My pick this week is a black and white classic – Satyajit Ray's Nayak, available on Zee5. Nayak was made in 1966. Five decades later, it has aged like fine wine. Ray's insights into cinema, stardom, our relationship with actors and the persistent struggle between commerce and art in movie-making, seem even more relevant. The film, which is almost entirely set on a train, also rekindled in me the romance of train journeys – the shifting landscape, the kullad ki chai and the fleeting intimacy with strangers, who are packed into the same bogey.
Nayak is about a film star Arindam Mukherjee, who is enjoying the heady success that comes with a string of hits. He is invited to New Delhi to receive a prestigious award. He can't get a flight ticket so he decides to take a train. He is forced to share a coupe but his plan is to take a pill and sleep it off till the destination arrives. Arindam's fellow passengers are mostly thrilled to have his company. Even off-screen, he is a charmer, obliging fans with good humour. But underneath the dazzling smile and suave manner, is a man wracked by insecurity and loneliness. Arindam is keenly aware of both – how short-lived this flush of good fortune is and the compromises he has made to achieve it, which include giving up his first love – theatre.
Arindam unveils his inner demons to Aditi, who is the editor of a women's magazine. Unlike most of the other passengers, Aditi isn't instantly enamored by her famous passenger. In fact, she's quite disdainful of commercial cinema. But hoping to increase the circulation of her magazine, she asks Arindam for an interview. He agrees. And as the journey progresses, he finds himself unburdening himself in ways he hadn't imagined. At one point, he tells Aditi: It isn't good for us to talk too much. We live in a world of shadows so it's best not to show the public too much of our flesh and blood.
In Nayak, Ray creates a haunting close-up of celebrity in our country. The script, also written by him, is a masterful weaving of flashbacks, dream sequences and multiple storylines. Ray doesn't ignore the other passengers on the train. They might get less footage but each one is crafted with enough detail to give us a sense of who they are. Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar as Arindam and Sharmila Tagore as Aditi are both superb. Wearing a suit and dark glasses, he is every inch the dazzling screen god. But over the course of the film, he becomes human. And she radiates intelligence and elegance.
I know that every week brings a flood of new content and you might ask: What's the point of going back in time? Because films like Nayak constitute the gold standard of Indian cinema. And now it's available with a click of a button in your home. Don't miss it.