In the mid-1960s, the Bengali director Mrinal Sen reportedly accused his contemporary Satyajit Ray of selling out. “Mrinal said—now he has sunk to the level of using a matinee idol!” Ray would later laugh to his biographer, Andrew Robinson. The star in question was Uttam Kumar, whom Ray handpicked for the title role of The Hero (1966).
Steeped in the world of commercial Bengali cinema, Kumar represented a departure from Ray’s art-house sensibilities, at least on paper. He was no boy plucked from anonymity, as Subir Banerjee of Pather Panchali (1955) had been, nor was he a novice being given a big break, like Soumitra Chatterjee of Apur Sansar (1959). Kumar, indisputably the leading male performer of Bengali cinema at the time, was an actor who spoke to the masses.
To Ray, Kumar was the only actor suited to play the role of megastar Arindam Mukherjee. The Hero, drawn from Ray’s original screenplay, follows Arindam as he journeys from Kolkata to Delhi on an overnight train to accept a prestigious film award. He is doing so on the heels of a potentially career-imploding scandal: a recent drunken brawl with a man has made the papers. Arindam unravels on that train ride, confronting the personal demons that the public doesn’t see.
Throughout his career, Ray brought his empathetic eye to a wide gallery of characters, including a village girl mistaken for a goddess (Devi) and a married working woman in Kolkata (The Big City). A movie star was no less worthy a subject for him. With The Hero, he was hoping to interrogate the mechanics of fame: what goes on in the minds of performers who seem superhuman, and what draws audiences to them. When writing the screenplay, Ray constructed Arindam from his impressions of Kumar. The actor fascinated him. Ray had been keeping tabs on him for over a decade. In that early period of Kumar’s career, he was still feeling his way through commercial cinema in both smaller and starring roles. Ray found him to be “very bad” in those days, as he told Robinson. That was before Kumar found success in the 1950s and ’60s. Fame, Ray thought, uncorked Kumar’s gifts as a performer.
Ray was right. As he grew older, Kumar blossomed into a fluid and passionate actor. His soft, forgiving face could convey shifts in emotional registers at astonishing speed. Kumar’s smile may have been his most effective weapon. “If Uttam Kumar committed a crime and then he gave that smile, I was ready to believe he was innocent,” Chatterjee, a frequent Ray collaborator after Apur Sansar, reportedly once declared.
Kumar would reign over Bengali cinema until his sudden death from a stroke in 1980. He was just fifty-three. His funeral processions congested the streets of Kolkata. That he died early and unexpectedly has done a great deal to cement his status as a legend. Train stations and thoroughfares in West Bengal bear his name; his life inspired a Bengali television serial, Mahanayak (2016). Few would dispute his gifts as an actor today. One can point to a number of his performances as displays of his unique blend of charisma and craft.
But The Hero put Kumar’s talents on fuller view than any of his previous films, as if Ray saw a side of Kumar other directors couldn’t. Before The Hero, Kumar performed well in films that were hamstrung by their commercial limitations, leaving little room for psychological depth. Ray’s script for The Hero gave Kumar richer material to mine. Through their collaboration, Kumar and Ray eliminate the seeming tension between their respective mainstream and art-house approaches. The film offers a comment on how commercialism breeds discontent and how the pressures of popular cinema can corrupt a person. Kumar shows just how much fame has allowed Arindam’s inner turmoil to fester.
The performance works, in part, because the role of Arindam winks at Kumar’s public persona. Filming The Hero continually confirmed the extent of Kumar’s fame: during the filming of one scene in Kolkata’s Howrah railway station, thousands of people allegedly came to catch a glimpse of their hero, nearly interfering with the crew’s ability to shoot.
Reducing Kumar’s performance to his star image, though, does a disservice to his skills. A lissome actor, Kumar infuses each gesture—the lighting of a cigarette, the signing of an autograph—with a romantic quality. Even Ray himself was surprised by Kumar’s choices. “They were so spontaneous that it seemed he produced these out of his sleeve,” Ray wrote in an obituary. “If there was any cogitation involved, he never spoke about it.”
Some viewers, particularly non-Bengali ones, may read Kumar’s lithe body language as feminine. Robinson, for example, deemed him “insufficiently masculine” to convince as a matinee idol. Kumar’s gentleness, however, was a key element of his appeal for Bengali audiences. He also used this quality wisely as a performer.
