Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film The Hero is a slyly self-reflexive commentary on contemporaneous Bengali filmmaking—both commercially popular films as well as his own more modest style of “parallel cinema”—couched in ever-shifting layers of irony and moral complexity. Those qualities extend to the film’s very title, which not only suggests the almost godlike proficiency of the leading man in a Bollywood production (a trait that comes under Ray’s scrutiny), but also serves as a matter-of-fact job description in moviemaking parlance. And it’s precisely that industrial, supply-and-demand aspect of film production that’s on the minds of several characters in The Hero.
To further suggest that the figure of this matinee idol is little more than a fabricated object, Ray elects not to show us the man in full for the first couple minutes of the film. We only glimpse parts of the man’s body as he puts himself together: combing his hair, tying his shoes, and counting out a thick wad of pocket money. The final reveal of Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) almost offhandedly collides with the editing rhythm of the sequence. And the shot composition both emulates and subtly parodies one of the glossy headshots that adorn Arindam’s swanky apartment.
The Hero‘s central conceit is simplicity itself: Shadowed by news reports of a very public imbroglio, Arindam travels via overnight train from Kolkata to Delhi to receive a prestigious acting award. But the narrative structure is unlike anything Ray had attempted before: Seeded with numerous flashbacks, as well as two legitimately surreal dream sequences, the storyline functions to peel back the outermost layers of the hero’s persona to reveal the existential dread and all-too-human insecurities that lie beneath. Further enriching this nested puzzle box of a film are the concisely outlined character sketches of Arindam’s fellow passengers that Ray fills in along the way.
In the central relationship between Arindam and aspiring journalist Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), the film plays out like an intriguing companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Ray doesn’t push this couple in an overtly romantic direction, though that possibility is floated at one point by Arindam. A symbolically multivalent shot late in the film—train tracks glinting in the moonlight, separating and conjoining in rapid succession—certainly suggests, at least on one level, the possibilities available to these two very different people. In one of the film’s lesser ironies, it seems that Arindam can envision a future between them only if Aditi is willing “to get into films,” a nicely open-ended way of phrasing that prospect.
Aditi is a catalyst, of course, prompting Arindam to open up about the highs and lows of his career. But she’s also precisely situated within an economic and sociopolitical milieu: She’s traveling in the “chair car,” a less expensive alternative to the four-bunk private compartments that many of the film’s other characters share. The magazine she represents (indeed embodies) is called Modern Woman, and initially Aditi has little interest in Arindam as suitable fodder. Circulation woes for print media being what they were even then, however, she’s eventually enticed to approach the star.
Ray isn’t afraid to baldly state his theses on the state of filmmaking in Bengal and other topics. But the filmmaker also has the canny ability to find an appropriate vehicle for the message, shading the motivations of the speaker with the proper degree of irony and, often enough, a purely personal agenda. In this regard, Ray clearly gleaned some profound moral lessons from his idol and mentor, Jean Renoir, whose own character in The Rules of the Game famously says at one point: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Of all the main characters in The Hero, only Aditi seems capable of a purely selfless gesture, when she decides to tear up the text of her interview with Arindam. Then again, the actor had already sardonically cast her as “the voice of conscience…in a village play.”
Arindam ultimately comes to an admittedly rather drunken dark night of the soul, finally acknowledging that emptiness in the midst of his existential excess that Aditi had detected on first meeting him. On the platform of the caboose, he seems hypnotized by those receding tracks glimmering in the moonshine, as though watching his past slowly unreel into its own vanishing point. The length of the shot—and the look on the actor’s face—suggests the very real possibility that he’s contemplating some rash act of self-destruction. But, in keeping with Ray’s policy of moral uncertainty, we’ll never know for sure. Just as The Hero leaves entirely open, in that final shot of a garlanded Arindam facing a swarm of press and paparazzi, whether or not his brief encounter with Aditi has left him a changed man.
Cinematographer Subrata Mitra gives The Hero's train-set scenes a documentary-style unobtrusiveness, whereas he tends to model the flashbacks and dream sequences in moody monochrome chiaroscuro. The 2K restoration looks terrific, with solid black levels, and well-resolved grain. Sound, though, is a bit thin: The mono track has one or two dips in overall loudness as well as some occasional hiss—probably inherent in the source materials, owing to budgetary restrictions. The score that Ray composed for the film, mostly brash orchestral cues, with more traditional instrumentation worked in when suitably evocative, is supported reasonably well.
In an interview from 2008, actress Sharmila Tagore talks about her working relationship with Satyajit Ray, which began with the role of the ill-fated love interest in 1960’s The World of Apu. Tagore emphasizes the differences between the overtly theatrical acting style in mainstream Bollywood films and Ray’s desire to achieve a more natural technique. In her excellent analytic overview of The Hero, film scholar Meheli Sen touches on the reflexive nature of the film, its pivotal place within Ray’s body of works, the important symbolic freight represented by trains in Ray’s filmography, the career of real-life "matinee idol" Uttam Kumar, and Ray’s nuanced presentation of this film’s secondary characters. Lastly, there’s an illustrated booklet containing an illuminating essay from Pico Iyer on the tension between depths and surfaces throughout The Hero, and a touching testimonial from Ray written on the occasion of Kumar’s passing in 1980.
Satyajit Ray’s ironic and morally complex examination of the sometimes vast gulf between life and art reaches its final destination in the Criterion Collection with a gorgeous transfer and some choice supplements.