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Book review: Amitava Nag's Satyajit Ray's Heroes & Heroines exposes readers to the genius and work culture of auteur

The book is personal because Nag feels that all his actors delivered their best performances when they worked under Ray’s direction.

Roushni Sarkar

As veteran film critic and author Shoma A Chatterji mentioned, Amitava Nag’s latest book Satyajit Ray’s Heroes & Heroines is an easy read bereft of academic jargon, yet deeply analytical and multi-layered.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t concentrate solely on the so called ‘hero’ and ‘heroines’ of his films, rather makes distinct categories of characterisations to throw light upon some of the finest actors and their performances in Ray’s films that needed to be archived for a long time.

Nag’s book, thus, not only helps the readers to have a wholesome idea of both known and obscure artistes, but also exposes them to the genius and work culture of Ray that produced some of the greatest cinematic creations of all time, and also gave birth to some of the biggest stars of Indian cinema.

First of all, the book is personal because Nag feels that all these actors delivered their best performances when they worked under Ray’s direction. Nag uses substantial quotes from the available actors, Ray’s books and interviews and also several film critics and scholars, who wrote extensively on Ray and his films to establish or create a debate on his points.

However, in introducing several actors under distinct categories and discussing their journey with Ray, Nag has also spoken about their performances in memorable films by other directors that hold special significance in Bengali cinema.

It is fascinating to read the journey of making some of the favourite characters from Ray’s films.

Though Nag has quoted Ray saying in an interview in 1978, “I envy Bergman’s stock company. In Bengal, or even for that matter, we don’t have professionals of that calibre, no one like Bibi Anderson or a Liv Ullam. They are brilliant virtuoso performers and Bergman can devise parts for them, where they can show the subtlest of emotions and the strongest outbursts of passion. We don’t have actors of that calibre...”, his book shows how Ray’s characters could form special identities, representative of contemporary social values, transitions and having complex shades open to interpretations till date.

As Nag points out, Ray’s characters, no matter how minor their roles are in the films, play certain organic significance in the films and remain deeply ingrained in the mind. All these characters are much more than their individual identities and are proof of the detailed insight Ray always put into sketching them.

Nag’s detailed and comparative analysis into these characters invites the readers to introspect them with new light. The accounts become more interesting as they are examined in the light of each actor’s shift in acting style as demanded by the master filmmaker.

The close study reveals Ray’s nuanced sensitivity in exploiting the actor-character relationships in his different films and how consciously he broke the moulds of each of the archetypal characters in placing the actors in the most challenging spaces every time. Here, Nag’s account on Soumitra Chatterjee’s transition while performing Abhijaan (1962)’s Narasinha or Ghare-Baire’s (1984) Sandip from the ideal Bengali romantic hero in his other Ray films can be noted. There are ample such examples.

The book engages the attention of the readers with the real life accounts by the actors who have revealed some of the most fascinating details behind some memorable scenes from Ray’s films. Thus, Nag has created a fascinating lense for the reader to know more about their favourite director. These accounts and anecdotes somehow blur the lines between a fiction and a non-fiction making going through the book an enriching experience that transports the readers to the golden era of Bengali cinema.

Another important aspect of Nag’s book is the way he has established the co-relation between Ray’s films, his characters and the contemporary scenario of both the socio-economic structure and the film industry. This makes the book even more important for the present generation readers, who are keen on discovering the treasure of Ray’s cinema. The book, perhaps, can be more critically analysed by veteran readers, who can relate to Ray’s characters, the actors and their performances more than the present generation readers for who the book provides tools for retrieving the past with ample scope for comparative study.

To sum up, the book is a tribute to Ray that works as a medium for conveying deepest gratitude by the actors and the author himself. The book definitely reveals Ray as the complete artiste who always contributed much more than merely making films with his all-encompassing control over his work yet recognising his artistes with due respects and never imposing authority, allowing them to bloom fully under his warm shadow.

While Nag has mostly covered all the possible actors fitting them into certain categories — some with detailed accounts and few not — there do not seem to be much about Aparna Sen, who he has repeatedly mentioned with Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, in the category of Ray’s discoveries who went on to become the biggest luminaries of Indian cinema. Also, Nag’s chapter on Uttam Kumar, perhaps could have had more detailed analysis on his portrayal in Nayak (1966) than his identity as a matinee idol, which has already been discussed a number of times and is well-known to all.

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