With a few exceptions, the works of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray have been difficult to track down on home video, so here we celebrate the video debut of his 1966 The Hero (Nayak) in a gloriously clear 2K digital restoration, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
As Indian film scholar Meheli Sen points out in a bonus interview, The Hero is Ray's answer to Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), that film about the existential crisis of a film director. There's been a whole subgenre of "8 1/2" movies since then, not to mention a few precursors like Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1942). In Ray's film, the existential crisis isn't quite experienced by a filmmaker but rather by the biggest Bengali film star in the country -- as played by the biggest Bengali film star in the country, Uttam Kumar. As with the hero of Fellini's film, his most distinctive feature is the heavy black reflective shades he dons in public.
As movie star Arindam Mukherjee boards a train to Delhi to pick up a film prize, the stares he receives from everyone on the platform, as shot on location at the train station in semi-documentary fashion, are the unrehearsed stares from people who recognize Uttam Kumar. When he passes from the outside world into the train, he enters the world of a studio train film, shot brilliantly on meticulous claustrophobic sets with seamless rear projection of the countryside flashing by outside the windows.
As Pico Iyer points out in thoughtful liner notes, this film shows who's inside those mournfully whistling trains that rush past the poor children in Ray's Apu trilogy. We enter a world of stratified passengers, primarily upper-class travelers who can afford sleeping cars, plus those in the "chair car" who can't quite afford that, and the railroad employees who serve them.
Sharmila Tagore, who worked often with Ray since The World of Apu (1959), here plays Miss Sengupta in sari and heavy black spectacles, so both main characters are defined primarily by their eyewear and how it disguises them or helps them see, or perhaps impedes their vision. She edits a struggling magazine called Modern Woman and realizes that an interview with the nation's heart-throb would do wonders for sales. Although it goes against her vision of the magazine to indulge in puffy film-gossip pieces, she approaches Arindam, doing little to hide her biases. Sizing each other up, they become more or less the only two passengers on the train who can be honest with each other.
Over the course of the journey, he will open up to her about his career via carefully chiseled flashbacks to his mentors: a disapproving theatre director who disparages film acting, the waning film star of an older generation, and a former friend who tries to exploit his connection for political purposes by promising demonstrators that a film star would speak to them. As in Fellini's film, the hero also has deliciously surreal nightmares of obvious symbolism -- skeletons under piles of money, a nightclub in a spectral forest -- and these seem to give Ray and photographer Subrata Mitra special chiaroscuro joy.
Everyone on the train knows that Arindam has just been involved in a scandalous nightclub brawl with the husband of a woman who'd been vamping him for an entry into a film career, and his flashbacks explain some of this. The other passengers reflect disapproval, adoration or both, and sometimes indifference. They too have their dramas.
The most pressing mini-drama is another case of exploitation and transaction, as an advertising executive (Kamu Mukherjee) prepares to use his decorative young wife (Susmita Mukherjee) to land a client. Her sense of hurt at realizing how her husband thinks she can "help" him makes me think Ray may also be channeling Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963). This young woman, too, would like to be in movies -- as would everyone. When she approaches Arindam on the subject, we've already learned she belongs to a long line of similar requests, all blurring into each other.
This impulse to be in pictures, to exploit others until one becomes eminently exploitable, to pass into a make-believe world or admire those who float in it, is one of the film's primary themes. Although Ray presents it implicitly as a sign of spiritual emptiness, the "moral" alternatives provided by respectable people who berate film stars, like the theatre director or the old conservative male passenger, don't make them seem like more enlightened people.
Ray's scenes feel completely natural yet are written with such revealing details that issues flash into sharp focus before folding into the next. Taking many forms is the theme of modernism, as the young actor realizes his "Brando" style of "mumbling" is better than the old-fashioned declamations of the fading star, or as everyone hustles their particular wares, from Modern Woman (magazine and concept) to self-help religion to political organization to movie fantasies to the two-penny wretches who clamor at the train windows.
Ray's even-handedness doesn't allow anyone to be dismissed or sanctified, and we continually realize that an individual's value is formed in the moment, according to the perceptions of those around him or her. Therefore, a film star is probably as valid a Rorschach blot as any other pressing issue.
If the film is in dialogue with Indian film history and with contemporary European art cinema, it can't help contributing in turn to the film history that succeeds it. One minor if telling element is the brief scene invoking Kolkata's annual festival to the goddess Durga. This tradition unwittingly kills a character and leads to cremation. Those who follow Indian cinema will take many associations from this, such as the brilliant 2012 thriller Kahaani, set during the same festival.
Meheli Sen's interview offers pertinent observations, and Sharmila Tagore's interview gives a personal take on the filmmaker and the star. The Hero is an example of 60s-era showmanship, both sleek and deep, moving too lightly and quickly to be glum. We hope its presence signals many more Ray restorations on the horizon.