fittingly for the role of the sensitive Apu, Ray introduced Soumitra Chatterjee – an actor whose physical and intellectual parallels bore such striking resemblance to the character he was to portray, that it inspired the prestigious ‘TIME’ magazine to write: “His actors act not with the usual combinations of oriental drama, but as though the camera found them alone and simply living; and they live as few characters in pictures do – real lives that swell to the skin with pain and poetry and sudden wit.”
Take Nayak, where the great god Ray took Bengal’s (late) King of Hearts, Uttam Kumar, for the first time, causing many to believe that the maestro had finally lost it! Nothing of course was further from the truth. The essence of the film concerned itself with the emptiness that plagued the life of a celluloid superstar. The story line oozes out of the empty confines of an air-conditioned coach carrying him to Delhi, where a state award awaits him. On the trip, he meets an intelligent, young, woman journalist (Sharmila Chatterjee) in the dining car.
A rapport develops between them and in a rare moment of human contact, he tells her of his most private frustrations, doubts and weaknesses. While it is commonly recognised that Ray’s best works are derived from literary sources other than his, his eye for impeccable casting has almost always been universally acknowledged. Uttam Kumar was Bengal’s reigning superstar, whose mere name on the marquee set off serpentine queues. What Ray did was to write a script with him in mind, eliminating his popular, cliché-ridden mannerisms and concentrating on his seldom-tapped acting prowess. In this he succeeded magnificently, inspiring the late star to comment to me in the only interview I ever conducted with him: “Manikda was the first director to really teach me what film acting was all about.” This new insight was reflected in most of his subsequent movie roles.
Take Pratidwandi, a tale of what it feels to be young, confused and undecided in the modern world, with a deceptively simple narrative about a graduate seeking a job in the teeming, competitive city, seen through a mélange of sensitive vision of virtually all intelligent people’s experience when confronted with crucial choices in life. It was Ray’s first political film. Dhritiman Chatterjee, who made his screen debut with this film (and later was to be seen in great form in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane, Padatik and Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane) struck gold.
A talented, cultured and educated middle class Bengali, Chatterjee identified totally with the role to come up with a performance that was near-perfect. The Washington Post hailed him and his director with: “Chatterjee is simply marvelous as the young protagonist. This movie may be remembered as one of the most perceptive and relevant works of the decade.” These were Ray’s heroes. When will another such director come?