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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Diary of an actor (Nayak)

In a tantalising move, Satyajit Ray keeps the visage of his protagonist undisclosed till the time his friend questions whether a successful actor is enough to pull off a bad film. The moment Jyoti remarks, "What else does the film have except you?", the camera quickly focuses on Arindam Mukherji's face and with a confident expression, he says, "What else does it need?"

With such a beginning, it is but obvious that we will be encountering a character who is infused with a melee of shades. And true to the promise, Ray sketches his hero in Nayak with some glorious shades of grey that require much heeding. At one point he deserves sympathy, at another he can very well be passed off as pretentious, egotistic as well as malicious. Good or bad, there is no denying the fact that Arindam Mukherji is an attractive personality. Every aspect of his character is so unique and interesting. Just like the growth curve of his career that has seen so many crests and troughs, his persona is one of revelation and magnetic charm.
With his deft labyrinthine approach Ray, the master that he was, created a film which delves into the life, insecurities, fears and loneliness of a superstar. This man who has a popular public image is so different in personal life. The way he has charted his career growth is a wonderful chapter of study. Depicting human vices in a subtle yet sure manner, Satyajit Ray makes Nayak a mindblowing cinematic venture. And I have no qualms in saying that I have mustered up the courage of writing about the film here after three consecutive watches. Yes, the film is like an onion. Every watch unravels innumerable layers, each pregnant with heavy possibilities of appreciation from different angles.
Arindam (Uttam Kumar) is escaping to Delhi to receive a distinguished award. I say escaping because his foul temper reveals that he is tired of the gossip surrounding him. He is not even flying this time. Being the most successful film actor of his times, he is taking the train to Delhi so that a lot of time is spent in travel. A snippet in the newspapers today has reported his drunken brawl last night at a posh club. And being the star that Arindam is, every body wants a slice of the juicy tidbit. So, Arindam packs his bag and leaves, telling his friend Jyoti (Bimal Ghosh) that he is better away from the din here.
The upper-middle class passengers in the first class compartment of the train are a tad amazed on seeing Arindam as their fellow traveller. And understandably there are appreciative glances, wonder-struck salutations and the usual hovering around. It's remarkable how Ray depicts the shallowness of humans through these passengers. While one man belittles an actor's trade quite bluntly, his wife gazes at him thinking what if Arindam took a fancy to her. Their ailing daughter though is a refreshing change. She only gapes at him and is happy with just an autograph.
One advertising professional (Kamu Mukherjee) is busy trying to strike up a deal with a rich businessman. And the slimy weasel that he is, he will not stop at anything. He is even ready to pawn his wife's honour to make his target sign on the dotted line. His strategies reek of hollowness when he sweet talks his wife Molly into giving sexual favours to his client. And yet, when the wife asks him to talk to Arindam so that she can enter films, he considers that deplorable!!! Hypocrite!
Arindam, presenting a perfect heroic stance before all these people, gradually lets his guard off in front of Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), the editor of a woman's magazine. But the cynic that he is, he fobs her off initially by his high-nosed stance, when she comes to ask him for an autograph. Not that Aditi is crazy about this screen star. She has been egged on by her friend, a petty housewife who preys on gossip. That she has read the morning snippet is evident. And now she wants to use Aditi to get to the root of the matter. But Aditi, the celebral woman that she is, will only act according to her mind's logic. And thus ensue a fascinating series of flashbacks of Arindam's rise and thereby, his isolation.
Arindam might be sitting on a throne now, but at what cost. He has no dear ones with whom he can share his secrets and sorrows. His dreams are scary and disturbing. Drowning in a quicksand of banknotes cannot be a pleasing image. And that too, when the cadaver of Shankarda, Arindam's mentor, declines to rescue him. Most importantly, Arindam's words bring out the cynic in him. A failed affair, bitter struggle to reach the top and the constant insecurity of being dethroned has left him weak and dejected. What the public see is just the sheen of popularity. Inside, Arindam is a lonely man. And his story could well increase the circulation of Aditi's magazine. After all, a tete-a-tete with the very successful Arindam Mukherji is what every journalist can dream of.
While Aditi is surreptitiously jotting down whatever Arindam says, the actor bears his heart out to the woman who he sees as a sensible person. Or should we say enigmatic? Their war of words is fabulous and so is the power play between them. While Aditi tactfully gleans out the stories from him, Arindam gradually succumbs to this intelligent woman's bait.
A talented theatre artist, Arindam sells out to films after the death of Shankarda (Somen Bose). He decides that Shankarda must be wrong, or rather he sets out to prove that film actors are not just puppets in the hands of the movie industry, the belief that Shankarda had instilled in him. Fame and wealth welcomes Arindam with open arms and through his actions, we see how the person in him changes. Forced to maintain his popular public image that will not brook controversies, Arindam even denies help to some needy friends. And, his character graph hits an all time low when he extracts revenge from a senior actor called Mukunda Lahiri (Bireshwar Sen), just because the latter had insulted him in his struggling days. Whether Arindam was right, or whether he should have risen to the occasion and helped this infirm actor, is a subject of crucial debate.
Then comes the topic of Arindam and Promila (Sumita Sanyal), the fiercely ambitious woman who seduced him to get into films. Did Arindam have an affair with her out of his own free will, or was he duped into the relation? Anyways, once bitten, twice shy, Arindam asks Molly to send her husband to talk to him when she seeks his help to get into films. Obviously the clever man that he is, Arindam will not burn his fingers once again.
A thread of despondency and loneliness runs throughout Nayak. But when in the end, Aditi recognises the loner in Arindam and respects his privacy, the film suddenly feels so positive. After all, here is a woman who understands our hero. That he is a real person outside his onscreen avatar, is something that Aditi realises. And perhaps, that is why Arindam finds it so much easier to open up to her. In the end you see the triumph of human trust and bonding, leaving you with a secret hope of seeing Arindam conquer his travails...
Sharmila Tagore became a totally different actor in Ray's hands. Confident, natural and absolutely spectacular. As Aditi she draws a brilliant line between play-acting and spontaneity. And every time she blushed or smiled in the film, you will find your breath been taken away. Another reason why Arindam, inspite of himself, is drawn to talk to her...
Ray generally cast Soumitra Chatterjee as his leading man, in almost all his films. But as I read up on Nayak, I figured that the director wrote the screenplay keeping Uttam Kumar in mind. While every Bengali would love to believe that Ray did not want to tamper with the Bengali sentiment of regarding Kumar as the one and only Mahanayak, there is more meat to the matter than this. If you carefully watch Uttam Kumar, you'd find him slip effortlessly into the role of Arindam. So much so that he smudges the lines between Arindam and himself. Every line is perfect. Every expression is immaculate. Even when he jokes with an elderly columnist, there is veiled sarcasm in his voice. Initially he appears as being too full of himself, conscious of his star status. But slowly when the garb falls, you recognise the loner in him, the pain that swallows him every single day.
So, whether Soumitra Chatterjee is better than Uttam Kumar in the history of Bengali cinema, I believe this 1966 film puts a stop to the debate quite boldly, flamboyantly and emphatically...


