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Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Hero’ Revisited

Uttam Kumar as Arindam Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s The Hero, 1966

It was 1974 and I was a teenager on holiday from my English boarding school, meeting cousins, uncles, and my parents’ ancestral homeland for the first time. The monsoons were heavy that year, but I suddenly found myself rattling all around India—Bombay to Secunderabad, and thence to Bangalore and Madras and Ahmedabad, and finally to Delhi—on never-ending overnight trains. Vendors selling tea clamored around the compartment windows, eager to pass tiny clay cups to passengers; old men sat lecturing everyone on any topic under the sun; the waiter in the dining car assured us, not without obsequiousness, that there was no tea, no coffee, nothing to be had but Coca-Cola.

That curious mix of civility and cacophony came back to me joltingly as I watched the film that Satyajit Ray had made just eight years before my visit, Nayak, or The Hero. In it, Ray sends a handsome star of the silver screen from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a prize. As soon as he boards the train, the professional heartthrob, named Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), finds himself, by turns, released from his public role and obliged to play it constantly. Everyone recognizes him, sighing over his legend, yet as soon as he’s alone, he’s overcome by memories and dreams that move him to ask himself whether he made the right choice in deciding to become a commercial icon.

For Ray, after a series of films widely acclaimed across the world—and as different as possible from the madcap escapism and song-and-dance routines of Bollywood—The Hero was a chance to meditate on the nature of role-playing, to reflect on the costs of make-believe, and to address perhaps the dominant theme of his middle period, the place of conscience. He had already expressed an eagerness to reach a wider audience, and here he begins to stitch glamor and introspection together into something at once soul-searching and fast-moving. The Hero—only Ray’s second original screenplay, after Kanchenjungha, four years earlier—deepens the central questions of the film he’d made one year before, Kapurush. In that story, a screenwriter confronts a lingering failure of nerve when he re-encounters the old flame he was once too weak to marry. Now, right after a film whose name means “The Coward,” Ray made one whose title, The Hero, carries any number of levels of irony.

In certain ways, The Hero fits the pattern of much of Ray’s earlier work: as ever, the onetime commercial artist, then forty-five, wrote the script, outlined every scene in a red notebook, and composed, or helped to compose, the music. Yet as soon as you hear the broad, almost bombastic chords under the opening credits, you know you’re in for something very different from the world evoked by Ravi Shankar’s fast-flowing sitar in the Apu Trilogy.

Ray is cherished for being a director very much of his place; nearly all his films are set in Bengal, usually around his native Calcutta, where he spent almost his entire life, often in a cluttered apartment without air-conditioning. Yet The Hero is distinctly of its time, as well. The Philips electric shaver in the opening scene—a novelty, surely, in the mid-1960s—tells us something about the cosmopolitan world that its central figure, the larger-than-life movie star, inhabits. Very soon, we’re in a thicket of Mad Men details, from a BOAC bag in the background to a reference to cocaine. Echoes of Federico Fellini’s are everywhere—Uttam Kumar even looks like an Indian Marcello Mastroianni with his blend of debonair, sulky good looks and rumpled vulnerability.

The film is anchored at every moment in Kumar’s performance, and to me it’s an astonishment. Everything about his soft hands as the film begins, his designer socks in two-tone shoes, his baby-faced insouciance, gives us a sense of spoiled entitlement; here is a man who thinks nothing of decorating his home with large, framed glossies of himself. Yet the beauty of Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee is that he has the capacity to surprise us, again and again. He can be witty and charming and kind. As Ray and Kumar push beneath the leading man’s smooth surfaces, we expect, perhaps, demons and sleepless nights; but we may not be prepared for such grace. The professional hero, after boarding the train, helps an old man open a bottle and is patient with an elderly scold who dislikes all “talkies”; he even uses a glossy picture of himself as an instrument of compassion to heal an ailing child. Maybe because she’s the rare soul who doesn’t need him to be anything other than what he is.

As the film settles into the protected sphere that is the train to the capital—a neighborhood on the move, in effect, as well as a rolling therapist’s couch and a rare chance for a fantasy figure to try to come to terms with inner realities—we realize that what follows will be, in part, an essay on projection. Everyone has some idea of who Arindam Mukherjee is: he’s a “modern-day Krishna,” in the view of one smitten woman, observing him in the dining car; too “god-like,” according to her friend, the high-minded editor of Modern Woman magazine. Others are no less convinced—since they’ve read the papers—that he must be the Devil. Yet the power of Kumar’s performance, which changes with every tremor, is that he can inhabit the movie star and the real man in the same shot; he knows just how to give the world the eponymous hero it demands—and perhaps needs—even as he is never slow to slough off his mask and claim a richer humanity.

