Eschewing popular conceptions of Bollywood movies, India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray takes us not just backstage, but totally away from it, to create a fascinating study of a famous film actor mid-existential crisis.
Popular movie star Uttam Kumar plays a variation of himself, portraying Arindam Mukherjee, a one-time stage actor turned box office success traveling by train to Delhi to accept an achievement award even as his latest film is flopping in theaters. Much of The Hero’s narrative is driven by how the other train passengers react to having a star in their midst. There is the sick girl and her mother who profess to being fans, the salty critic who thinks movie stars are by nature immoral, and a young wife who has dreams of stardom herself. Most important, though, is Aditi (Sharmila Tagore, Apur Sansar [review]), a progressive journalist whose feminist magazine usually doesn’t peddle in movie news, but when urged by her mother to gather some gossip about a barroom brawl Arindam participated in the night before, Aditi finds herself sitting across from the charismatic performer. What the young woman finds is a man eager to talk, and before she knows it, Arindam is laying himself bare, telling her the true story of how he earned his way, focusing mostly on the mentor he disappointed and the one who disappointed him.
The flashbacks to Arindam’s life in the theatre and the mistakes made on his first movie shoot allow Ray--who wrote, directed, and produced--to leave the train and change up the scenery, but honestly, he didn’t really need the variation. The auteur makes full use of the space, moving up and down the corridors and into different train compartments without ever creating a scene that feels cramped--not even when the whole point is that the other passengers can’t escape each other. Ray peppers his main narrative with mini-dramas throughout the rest of the train, including some tales that parallel the main. The young woman (Susmita Mukherjee) being pimped out by her husband (Kamu Mukherjee) to cinch an advertising deal is an alternate version of the ambitious actress (Sumita Sanyal) whose advances landed Arindam in the fistfight. There are fuzzy lines being drawn between exploitation and self-actualization here, with even Arindam losing focus on whether or not he is still pursuing his career for the right reasons.
It’s pretty easy to see the influence The Hero likely had on Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited [review], predominantly in how the later film is constructed, including the use of surreal and handcrafted dream sequences and how Anderson uses the confined space to force people to get real with one another. Pretenses break down as the night wears on, and Arindam in particular is ready to spill his guts. As a performer, Uttam Kumar has a very natural way about him. He switches back and forth from being “on” to just being himself without ever needing to force it. As Arindam, he sees the difference between the personal and the public, and reacts to each fan like a deft politician.
Seeing how in control of his charm the actor is adds gravitas to the more intimate revelations he shares with the reporter. It’s only here that Ray emphasizes the closeness of proximity, eventually framing the conversation as a volley back and forth, his two leads never in the shot at the same time, too close to fit. In terms of action and reaction, Sharmila Tagore is remarkable, providing a blank, yet empathetic, sounding board for her scene partner, and reserving her deeper response to more private moments, when she is left to absorb what she just learned. Ray could have easily fallen into some cliché with the Aditi character, making her a cold intellectual or a strident feminist who rails against anything popular, but instead he gives her conflicts of her own. There is part of her who enjoys what Arindam does and understands why he could help her magazine, even as she tries to maintain her integrity and have a truly genuine experience with him. One could suspect that Ray is wrestling with his own feelings for other types of movies, the old critic maybe hitting a little too close to home, or the dismissal of musicals being a more barbed attack than is apparent in the throwaway joke..
Beyond all the movie-business material, the community that Satyajit Ray builds in The Hero is also subtly reflective of society. There are the successful people--both the actor and the wealthy business man (Ranjit Sen) share a compartment--alongside the middle classes that either just want to get by or who are looking for a leg up. Only the lower classes don’t seem to be represented here--though maybe those are the train workers who don’t get the same kind of focus, a choice that is a commentary unto itself. These distinctions channel into the themes of who needs the entertainment that Arindam provides, and who judges him for not doing more. It’s a tangle of desire, accomplishment, and remorse, with our “hero” being the only one who has lived all three--a bitter realization that he is stuck with as the train comes into the station, and the community disbands to return to their individual lives.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.