Kumar’s grace is evident from the opening scene. He enters the movie with a sense of hauteur. As Arindam readies himself for his train ride, Kumar firmly establishes Arindam’s cavalier attitude toward fame. He shuns prestige and public affection in equal measure. “I don’t give a damn about the prize,” he says to his assistant at one point. “Damned public! So fickle,” he grumbles shortly after.
In Kumar’s delicate hands, though, Arindam’s self-involvement seems sympathetic rather than repellent. Everything Arindam says in this scene, as written, suggests an insufferably gruff movie star. But Kumar’s charm overrides his character’s arrogance. His assistant tells him that he needs that so-called “damned public.” What would he eat without them? “Boiled fish and rice,” Arindam responds, laughing. Kumar’s quick chuckle to himself is so disarming that it’s easy to understand why the public is so smitten with him.
Moments later, Arindam initially brushes off the trouble that has arisen from his altercation, doubting it’ll pose any threat to his stardom. He can’t escape that news easily, though. The fight is the talk of most of his fellow passengers. That a movie star would ride in a train car with commoners is treated as an unusual occurrence; when he walks through the car, passengers’ eyes trail him. Some regard him as a deity among plebeians, others as a symbol of the moral decay of the movies. Arindam shares a compartment with a couple and their teenage daughter, and the father is horrified that the train crew would assign a star in the midst of a scandal to the same room as a family. Meanwhile, the mother doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Arindam riding with them, reasoning that he’s on his way to receive an award.
In fact, most of the women on the train are besotted with the actor. But there’s one exception: Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore, an abiding presence in Ray’s cinema), a writer for a woman’s magazine. Her train companions encourage her to interview Arindam. She’s a serious journalist, though. Covering a populist medium like film seems beneath her. Still, Arindam’s torment draws Aditi to him. She begins jotting down notes for a potential story.
The two characters can see right through each other. He asks her if she might consider going into movies, while she wonders if he’s happy in that station of fame in spite of its attendant miseries. There are a few scenes that involve a tête-à-tête between Arindam and Aditi, and they form the crux of the movie. Some of these exchanges take on the weight of psychiatric sessions, while others hum with light flirtation. “Do you know anything about dreams?” Arindam asks Aditi at one point. She responds that whatever is swimming around in someone’s subconscious often materializes in dreams, prompting him to tell her about a particularly discomforting one he’s had recently. In another moment, Aditi takes off the thick-rimmed glasses that hide her face. Arindam, stunned, compliments her on her beauty, only for Aditi to hurriedly put them back on in a fit of embarrassment. In these scenes, Kumar’s openness and ease work off Tagore’s diffidence beautifully.
Beyond these illuminating moments between Kumar and Tagore, Ray floods the film with flashbacks. Kumar inhabits different stages of Arindam’s maturation persuasively: as a stage performer, a budding film actor facing a camera for the first time, and a hotshot hero who can’t be bothered.
When Arindam retreats back to his compartment to doze off and nap, the viewer sees some of those dreams that uncover the actor’s anxieties. Perhaps all the hurt he’s caused people will boomerang back at him. In one nightmare, he wanders giddily through a wonderland made from wads of cash, only for the money beneath him to turn into quicksand that swallows him whole. Another depicts him walking through a dark expanse as the married costar he’s romanced, Promila (Sumita Sanyal), calls his name. Arindam then comes face to face with her husband—the same man he’s gotten into the much-publicized scuffle with in real life. The man calls Arindam a scoundrel. Arindam responds by punching him in the face.
For a good chunk of the film, Ray confines this psychological disquiet to these macabre fantasy sequences. The tension between Arindam’s pride and insecurity always seems to be lurking beneath the surface of his skin. Then, within the final half hour of the film, the tone shifts: Arindam retreats to his compartment away from Aditi once night falls and drinks an entire bottle of wine. The stakes of the film become higher. Arindam’s conscience begins to gnaw at him. Standing at the edge of the train car, he seems to contemplate suicide. Before he can act on his impulses, though, Arindam asks to speak to Aditi.
During this moment, Kumar’s outpouring of dread and disgust is so touching that one wonders how Arindam will wake up in the morning and face another movie camera again. Scenes before this suggest a man who would never forfeit his celebrity because of the luxuries it brings him. But here, Kumar brings the film’s subtext to the fore, showing that Arindam is lonely and terrified. This self-satisfied matinee idol has a soul. The scene doubles as a statement on Kumar’s stardom: if anyone were to dismiss him as a performer who coasted on his charms, the urgency he brings to this scene would quiet any doubts about his capacity for depth. Here, Kumar exposes the beating, bruised heart within a star who seems larger than life.