  1. I have heard a lot of praise for Nayak, but it was Yves's review of it that inspired me to try and lay my hands on it. You've just helped spur me on even further! Thank you. :-)

  2. @Dustedoff: The film will refuse to leave your mind once you watch it. This is perhaps the best film about the life and times of a successful actor. And it is not for nothing that it is celebrated in film appreciation circles and erudite festivals even today. Please do watch it!!

  3. Lovely write up, I've never explored the work of this much lauded director but i do have one of his films the first Apu film i believe. I'll check this out as some kind soul has uploaded it on youtube with english subs

  4. @Bollywooddeewana: Are you serious???? You haven't seen any of Satyajit Ray's films???? Man you are truly depriving yourself...

  5. I first watched the film on the net (with English subtitles)and then read your review.
    I agree. It's very impressive. I accept that some flavour must have been lost due to the translation, and the exchanges between Sharmila and Uttam didn't come out as I imagine it must have been in bangla.

    I was effected by his politically motivated friend, and the sick girl. He was such a coward there thinking only of his image instead of the people expecting him, though I do understand how it would be for his career.

    The angle with a married woman was so subtle and intelligent. To convey all without actually getting into the details was such a master stroke (well satyajit was a master!!)

    I also enjoyed things like the train compartment with people in such close proximity, eating, sleeping talking etc. Reminded me of the train journeys I made. The chai in a 'kullad' at a station brought back such fond memories.

    The man who was being approached for business by Molly's husband ....wasn't he the man from the same compartment as Uttam's? The father of the sick girl? In the beginning he tells them that he'll not eat there but in the dining car, and that's where Molly's husband meets him.

    Thanks for motivating me into seeing this, sharmi. What good luck that it was available on the net.


  6. @Pacifist: The pleasure is all mine. I'm glad you watched it and liked it sooo much. It is truly a brilliant film.

  7. Hi,
    What a enjoyably intelligent review Sharmi! I'll include a link to it in my own if you don't mind. You know, I too have to watch Ray's films two or thress times to be able to rise to the level of his unassuming artistry! I really enjoyed the careful attention you brought to the movie's detailed analysis of the "hero", and it made me want to watch it again. Thanks!

  8. @Yves: Thanks soo soo much. But your review was also pretty stunning. Actually the movie is so brilliant that you'd automatically have to write good things about it!!

  9. Lovely review of a brilliant film. The treatment of an 18-hour train journey as an allegory of a hero's life was a unique subject in 1966.
    Ray won more than half the battle by casting Uttam Kumar as the lead. The hairline fracture between the matinee idol and the lonely man widens as the train chugs on its tracks; Guru, as Uttam was adoringly called by his million fans, provides a parallel commentary of Tollywood even as his face tantalizingly blurs into the facade till both fade out into the horizon bunched together --- much like the tracks that take the story to New Delhi station.
    Pather Panchali is my favourite Ray film, but Nayak is nearly up there. The only weak scene, I feel, is of the hero 'drowning in a quicksand of banknotes'; it's too in-your-face for Ray's standards. But then, one can't have total control over one’s dreams, can he?
    But Ray has --- over the film, his 13th since little Apu and Durga had streaked across an autumn field with wide eyes and bated breath to witness a monster on wheels tear through the horizon and change the face of Tollywood. Eleven years on, Apu, now a demigod, gets a ticket to a first class coach of the monster he had seen from outside (or from a third class bogey), a ticket to be part of and deconstruct the going-on of the sham urbane elite. Here, he fares quite well. For, Nayak starts off with the swagger of a hero and ends with the angst of a protagonist.

  10. @Netdhaba: I think you should start a film blog of your own and post these Wordsworthian deconstructions over there. Thank you for liking my post. It's really humbling!!!

  11. Hi. Just finished watching Nayak and came across your blog. Thanks for the review. Sharing my thoughts on the film as well - at

  12. @Deepanjali: Sure, will read yours as well!