The grand maestro Satyajit Ray turned 100 on May 2nd, and one of his finest films turns 55 on the 6th. While he is known for his perfectionism, knack for details, and love for using locomotives as metaphorical representatives of transformative journeys, one of the strongest takeaways from his films is how they have always managed transcend the barriers of time and its effects on society.
Nayak: The Hero was released in 1966, but to this day, it still holds great significance and mirrors strong, hard-hitting, truthful elements of society back to us. The story revolves around Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), a matinee idol at the peak of his success.
Arindam is one of the most popular actors of Bengal cinema. He is also a seasoned theatre artist. In his journey of being a popular film star, the by-products of his career, i.e., fame, wealth and success, etc., don’t stop him from harbouring dread with regards to what he has turned into, and also a deep-seated fear about having to come to terms with answers to his longstanding questions about life and, the worst of all, himself. On a 24-hour journey from Kolkata to Delhi to receive an award, he has a chance encounter with Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), a journalist and the editor of the magazine Adhunika. What follows is a journey of reflection and self-introspection.
As soon as Arindam boards the train, he instantly becomes the talk of his co-passengers. His drunk altercation with someone made it to the newspapers just that morning. As much as he feigns apathy towards everything around him, you notice him feel uncomfortable and out of place with the very things he centres his core identity around.
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Arindam Mukherjee’s dark glasses are a thinly veiled attempt to hide what lies beyond. Arindam puts on and removes his glasses at crucial instances throughout the movie. Early on in the film, when he receives a phone-call from his heroine and rumoured lover, he puts on the glasses just as he speaks to her, despite being indoors away from any source of direct light. Later, every time he enters or exits the train, every time he speaks to people around whom he doesn’t feel an immediate sense of comfort and familiarity, he wears them. He wears his glasses after he first enters the train and continues to wear them through his initial interactions with his immediate co-passengers.
But one his first interactions on the train is with a senior journalist: Aghore Chatterjee of The Statesman. He takes off his glasses as he gently, but with hints of pomposity and an ease to his body language, attempts to converse with Mr. Chatterjee, despite knowing fully of Mr. Chatterjee’s disdain for actors and the commercial film industry. It is hinted that he finds more satisfaction in the presence of his sharp-tongued but honest critics than anyone who fawns over him but come from a place of inauthenticity.
Aditi Sengupta notices him on the train and coyly makes her way to his table, on the pretext of wanting autographs “for her cousin”. She starts to push his buttons, while passively deflecting his attempts to do the same, in hopes that documenting and publishing information revealed during their interactions would guarantee her magazine the exposure it needs. Arindam then coldly replies, “You see, we live in a world of shadows. So it’s best not to show the public too much of our flesh and blood”.
After rebuking Aditi’s attempts to converse with him, the iconic dream sequence comes to play. As he naps, he finds himself surrounded by heaps of money, a metaphorical representation of the sinkhole of capitalism in his industry, only to later drown it. He encounters his late mentor Shankar da, who refuses to budge as Arindam calls out to him as he drowns. This shows that Arindam has a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction towards his work, and that going against the word of his mentor (who told him to stay true to theatre and keep away from acting in films and stardom) weighs heavily on his conscience.
Startled by the dream, he finally sits down with Aditi and narrates his story to her. His journey from being a theatre artist and his decision to foray into films to the death of his mentor, his journey from being an actor intimidated by his seniors to wielding much power in the industry, his insecurities, guilt and regrets.
Aditi, initially excited for the opportunity to publish the story that could be a massive breakthrough for her magazine, quickly realises that Arindam is a troubled and lonely soul. Out of empathy, she rips up the papers that documented their conversation in writing and says she’ll keep their interaction in her memory. Despite their profound interaction, it is uncertain if it brought about any significant change to Arindam’s personality and life. As soon as he exits the train, he is back to being Arindam Mukherjee, the matinee idol.
Nayak: The Hero is one of Ray’s best films for a reason. Being 55 years old doesn’t stop it from mirroring current society back to us. It reflects the journey of climbing the ladder of success and reaching the pinnacle of it, only to end up asking yourself if you truly have it all. The film walks us through the life of a superstar at the peak of his career, marred by his past and mistakes, and clouded by a lingering fear of being forgotten.
It is largely believed that Ray wrote the film keeping Uttam Kumar in mind, as their lives do in fact mirror each other, especially the lingering fear of having their legacy forgotten by people. The lyrics of ‘All for Us’ by Labrinth best describe Arindam: “Guess you figure my two times two / always equates to one / dreamers are selfish / when it all comes down to it.”
Being the perfectionist he was, Ray makes every idle second in the film be something of greater significance to the plot as it unravels, while also exploring other characters on the train with equal importance, despite the spotlight being on Arindam the whole time. Such is the brilliance of Ray. Overall, Nayak asks us to look beyond the superficial charm of fame and adoration and also makes us wonder, are we one act of emotional vulnerability away from returning to our true selves?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.