Part of Satyajit Ray's glorious decade of 1960, The Hero is still striking, 50 years on, for the audacious, clear-eyed modernity of its plot and approach, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of European art cinema's more influential works, with whom it shares thematic links: Federico Fellini's meta-textual fantasy 8 1/2 and Ingmar Bergman's melancholy Wild Strawberries.
Set almost entirely in the cramped confines of train carriages during an overnight train journey, The Hero is a thoughtful meditation on life and stage, being and appearing, through the eyes of a man pondering where he is and where he wants to go next. Film star Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) is en route to receive an award, hot on the heels of a minor publicity scandal (a night club altercation with the husband of his current flirt) and a less successful starring role. Cleverly using the limitations of his chosen setting, Mr. Ray moves the tale simultaneously in two opposite directions: forward with the train's movement, into an unknown future where nothing is granted, and backwards as Arindam remembers the path he took from idealistic stage actor to fully-fledged film star while being interviewed by a feisty journalist (Sharmila Tagore).
legant as the motif and its realisation are, there is some rigidity in the back-and-forth cutting, though not enough to mar the remarkable layering of plot and subtext; confirming himself a superlative actors' director, Mr. Ray pulls excellent performances from both Mr. Kumar and Ms. Tagore, especially in the long sequences where the actor's glamorous armour is pierced by the degree of empathy the journalist manages to find with him. The film's key theme of identity and image is exquisitely breached in their conversations, set on a level entirely separate from everyone else on the train; while most are constantly judging Arindam for who they think he is, or for the image that he has allowed others to build, she makes an effort to look beyond that image, even though the actor knows very well what is expected and required of him, and as such torn between playing up to it or renege on it and everything it has helped him achieve.
It's not entirely implausible that Mr. Ray may be obliquely talking of himself - but, ultimately, his vignette offers no easy solutions or way out, while posing the questions with such elegance and adroitness that The Hero's occasional heavy-handed longueurs are easily forgiven and forgotten.
Cast Uttam Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Bireswar Sen, Somen Bose, Nirmal Ghosh, Premang Shu Bose, Sumita Sanyal, Ranjit Sen
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); art director Bansi Chandragupta; editors Dulal Dutta and Mr. Ray; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 18th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)