How Ray’s ‘Nayak’ dictated the frailties of a screen idol


With Sushant Singh Rajput’s death still haunting us, looking back at Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’ and the life of a star

Historians often caution about not seeing the past from the prism of today. Can we process an old film with contemporary wisdom? Critics often use the cliché, ‘ahead of its time,’ but they use it in hindsight, to define films whose worth their predecessors failed to measure. ‘Timeless’ is another hackneyed term.

Both phrases can be applied to Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (The Hero). Like every good piece of art, every generation of artistes can find their reflection in Ray’s inward-looking journey of a film star.

Delving into the compromises that an artiste has to make, the 1966 masterpiece deliberates on most questions that might have come up among those watching Bollywood being unravelled in the last few months.

Starring Uttam Kumar as the reigning superstar Arindam Mukherjee and Sharmila Tagore as Aditi Mukherjee, the editor of a woman’s magazine, the film is black and white but the narrative is not. Right from the opening scene where the matinee idol almost shrugs off the ephemerality of audience taste to the last scene where he is on the edge of life and death, the film opens a window to the conscience of a popular actor who guards his public image assiduously.

But as the mask comes off gradually, with the persuasion of Aditi, perhaps a gentle reflection of his older self, the star becomes increasingly vulnerable. From a reference to cocaine and describing alcohol as second nature to a dependence on sleeping pills, there is plenty that rings a bell. Was Ray perpetuating a stereotype or was he merely reflecting a complex reality? One that is still playing out today.

Perception and reality

As the master auteur digs deeper, the moving train becomes a metaphor for the star’s escape from his universe, but here again he finds prying eyes in different compartments, each with different points of view about him. One besotted fan sees him as a modern Krishna while those who had read the morning paper wonder whether there is a devil lurking behind the charming persona.

Sharmila Tagore and Uttam Kumar in ‘Nayak (The Hero)’
 

The best is the silent scene where Arindam is blowing circles with cigarette smoke and a teenage female fan, lying ill on the upper berth, quietly imitates him. This is how the image of screen gods percolates into the masses.

To his credit, Kumar moves effortlessly between perception and reality. And Tagore provides an honest counterpoint, since Aditi is not a fan girl. At first, she tears apart his god-like persona but what she finds makes her develop empathy for him and eventually, she literally brings him back from the edge of the moving train.

At another level, the film denotes Ray’s own response to the market demand to make something more accessible for an audience fed on the diet of spectacles. He picks a subject that has dollops of glamour and gives the audience a sense that they are going to watch something they know about, but when they walk into his world, he takes them to the depths of human behaviour and etches a psychological portrait instead.

Soon, we discover, it is not just the actor who is putting on a mask, everybody around him has a façade. And here, Ray presents an interesting potpourri of self-seeking and hypocritical characters.

The lure of cinema

In one of the many flashbacks that dot the screenplay, Arindam’s mentor Shankarda warns him that cinema as a medium reduces good stage actors to mere puppets of technicians, but Arindam still chooses the stardom that cinema offers.

Naseeruddin Shah, who tried his hand in commercial films, once told me that acting in such films was like a wrestling match where one actor tries to outdo the other. But he also said that when he started off, he wanted to be a popular film actor despite his theatre background. It is this dichotomy that Ray captures in Nayak.

In another memorable flashback, Arindam the star develops cold feet and backs off when a friend and leftist leader asks him to address some mill workers on strike, workers who are also his fans. It reminds us today of the many stars who chose not to stand in solidarity with protesting students last winter and of the smear campaigns faced by those who did.

The Bengali film is available on YouTube, with subtitles