Nayak (1966) – A Cult Classic

Nayak (1966), released in English as ‘The Hero’; combined the skills of master film director Satyajit Ray with the acting prowess of the Mahanayak (great actor) Uttam Kumar (real name Arun Kumar Chatterjee). One of the lesser explored film of Ray, but nonetheless a true masterpiece tells about the dark side of the glamourous film industry- the struggles, the favouritism, loneliness, etc. It was the second film to contain Ray’s original screenplay after Kanchenjunga (1962). Ray composed the script of Nayak having Uttam Kumar in mind, and only went ahead with the project one’s he was able to enlist the actor. The film was shot in 1965. Many critics felt that the reel life plot bears an uncanny resemblance with Uttam Kumar in real life. The anxiety and restlessness of Arindam Mukherjee mirrored Uttam Kumar’s insecurities about his successful career and the fear that his stardom might not last forever. The movie makes brilliant use of parallel storytelling (the flashbacks which the protagonist has about his past) and dream logic (the two dream sequences).

The plot revolves around a train journey undertaken by the protagonist Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) from Howrah to New Delhi in order to receive a prestigious award. The train journey can be perceived as a metaphor for a man’s life, gradually leading towards an uncertain future. Besides the protagonist, every side actor flawlessly brings to life their on-screen characters exposing the varied layers of the movie. Pritish Sarkar, Molly Sarkar, Aghore Chattopadhyay, Haren Bose, Swami of WWWW organization, et. al. brilliantly express the middle-class hypocrisy of Bengal and the frivolous nature of the petite bourgeoise.

There is a scene where journalist Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) asks for an autograph from the protagonist Arindam, subtly mentioning that it is for her cousin. This may be one of the reasons as to why Arindam confides in her, as she is able to look beyond his stardom. Arindam comes out of his artificial bubble of actor, hero, to reveal his real self. Through his conversation with Aditi, his solitude, diffidence, vengeance, guilt feelings, alcoholic nature are highlighted. The larger than life matinee idol is exposed as a sad, pathetic wreck of a man who is trapped in a kind of parallel reality constantly worried about preserving his success, rather than enjoying the simple pleasures of ‘normal’ life. Towards the end, a drunk Arindam contemplates suicide out of remorse, but Aditi convinces him against doing so. After disembarking from the train, Arindam again wears his sunglass, signifying that he is re-entering the world of fame, he is the nayak, the hero. The conversation with Arindam, also changes journalist Aditi as in Arindam she finds a broken man in need of support. Initially, she planned to publish Arindam’s interview in her women’s magazine Adhunika, in order to increase the magazine’s outreach. In the beginning she jots down some of the points of Arindam’s words, but later as the conversation progresses, she stops writing and later tears the papers. She assures Arindam that his secrets will stay safe and thus preserves Arindam’s public image.

Arindam talks about his mentor Shankar da (elder brother in Bengali), who guided him and taught him acting in theatre. He reveals how during one Puja he signed for a film against the wishes of his mentor. Deeply grieved by this Shankar da collapses during the Puja and passes away. This flashback shows the eternal cinema versus theatre debate. While remembering his first day of shooting a movie, Arindam speaks about how he was snubbed by a successful senior actor Mukunda Lahiri. That day he promised to himself that he would become the greatest movie star (“I will go to the top, the top…”). Fate later supported Arindam, as he became a successful actor, and Mukunda Lahiri’s popularity declined after a series of flops. Later Arindam took his revenge on Lahiri by refusing him a role in his films, when Lahiri then an actor well beyond his prime, came to Arindam begging for a small part. In another flashback, Arindam tells about his friendship with a trade union leader Biresh. He attended the political rallies, where his friend used to give speeches and he used to memorise his dialogues. Once Arindam went beyond his call of duty to save his friend from the police although he was unsuccessful. By the time Biresh came out of jail, Arindam had become a successful actor. Biresh asked Arindam for a small favour, for giving a small speech at a hunger strike outside a factory (ongoing for 28 days). Arindam refused to even get down from the car fearing an association with the protestors as negative for his hero image, and even tried to offer money through secret transactions to Biresh. This strained their friendship. This flashback portrayed that stardom had indeed changed Arindam, who even refused to comply to his friend’s request, as he chose popularity over friendship. In the last flashback, Arindam reveals how he got embroiled in an affair with a wannabe actress Pramila Chatterjee, only later coming to know that she was married. Arindam even casts Pramila in one of his films replacing the previously selected actress Mandira. This scandal rocked the film industry. Moreover, it got only spicier, when he engaged in a scuffle with the actress’s husband while being drunk in a club. This news made headlines in the Calcutta printed media, and tarnished Arindam’s image. This was evident from the beginning of the movie, when Haren Bose and Aghore Chattopadhyay’s attitude towards Arindam was cold.

In the first dream sequence Arindam is shown chasing money in a world full of raining currencies. He hears telephones ringing, gradually the sound grow louder and he sees skeletal hands holding receivers of telephones popping out from the ground full of money. He hears the voice of his mentor Shankar da warning him not to venture into films ditching theatre, as he descends into a quicksand full of money. This dream reflects man’s unending greed and quest for wealth till his death, only to find that wealth is transient. In another dream, Arindam visualises the factory strike organised by Biresh with which he refused to empathise and provide solidarity. Slowly he drives forward to see posters of his own successful films. Then he enters a club, and engages in a scuffle with the actress’ husband. This dream portrays the regrets we have in life, our actions and decisions taken in a split second having a tremendous impact overt our future. How one small change in one of our past decisions could change our present. Decisions which we wanted to take, but could not due to the fear of society.

The film is also etched in every viewers memory for Ray’s focus on minute details. Like when Arindam opens a squash bottle inside the train compartment, which Haren Bose was struggling in opening; his hero image is enhanced in front of Bose’s daughter who was already his big fan. Later Arindam places his hands on the daughter’s head who was suffering from fever, towards the end of the journey the fever subsides. The girl starts to believe that it was due her hero Arindam’s magical ‘healing touch’. After Arindam collapses on the bunk due to over drinking with his legs dangling outside, Mrs. Bose (Haren’s wife) puts the legs in the bunk and then covers Arindam with a blanket. These small details focus upon the humane side of a common man.

Nayak went on to win many awards and recognition. Nayak showcases the slow unravelling of a man’s carefully constructed persona to reveal the lonely, ravaged individual that lies beneath it. The film also retells the important lesson, ‘those who climb the highest are also the farthest to fall’. The concepts of Nayak, inspired many films- Guddi (1971), Dil Hain Ke Manta Nahin (1991), Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994) and Rangeela (1995), Autograph (2010), Birdman (2014), Praktan (2016), among others. Srijit Mukherjee made Autograph in 2010, as a tribute to Ray, although the film was nowhere close to the original. In the words of Srijit Mukherjee, “Nayak is an evergreen film because it touches universal theme in the most universal way. This is one of the key reasons it has inspired so many other films. It will always remain fresh and evergreen in minds of film-makers and admirers. What makes it timeless is the fact that it is actually a comment on performing arts in general and not just about theatre or cinema. This makes it very special.”



Movie Poster

Conversation between Arindam and Aditi

Arindam chasing after money

You can share this post!


Sayan Lodh

By Blogger

I am student of History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Besides history I'm also interested in archaeology, architectural history, heritage (tangible, natural and intangible) and heritage conservation.