Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy ranks as one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time. Do I have to add a “to me” to that sentence? I don’t think so. Each of the three films is a feat of compassion and craft as they explore so much that makes us human. Paradoxically, because I think those three films are among the best ever made I usually don’t have high expectations for whatever Ray film I watch next. Rather than expect him to hit those heights again, I tend to think I might witness him spinning his wheels a bit. No matter how many times I’ve been proven wrong (The Music Room, The Big City, and Charulata are each magnificent), I keep my expectations low. I did this when going into his 1966 film The Hero, which The Criterion Collection released this week. The premise of the film — while on an overnight train ride a celebrity candidly addresses his own disappointments and vulnerabilities — didn’t sound particularly promising, but once again I found myself pulled in by the beauty of empathy and compassion for every one in the film — to say nothing of the beauty of the filmmaking. The Hero is another fantastic film from Ray, who, with each new film I encounter, makes his way to becoming my favorite director. You hear that Bergman?
The Hero begins at the home of a famous actor, a Bengali superstar named Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar). He’s been invited to Delhi to receive some award, and he’s decided to go accept it in person. This is a rather late decision, though, and now all of the planes are booked, so he must take the train.
What led him to leave the solitude of his home to accept an award so far away? We get the sense he wasn’t planning to go and doesn’t particularly want to go. When the newspaper arrives with a long article about a fight Arindam was involved in, we see he’s trying to escape something. That part of this escape means going to a place where he’s to be lauded suggests his insecurities. He sense of self is in danger. It has been for some time.
Real-life superstar celebrity Uttam Kumar played this role. As a matinée idol, Kumar didn’t need to do roles like this. He was certainly making plenty of money. Yet Kumar had an artistic itch that compelled him to explore characters and play against type. In The Hero, he is playing against type — he’s the tormented celebrity, exhibiting vulnerabilities and human weakness, rather than the charming, confident matinee idol. Yet he’s also playing a role that could easily be conflated to his own life story — that of a celebrity uncomfortable with his own success and unsure what it would all mean if constant fame abandoned him. Indeed, Ray said he wrote the film with Uttam Kumar in mind and that if Kumar had declined to star the film would not have been made. This would be a loss. The film is fantastic. Uttam Kumar is fantastic in it.
When Ray takes us to the train, we leave Arindam for a bit to wander in the other cars. There we meet Arindam’s fellow travelers, the other riders who come aboard with their own concerns. Though many of them recognize Arindam, refreshingly — unbelievably, given today’s culture — they do not accost him. They say hello, and they may look at him more often than they’d look at any other passenger. However, many of them, Arindam can feel, do not truly respect what he does.
Some of this disapproval comes out loud and clear. There is an old man on the train, one known even to Arindam for writing discontented letters to The Statesman, who is staunchly against the movie business, actors, and alcohol. He disapproves of Arindam instinctively. This kind of disapproval is easy for Arindam to deflect, however. The old man is obviously living in another time and culture. Others, though are a bit more difficult. Everyone who read the paper knows that Arindam was recently involved in a fight, and when he senses this disapproval it hits Arindam a bit harder. For the most part, Arindam is on a train with people who do not fully accept him and what he does, people who feel they know enough and that he is found wanting.
This is emphasized when a young journalist named Aditi Sengupta comes to him for a quick autograph. She makes sure he knows its not actually for her. Aditi, incidentally, is played by Sharmita Tagore, whom we fell in love with in the final film of The Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar.
Aditi eventually asks Arindam if he’d be so kind as to conduct an interview. She may not approve of him or of Bengali cinema (which she says is too unreal), but she does see the value he can bring to her growing newspaper, to say nothing about her own career.
And so the film truly begins and we go back and forth through Arindam’s life. Our ideas of who he is are both confirmed and proven wrong, and we get a full, complex picture of someone who is truly too complex to measure and yet, because of this, all the more real.
It’s not just an exercise in empathy, though. This often turns quite brutal in its honesty. The hero is dismantled. The dismantling actually begins in the first scene of the film. Ray first shows us the bck of Arindam’s head. Then he moves to his hands, legs, feet as he ties his shoes. He’s a striking figure. This kind of approach can work to build-up the hero; I’m thinking of the way Spielberg introduces us gradually to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as he coolly walks through the jungle and all of its dangers: we see his silhouetted back, his hands working with poison darts, a map, a whip, and it’s three minutes before we see his face. When we first see Uttam Kumar’s face, though, it’s right after a friend has criticized a recent film, and we’ll soon see that he had a violent altercation recently. He displays just the right amount of vulnerability and disdain, which he eventually covers with his sun glasses.
The Hero is a great film about a journey, and, since I brought him up in the first paragraph I may as well again, it reminded me a bit of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (which I wrote about here). While not about a celebrity, Bergman’s film is about an honored man, travelling (by car) to pick up an award. On the way he has dreams and nightmares and wonders if he really lived the best life he could.
These would make a good pairing, and I feel no pressure to evaluate them against each other. Suffice it to say that when I wrote above about it’s great to have The Hero available in such a nice edition.