Why one of the film-maker's lesser-known movies is also one of his finest
“Don’t you feel there’s something missing in your life? Some emptiness somewhere?" Sharmila Tagore, playing the editor of a modernist magazine, asks Uttam Kumar, the movie star playing a movie star, at the start of a train journey.
“Look Miss Sengupta, it’s no good to talk too much," the hero replies. “You see, we live in a world of shadows—so it’s best not to let the public see too much of our flesh and blood."
And with that, sequence by psychological sequence over some 150 minutes, Satyajit Ray proceeds to shed light on the hero’s world of shadows. Dim light is shed too on the world of commerce and its hypocrisies (Ray’s lifelong obsessions)—some of it through the eyes of the hero, some through the compassionate insights of the journalist, and the rest through the interactions among fellow-travellers on the coach.
Nayak (The Hero), one of four digitally restored Ray movies that will be shown in PVR cinemas from January, is one of the celebrated director’s more neglected films, which makes it a delightful discovery for the first-timer. Unlike, say, Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Nights in the Forest) or Charulata (The Lonely Wife)—leave alone Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)—it doesn’t get a frequent cinema outing. But it has a loyal fandom—not quite as large as the fans of the central character (the movie hero), but a devoted one nevertheless.
Made in 1966, Nayak is Ray’s second film made from an original script. The story takes place over a 24-hour train journey from Kolkata to Delhi, during which a series of conversations between the movie star and the magazine editor, who is decidedly not a fan of commercial cinema, helps to unfold the character of the hero before us.
As she asks him questions about his life, the hero comes across as a man who is suffering from guilt and depression: guilt about ignoring the advice of his acting mentor and abandoning the theatre for films; about neglecting his Leftist activist friend; and about rejecting an ageing actor seeking a role. Not surprisingly, our hero drinks to forget.
Helping the narrative along are seven flashbacks and two dreams that the hero has, in one of which he is drowning in mountains of cash. Leaning out of the doors of the speeding train, he turns nearly suicidal before Tagore calms him.
Towards the end of the journey, the journalist tears up her notes, deciding against publishing an interview. “I’ll keep them in my memory," she tells the hero, moments before the train pulls up in Delhi and he is mobbed by fans. The film begins and ends with a close-up of the nayak.
Ray’s curiosity about the Bengali (Indian, for that matter) cinema hero is not hard to understand. He was curious about most things around him—his two best-known fictional characters, the detective Feluda and the globetrotting scientist Professor Shonku, are all about solving riddles. But Ray’s curiosity is cloaked in empathy. Unlike many journalists and writers, Ray does not sit in judgement over the subjects of his investigation (for which he was criticized by the Left).
Ray is above all a humanist, as every commentator about him has noted, and Nayak shines his humanist torch on a subject that is close to home—the movie industry.
In Nayak Ray, a film-maker who rarely ever hired superstars, cast the superstar Uttam Kumar in the role of the hero. According to Ray’s British biographer Andrew Robinson, Ray had read somewhere that “if you are shooting a matinee idol, then you have to cast one". But in the account given in Robinson’s book The Inner Eye, Ray appears not to know much about Kumar’s life.
If that is true then it is a strange lacuna—or maybe it was a deliberate device to portray a generic hero, thus cleansing the film of too much “flesh and blood". In the movie, the hero is travelling to Delhi to receive a national award, just as Ray would have done so many times in real life—before Nayak, and more later. Did the presence of a famous fellow-traveller perhaps set him off on the journey to Nayak?
According to Ray, through Nayak, he wanted to: 1. Investigate the psychology of a movie star; 2. Investigate the psychology of fans; and 3. Make a film about a train journey. But there’s one element in the critical narrative about Nayak that remains underplayed, and that is the character played by Tagore. For some reason (surely not because she is a Tagore?), Ray always chose heras the protagonist of his Tagorean humanist values.
It is always Tagore who interrogates the values of Ray’s heroes—if they are always fallible, she never is. In three of his finest films, Days And Nights in the Forest, Company Limited (Seemabaddha) and The Hero, it is invariably Tagore who sets off the tone of the movie’s resolution and almost always with a question addressed to the hero.
In Nayak that role is made easier, almost institutionalized, simply because she is a journalist. “You know the Voice of the Conscience in the village drama?" Kumar tells her. “That’s the part for you."
“Is that a bad part?" she asks.
“No, but a terrible nuisance," he replies. “I wish I could sweep it away like all the rest."
“Conscience?" Tagore asks. “But isn’t that what makes you human?"
As Ray explained to his other great biographer, Marie Seton: “At first he is ‘material’ for her for a journalistic probe, until the process of unbarring reaches a point where she realizes it would be unethical to exploit it. Sympathy and desire to help is the next step. The bond between the two is tenuous, but real. Intellectually clearly above him, her goodness consists in providing him with the small area of contact that exists between them."
Unfailingly, Ray gets Tagore to ask his heroes, “Is that good or bad?" Unfailingly, his movies give us the answer, “Neither good, nor bad, just human".