Ray’s way with close-ups is as powerful as ever, whether in the confounding tears of an ambitious would-be actress or in the warm, enquiring glances of sari-clad matrons. When Sharmila Tagore, playing the disapproving editor, takes off her glasses at last, she, too, turns into someone beautiful and sympathetic and undefended; we can see why Mukherjee senses that she may be more real as a leading lady than as the woman she presents to the world. “I have a feeling that the really crucial moments in a film should be wordless,” Ray said of his great film Charulata two years earlier; and just before Mukherjee falls into his first dream, we’re given almost two minutes of shots without speech that show us everything we need of innocence and experience, in the eyes of a young girl who’s running a fever, in the self-satisfied preening of a silent figure who turns out to be a publicity-hungry guru.

Sharmila Tagore as Aditi in The Hero, 1966

To dramatize his most urgent concern—how much to make art and how much to create something that will relieve the plight of millions—Ray cast as his leading man in this film about the agonies of leading men the most celebrated matinée idol in the history of Bengali cinema, who appeared in more than two hundred movies before his death at fifty-four. Uttam Kumar was such a titanic figure that traffic stopped across Calcutta when he died in 1980; both a street and a subway station in that city are named after him. One of the film’s troubled themes is whether “a film star is nothing but a puppet,” as the hero’s theatrical mentor has told his young protégé. Yet as Kumar reflects on that, Ray is also addressing how much a director is—or should be—an instrument of the audience’s needs. And how much, perhaps, he ought to woo that audience by including in his cast a two-dimensional dream-figure in shades. 

Meanwhile, the train, in which nearly all the action takes place, is a hive of designs. The compartments frame a latticework of plots as intricate as anything in Graham Greene’s novel Stamboul Train. Almost everyone has a scheme and almost every character, in this film about acting, is more than ready to pretend to be something that he or she is not. A young woman wonders how much she should offer of herself to a predatory stranger, in compliance with her husband’s pleas. An editor muses on whether to abandon her moral high ground. Everyone, essentially, is reflecting back the movie star’s concern about how much selling yourself to the Devil may, in fact, be the right and selfless thing to do, if it can offer those who are suffering a respite from their plight.

The result is a festival of ironies. When figures begin gathering outside the movie star’s window, he knows exactly how to give them what they want; it’s the tut-tutting editor—an emissary from real life—who’s sent into a frenzy and longs to screen herself from their need. Even as the privileged-seeming star wrestles with his angels, nearly everyone around him sees him as a way to advance their own less-than-exalted interests.

At some level, The Hero unfolds like a characteristically sinuous response to the critics (or the inner critic) who regularly asked Ray whether he should not be entertaining viewers rather than exploring their predicaments. When we watch a scene in which Mukherjee’s friend urges him to become more involved in the cause of workers, we can imagine how many argumentative Indians assaulted Ray for being too detached, too refined, too committed to nuances beyond the reach of the common man. And when one chess-player on the make says, “How many people here appreciate fine things?” one can almost hear the exasperated tones of a patrician-seeming artist, constantly being asked why he’s making films for New York and Cannes when the man down the road in Calcutta is in such a desperate state.

From The Hero, 1966

Satyajit Ray would never be a slick commercial filmmaker, but throughout The Hero, he keeps the wheels of his story turning even as such questions revolve in his characters’ heads. And no detail is extraneous. As one aging curmudgeon admits to a love for How Green Was My Valley and another boasts of his trips to America, we’re reminded that, in its first generation after independence, India was constantly wondering how much to call on its own traditions and how much to become part of the global order. When Mukherjee speaks for the mumbled realism of Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart—over the rhetorical declamations of Laurence Olivier—Ray seems to be making his own declaration of independence from the cherished imperial forms.

In almost every shot, Ray picks away at our easy assumptions, and Kumar embodies just what a star should be, as Ray would put it in 1971: “a person on the screen who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything.” The flashback scenes that keep breaking up The Hero are often abrupt and pull us out of what could be an even more intimate and direct unraveling of poses; it can seem jarring that a filmmaker of Ray’s originality would stoop to dream-sequences about being buried under quicksands of cash or references to companies called Fortune Films. Yet, as we learn that the leading man is an orphan, no stranger to carrying funeral biers, we come to see, ever more painfully, how by succeeding in his art, he can feel he’s failing at some deeper level.

In the end, what distinguishes the art-house film from the would-be blockbuster is that the former is more ready to risk failure. As the movie star in The Hero keeps talking about “my box office” and how much he needs to preserve his image, we see Ray cross-examining big-time movie stars and his own, sometimes over-scrupulous art in the very same frame. That The Hero isn’t as seamless and single-pointed as the Apu Trilogy is part of what makes it so affecting, and enduring. The sign of a master is that he deals in questions, not resolutions; that he pulls us away from the payoffs of plot and into the maze of unsettled enquiry.

Adapted from a text for The Criterion Collection’s DVD of The Hero, released on February 20.