The Hero Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Long Train Ride into the Soul of an Artist

A movie star reflects on his life and the compromises he made to get there.
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Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), an enormously famous movie star, boards an overnight train from Calcutta to Delhi to receive a national award. There, he meets an interesting cast of characters including Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), a young journalist who edits a modern women’s magazine.  She is contemptuous towards egotistical movie stars like him, but decides to secretly interview him as an expose to draw in readers. She wanders over to him in the dining car pretending to want an autograph for her niece and because she’s pretty and the journey is long, he begins talking to her freely.  Over the course of the long night, he opens up to her, and through a series of flashbacks we see his life, his journey from theatrical actor to movie star and all the compromises he made to get there.

His career began as a serious actor in a theatrical troupe.  His mentor (Somen Bose) advised against making movies as he believed no real acting could take place on a set.  On his first film set, he meets an elderly star who is incredibly rude, but Arindam already has the ego to recognize his style of acting is on its way out.  He also tells of his early days with his activist friend.  Before he became a star, he used to ride around with him going to rallies as a friend to the people.  Later, when his friend shows up after many years absence and asked to be driven to another political rally, Arindam refuses because it might hurt his career. As the train moves on, Arindam details to Ms. Sengupta more and more of his personal failures.  The bright, beautiful sheen of the star, the hero of all of those movies, begins to drop and the real, frail, and lonely human begins to appear.

Interposed between these scenes are the lives of others on the train.  These are short scenes, sketches really but nonetheless, effective giving intimate glimpses into their lives.  There is a yogi interested in having the advertising man represent him.  The ad man wants to use his pretty daughter to convince the movie star to appear in a commercial.  The daughter has her own dreams of making it into movies.

The Hero (or Nayak) was the 15th film directed by famed Indian Satayjit Ray and only the second for which he had written the screenplay. I don’t know if any of the events are based upon his life but it has a very autobiographical feel to it.  Certainly Ray knew what it meant to be famous (they say when he died traffic in Calcutta came to a complete stand still) and the questions the film raises about art and commercialism, compromise and integrity, are themes he would have contemplated in his own life.

It is naturally composed and beautifully shot.  The shots on the train are intentionally confining but there is some lovely scenery out the windows and the flas back sequences are opened up and interestingly composed.  The story has an introspective quality and those questions about what we are willing to give up to become successful still resonate today.  I have to admit that while I appreciated its artistry I did find it to be a little on the dull side.  Part of this is cultural.  While Uttam Kumar was a huge star in his homeland, I’ve never heard of him and so the impact of him playing a movie star is lessened from my perspective.

Criterion has given The Hero a newly restored 2K digital transfer with an uncompressed mono soundtrack.  It looks and sounds wonderful.  It is bright and crisp with terrific contrast and some good depth.  The audio is intentionally a little flat and certainly this film isn’t going to give your system any kind of workout, but the dialogue was clear and the music came in fine.

Extras include an interview with Sharmila Tagore who intimately discusses her work alongside Ray. There is an in-depth discussion with film scholar Merely Sen about the film and a nice color booklet with an easy on the film and a tribute to Uttam Kumar by Satyajit Ray.

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