Celebrating Ray's 'Nayak'

Satyajit Ray’s 'Nayak' turns 50 this year. Here is an understanding of how it sought to reveal the darker elements of its star protagonist’s personality.

Updated - July 28, 2016 05:54 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2016 05:46 pm IST

A still from the movie 'Nayak'

A still from the movie 'Nayak'

As the euphoria surrounding a certain screen idol reached its apotheosis, and subsequently, consummation point, with the release of his film last week, I wondered: Does a globalised society, capable of making rational decisions, really need a hero? What if an on-screen hero, with a certain mirage associated with his personality, reveals himself as all-too human, as fallible and flawed as a common man? What if his past peccadilloes -- real or imagined -- suddenly come to light?

These are some questions a Satyajit Ray film sought to explore, one that was appropriately named Nayak (The Hero). Ray’s mild dislike for mainstream cinema was reflected in his conception of the hero, Arindam Mukherjee (played by the biggest screen idol of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar). Presenting Arindam as a talented but compromising social climber, Ray was introducing the average middle-class viewer to the human self that lay behind the facade of a star.

Arindam, having achieved stardom in fairly quick time, is plagued by a sense of emptiness that erupts in violent outbursts. And conscious of the necessity to preserve the countenance of a ‘star’, he decides to take a train journey with upper middle-class passengers -- of the kind likely to constitute his audiences and for whom he has great disregard. The journey has a wizened journalist who holds cinema in contempt; an advertising professional whose wife is keen to get into cinema; and a starry-eyed, young fan. We, the audiences, get to probe into Arindam’s psyche through Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) a writer, an editor of a ‘serious’ newspaper called Adhunik (Modern). And though she believes that Bengali cinema lacks connection with reality (Vaastavikta ka obhaav), she is interested in interviewing its biggest star, if only to increase the circulation figures of her paper.

The movie begins with the unravelling of a neatly-arranged series of stripes that leads us to Arindam, or rather, his screen image. We see the back of his head first, then his hands and legs as he gets ready for travel, and finally, when a friend criticises his work in a recent movie, his face. This screen image of a star, when stripped of its infallibility, reveals itself as a human face in the course of the movie.

Arindam’s willingness to exorcise his past demons leads him, unwittingly, to reveal his gullibility to Aditi, a young journalist least enamoured by his work. It is therapeutic for him; it makes him reminisce and let out inconvenient elements from his past. It is revelatory for her; it helps her realise that a ‘hero’ -- a Krishna with the ability to woo gopi s both on and off the screen -- could have a dark past and yet lend himself to empathy. Their journeys end as they begin -- him putting on his glasses and getting lost in the crowd of welcoming hosts on the railway station; her finding her way out through the maze because of the clarity inherent in her thought.

The film also revealed the hollowness intrinsic to a lot of mainstream Indian cinema of the late 1960s, viewed through the eyes of Ray. Seen as a medium of escape for viewers and an easy way to move up the ladder for actors, it was devoid of a social core, of the kind present in the cinema of the 50s. Hence, Arindam is willing to grab his chance to graduate from stage to screen but doesn’t want to help a struggling actress do the same. He is willing to anonymously help a friend fund his political movement but averse to getting involved in politics himself. If his cinema lacks reality, his real life lacks an intellectual core. Drunk on success and fame but unsure of what to do with the plenty of riches he has accumulated, he takes to abusing his power by indulging in brawl with a fellow actor.

My favourite scene of the movie is that of Arindam’s first dream -- where he seems himself getting sucked into the vortex of his own wealth, with even his revered mentor, Shankar-da, not in a position to help him, It is this that makes him come face-to-face with the void inside and want to enter into a semi-confessional mode.

Ray wanted to present Uttam Kumar not as an actor but as a phenomenon, says Andrew Robinson in his biography of the master. However, while doing so, he also wanted the viewer to see the human side of the lead character, Arindam, a star. “Ray was driven by a desire first to investigate the psychology of a star, secondly the psychology of his adulators and detractors, and lastly, to make a film about a train journey,” says Robinson. The curious eyes of Aditi, an empathetic journalist provide the right window to investigate Arindam’s psychology. And, as if to tell the viewers that her purpose is fulfilled just by getting to know Arindam rather than writing about him, Ray makes her destroy the notes she has taken down for a print interview. She’ll retain memories of the journey, but not want to write on it.

Ray keeps the relationship between Arindam and Aditi almost platonic -- it feels more like a therapist-client bond. As their lives intersect in a train journey, the class differences get less-pronounced, bringing a certain chemistry between the two. However, it is bound to dissipate as the journey ends.

Speaking of their relationship, Ray said in a letter to his biographer Marie Seton that he intended the development of “sympathy” and “desire to help” in Aditi as she learns about Arindam’s self-loathing, nearly-suicidal state. “The bond between them is tenuous, but real. Intellectually clearly above him, her goodness consisted in providing him a small area of contact that exists between them,” he wrote.

Nayak, released in 1966, predated the rise and fall of the first superstar of Hindi cinema Rajesh Khanna. Rising to the pinnacle at a very young age, not knowing how to handle his popularity, falling with a resounding thud -- the star got consumed by his status. This was brilliantly captured, real-time, in a 1973 BBC documentary, Bombay Superstar . Showing the ephemeral nature of success in show business, the film could be called a close, more explicit, documentary cousin of Nayak . It was not just enlightening for the viewers, it was prophetic in the tone with which it announced the slow decline of Khanna, or any star unsure of how to handle his crown.

At the end of Nayak ’s train journey, Arindam is a little more aware of his fallibility: that, though none of his films have failed, it will be a matter of “three flops” -- as was the case with Mukunda Lahiri, another icon -- before he fails. His self-realisation makes an average viewer a little more familiar with the fickleness of the show business that is cinema.

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