My BL Ink column on 7 May, 2016:
A Satyajit Ray classic that turned 50 this week, Nayak seems to come from a universe that is unrecognisably distant from the one which creates films like Fan
Satyajit Ray’s film Nayak (The Hero) turned 50 yesterday. Released on May 6, 1966, it was an unusual one for Ray in several respects. For one thing, it was only his second original film script (although he had been directing for over a decade by then). For another, it featured the contemporary Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar, whom Ray had never worked with before, and who represented the sort of cinema of which Ray quite clearly saw himself as the antithesis.
But of course it made perfect sense — pragmatic as well as cinematic — to cast a superstar in the role of a superstar. Nayak centres on 24 hours in the life of Arindam Mukherjee, a hugely popular film star who is — somewhat grudgingly — on his way from Calcutta to Delhi to collect a National Award. What is remarkable — and risks making the film unbelievable today — is that Arindam makes this journey by train, and entirely without an entourage.
That this premise was a trifle contrived even in 1966 is made clear by the film’s initial scenes, when the star’s agent-cum-secretary points out that he’s left it too late to get a seat on the plane, or a reserved private coupé on the train. But putting the dapper, jaded Arindam on a long train ride allows Ray the perfect situation in which to combine his three stated objectives: scrutinising the life of a film star, looking into the behaviour of fans, and making a film about a train journey.
Right from the start though, it is clear that we are in a universe almost unrecognisably distant from the one which creates a film like Fan. Arindam’s arrival on the train causes a flutter of excitement, but he is not mobbed. He shares a compartment with a family, sits in the dining car by himself, ruffles a little girl’s hair. The India of 1966 contains neither swarming paparazzi nor phone-flourishing selfie-seekers. The train’s upper-middle-class clientele does contain some Arindam fans — though Ray, with seemingly irrepressible snideness, makes clear that this is a part that can only be played by children or somewhat foolish women. These may make the occasional autograph request, but on the whole the star is left to conduct his business — under their curious gazes.
The thing about Nayak that appears truly unimaginable in 2016, however, is the number of passengers who treat Arindam and his world with disdain. Their reasons for abjuring cinema combine the moral with the aesthetic. One doddering old gent, whom even the film star recognises from his name as “the one who writes letters to The Statesman”, loses no opportunity to lecture him on the immorality of actors and alcohol (especially since they go together). Another successful boxwallah type turns up his nose at the sort of person he must share space with — admittedly, upon having read the news of Arindam getting into a brawl at a party. (These old men reminded me of a story about my Nana, who spent a whole plane ride in the ’60s wondering why the gentleman next to him seemed miffed when he cordially asked him what he did. It was Rajendra Kumar.)
Even without the moral censure, there is a pervasive sense in Nayak that films — at least popular Indian films — are not art, not serious or, at any rate, not worthy pursuits for the intelligent person. And the film star, despite his fame and riches, recognises his suspect status when asked for an interview by the non-gushing Miss Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore, her seriousness signalled by her spectacles), he is quick to assume that she doesn’t enjoy Bengali films. And she is quick to retort: “Bastabikatar ektu abhaab (A slight lack of reality).”
It isn’t just realism, however, that can cure film actors of what ails them. In one of Nayak’s rather heavy-handed flashbacks, a youthful Arindam grapples with his mentor Shankar da’s resistance to the very idea of film acting. The theatre, says Shankar da, is where an actor has a real audience; in a film, he is but a puppet in the hands of the director. This notion of the film star as a puppet appeared just a few years later in another film made by a Bengali — Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1970). There, it was Dharmendra who played himself, and Utpal Dutt (as the film-struck Jaya Bhaduri’s psychologist uncle) who offered a long exposition of how little the ‘hero’ actually participated in the heroics on screen.
The humanising of the hero — which is also part of the point of Guddi — is, in Nayak, both more intimate and more brutal. It plays out, at one level, as the classic romance narrative: the emotionally repressed hero suddenly finding a girl he can speak to freely. And superimposing that narrative onto a star-journalist interaction is an astute form of cinematic wish-fulfilment. Tagore’s character first buttonholes Arindam both out of curiosity and for professional gain. She runs a women’s magazine called Adhunika, which ordinarily doesn’t feature cinema, but an interview with Arindam, she knows, would be a big hit. But the more clearly she sees Arindam’s feet of clay, the less she is inclined to expose him.
Watching Nayak today, the film seems a little let down by its most dramatic bits — Arindam’s dreams (or rather nightmares) are too literal and too stagey at the same time, and his recounting of errors seems harsher than necessary. But it remains a striking portrait. Not so much of the star or the fan, but of that hazy figure we may have lost to history: the Non-Fan.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 7 May 2016.