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25 January 2021

Nayak (1966)

Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Music: Satyajit Ray
Starring: Uttam Kumar, Sharmila Tagore,  
Bireswar Sen, Soumen Bose
There are plenty of films I watch based not on who is acting in them, but on who directed them. Satyajit Ray is one such director. So, when my husband ordered Nayak from the Criterion Collection, I sat back happily enough. I’d a vague recollection of the film, having watched it as part of a Ray retrospective held by a local film club. But it’s been years and I was quite willing to reacquaint myself with it.

Nayak, or ‘hero’’, is the tale of a super star, Arindam Mukherji (Uttam Kumar). And when the film begins, we are privy to two pieces of news – one, that he’s the recipient of a very prestigious award. Two, he was involved in a brawl involving a woman. To his adoring public, he’s their hero, one whose image will face nary a smear whatever others say. To his critics, the second headline validates their opinions of actors, especially those in films, as people of loose morals and intemperate behaviour.

Unable to get a ticket on a flight to Delhi where he’s to receive the award, Arindam decides to take the train. Once he enters the train, he’s both a common man and a public figure, the dichotomy of which is delicately explored over the next 120 minutes.

Kumar’s Arindam is a man of many faces – if he has, in the past, taken petty revenge on a senior actor who humiliated him on his first day on sets, he is remarkably compassionate to an old stranger on the train who hates the movies. If he has let down an old friend because his image would have taken a beating to grant his friend’s request, he’s genuinely kind to the ailing young teenage fan on the upper berth.

 Satyajit Ray has used a journey as a metaphor for life both before and after Nayak. Here, he teases out a character study of the titular character, a man who is well-known to millions, but whose real persona is unknown to everyone. Sometimes it appears that even Arindam has forgotten – or chosen to forget.

From what Ray said about Nayak, one of only two of his films that were made from original scripts (not adaptations), he wanted to explore the psychology of a movie star as well as that of the fans who place the star on a pedestal.

To that end, he uses Aditi, Sharmila Tagore’s character, as his instrument to probe the veil and peel away the layers until both she and the subject are revealed to our gaze. In her questioning, she reveals herself – just as his reluctant answers (initially) begin to reveal who he really is. As the hours pass, the professional walls between journalist and actor fall. The conversation becomes less of an interview and more of a confessional, as Arindam divulges his fears and insecurities, the narrative segueing into flashbacks, and even a fantastical dream sequence.

The bond between the two, forged as much by the closed confines of a railway compartment as by their shared conversation, is tenuous yet real. At journey’s end, she moves on, while he’s engulfed in the life that has given him fame and riches but left him hollowed. Yet, she’s offered him something precious – in the few hours they spent together, she’s given him the gift of genuine human contact, and a willing ear, asking nothing in return.

Ray uses silences just as much as he uses dialogues and often monologues, to lead us into his characters’ lives. When Aditi removes her glasses, you sense just as much as you see that her estimation of Arindam is changing. (She is embarrassed when a visibly-stunned Arindam compliments her on her beauty and says she should be in films.)

When Arindam wakes up sweating from a nightmare, you see him slowly readjusting his glance from the darkness beyond to the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows. His gaze is inward; but he’s gazed upon with different reactions from his co-passengers – a wide-eyed curiosity from the child, and puzzled compassion from her mother.  

Uttam Kumar is brilliant as titular hero. There’s a sense of ‘meta’ about his casting – Kumar was at the peak of his career in Bengali films then.  And so, we are left to speculate whether reel reflected real or vice versa. Did Kumar delve into the recesses of his own life in cinema to portray the vanities, insecurities and loneliness of a career in public life? Surrounded by people as you are, is loneliness a constant companion? It is amazing to note the number of expressions that flits across his face with just the twitch of an eyebrow.

Arindam is not very likeable as a character. He’s forsaken his mentor, betrayed his friends, used people as stepping-stones as he scales the heights of success. Kumar’s performance goes a long way in humanising the character, showing us a man who’s finally questioning his hubris. The smiling façade, expressions carefully shielded by sunglasses that he presents to his adoring public is cracking behind the mask, and Arindam, through Kumar’s carefully calibrated performance, offers us a glimpse of a soul. 

For someone whom I have profiled on this blog as a ‘Diva’, Sharmila Tagore was definitely more than a pretty face. Introduced by Ray in Apur Sansar, Sharmila went on to act in four more films with the auteur – Devi, Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha. Here, she is Aditi, an independent, idealistic young woman charting her own course in life.

Initially uninterested in Arindam, whom she despises, Aditi accepts her friend’s advice to interview him to boost the sales of her paper. Her questions are incisive and different from the usual run-of-the-mill fluff pieces, even pointed, and after his initial guardedness, Arindam is forced to ponder upon his choices and motives. All through the conversation, Aditi takes notes, at first surreptitiously and later, openly.

However, as the conversation grows more personal, the notes don’t seem important anymore. The glimpse of the real man behind the fame arouses her compassion. And she tears up the interview, preferring to let his public façade remain untarnished.

Sharmila shows Aditi’s change of heart from indifference to sympathy through small gestures – taking off her glasses, fleeting smiles, the quick flash of her dimples, the expression in her eyes. These gestures humanise her – and the film. Even more interestingly, Ray leaves their relationship as it is - not every man-woman relationship needs a conclusion.

Nayak, in some way, reminds me of one of my favourite Ray movies – Jalsaghar. Both films deal with human fallibility and artifice, hubris and detachment. Both are set within closed, suffocating confines – an aristocratic mansion now decayed in Jalsaghar and a closed first-class compartment and dining car in Nayak. Long-time collaborator Subrata Mitra’s camera pans over the setting, and the ace cinematographer plays with light and shade to offer some disturbing images in both films – the shot of an insect drowning during a thunderstorm while there’s a music performance / the skeletal hands’ dream sequence in Nayak. The black & white setting only increases the gloom.

 Ray did not stop with analysing only Arindam and Aditi; all the characters on the train have their own little backstories as well. Their by-play and scheming – innocent, sly, perverse, opportunistic, turns the train itself into a character, offering us a microcosm of the world we inhabit. Ray slyly alludes to the fact that we are all, in some or the other, play acting; we all make our own Faustian bargains, the cost of which some of us may – or may not – question.

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