The Hero (1966) (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 2.20.2018)
Offering further evidence of Satyajit Ray's place as one of the essential modernist auteurs of the fifties and sixties, The Hero plays like a compendium of European art cinema tendencies from that period. In telling the story of successful actor Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) and his struggles with self doubt, regret, and uncertainty about the future, Ray channels the artist-in-crisis from Fellini's 8 1/2, the dream imagery from Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and the middle-aged alienation from Antonioni's La notte. As always, his varied interests find unity in his distinctive brand of humanism, which seems to be the aspect of his cinema that most resonates with director Wes Anderson. That's particularly relevant in this case, as The Hero is the film most strongly evoked by Anderson's Ray tribute, The Darjeeling Limited, another movie about angst-filled men in crisis, indulging in drugs and extreme introspection on board an Indian train. But where Anderson's film is a triumph of stylized digression, Ray's is a focussed examination of compromise and the struggle to reconcile public perception with personal experience.
This conflict is at the core of the film's ironic title. While much of the world outside the train seems to regard Arindam as a kind of hero, the woman interviewing him (Sharmila Tagore's Aditi) gets to experience the more fragile, fearful, and wounded man beneath the surface. Her wide-ranging conversations with Arindam give the film its unconventional flashback structure, one that allows an otherwise restricted time frame to broaden in scope. In an era of countless introspective podcasts, the overlap between therapy and celebrity interview is widely understood, but Ray discovered (and dramatized) this decades earlier. Flashbacks this frequent and sprawling -- one of them spans roughly five years -- would be considered indulgent in most cinematic contexts, but the flashbacks here are clearly motivated by the interview, and they allow Ray to present an unusually detailed portrait of one man's memory, as it guides (and complicates) his path forward.
Yet another welcome Ray release from The Criterion Collection -- previous Blu-rays include The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room, The Big City, and Charulata -- The Hero includes a booklet with an essay by author Pico Iyer and Ray's 1980 tribute to Kumar, an interview with film scholar Meheli Sen, and an interview with Tagore from 2008. In the latter, the actress explains that she met Ray as a 13-year-old, and he went on to act as both mentor and father figure. She praises Ray for bringing a new naturalism to Indian cinema and shares the surprising reason she wears glasses in The Hero: she didn't look old enough for the role.
The interview with Sen offers a more analytical consideration of the film, elaborating on its debt to Fellini, its place in Ray's evolution from classicism to experimentation, and its commentary on the state of the arts in 1966. She also explains that Kumar was Bengali cinema's biggest star at the time and the film was a conscious demystification of his stature. But as Ray's written tribute to Kumar makes clear, he wasn't altogether comfortable bringing his star down to earth, which may explain why Aditi is reluctant to learn Arindam's darkest secrets. Like Ray, she wants to expose the truth, but she can't deny the allure of myth. -- Jonathan Doyle