“Nayak” - Satyajit Ray (1966)

Nayak (The Hero, 1966) is a film by Satyajit Ray that examines the paradoxical loneliness of a movie star who is always surrounded by his admirers.  Although ostensibly a film about a hitherto unreflective public personality, Ray seems to have invested in the film many of his own personal feelings.  Indeed Ray, the consummate cinematic craftsman, put his personal stamp on all aspects of the production.  In addition to being the film’s director, Ray also wrote the screenplay (this was his second original screenplay after Kanchenjungha (1962)), wrote the music, and co-edited the film.  Although the film is not among those listed as Ray’s greatest, it has always retained a loyal following [1,2].

The matinée idol who is the principal character in the story is played by the Bengali male movie star at the time, Uttam Kumar.  Evidently Ray had Kumar in mind when he wrote his story and felt that Kumar was the natural embodiment of what he intended to portray [3,4].  The female co-star in the tale is played by Sharmila Tagore, who had earlier starred in Ray’s The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) and Devi (The Goddess, 1960). The always magnetic Ms. Tagore was still very young (twenty) at this time, and again she plays an interesting character, on this occasion a somewhat highbrow and self-satisfied magazine editor in horned-rim glasses.

The film’s story focuses on the movie star Arindam Mukherjee (played by Uttam Kumar) during his long, overnight train trip from Kolkota to Delhi, where he is going to receive a prestigious award. Along the way he meets fellow passenger Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), and their encounter turns out to be an eye-opening experience for the customarily proud screen star.

The telling of this tale underscores some themes of interest, and this contributes to the film’s effectiveness. 
  • For one thing, this is a train movie, which I always find fascinating.  Train movies often metaphorically suggest some passage involving people headed for a shadowy destination that they cannot avoid.   There is also the very physical representation of confinement and cramped quarters, which can disrupt privacy and force people to come together.  And with respect to the particular case of India, its remarkable railroad system has undoubtedly left its special mark on its people. Some of the great train movies of the past include von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Express, Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, Wenders’s The American Friend, von Trier’s Europa, and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.   In most of those films, a train trip is only part of the plot, whereas the train trip in Nayak spans the entire story.
  • Another theme of interest is withdrawal.  As the story unwinds and Arindam recounts a number of his past experiences to Aditi, we get the sense that Arindam’s past life has featured some key events involving his withdrawal from a situation so that he could retain his control in a crowded context and hold onto his status as a “hero”.  But these withdrawals naturally entailed missed opportunities or lost connections for which he starts to realize he has lingering regrets.
  • A third theme is pervasive personal exploitation.  Many of the people shown on the train are cordial but primarily out for their own personal gain.  They want to use other people in order to  get ahead.  As Arindam and Aditi get to know each other, the two of them begin to move away from that approach. 
The story of Nayak unfolds in three sections or acts.

1.  Setting off on the Train
The film introduces the big movie star Arindam Mukherjee boarding the train as well as some other well-off passengers who will be on board.  In one sleeping car compartment is Arindam and the wealthy industrialist Haren Bose, who is traveling with his wife and their fever-encumbered teenage daughter.  In another compartment is a taciturn swami along with an advertising executive, Pritish Sarkar, and his young wife, Molly. Also onboard elsewhere is the young women’s magazine editor Aditi Sengupta.  Most of the people on the train are thrilled to have the movie star among them, although many are aware that Arindam was an item in the day’s newspapers for having punched a man at a local nightclub.  Sarkar, though, is more interested in the possibility of securing an advertising contract with Bose. When Sarkar sees that Bose is attracted to his wife, he unhesitatingly tells his wife, much to her horror, to coquettishly play up to him.

In the dining car Aditi approaches Arindam for his autograph, but the encounter is not so satisfactory.  Aditi is disdainful of movie star glitz, and Arindam is equally dismissive of the less-than-awed young woman.  Later, though, when the cocky Arindam is back in his compartment and has a snooze, he has a disturbing dream: while at first he finds himself outside walking through piles of paper money, he later falls into a “quicksand” money hole and is about to be buried.

2.  Conversation with Aditi

Despite himself, Arindam is drawn to interact with the more thoughtful passenger Aditi, and the entire second act of the film consists of an extended conversation they have together in the dining car.  Aditi wants to capture a different side of the movie star in order to interest her magazine readers, so she asks him to tell her about his pivotal early experiences.  In the course of answering her questions, Arindam reflects on some troublesome moments in his past. Of course Ray in this case does not subject the viewer to forty minutes of pure talk, and much of what Arindam tells Aditi is presented in the form of flashbacks.

After first telling Aditi about his money quicksand dream, he tells her about his early experiences under the direction of his stage-acting mentor, Shankar (Flashback 1).  Shankar was dogmatically opposed to Arindam going into the movies, because he says movie acting is totally artificial, and movie actors are only puppets.  To be a movie actor, in Shankar’s view, is to lose one’s vital connection to an audience.  Actually, the tension between more distant stage theatricality and more intimate cinematic portrayal of human feelings is not a simple matter, and it was probably something that Ray, himself, reflected upon.  Robert Bresson, for example, was concerned how the cinema camera tended to accentuate the artificiality of screen actors and sought ways to get around it [5].  In any case Arindam tells Aditi that after Shankar’s sudden death by heart attack, he decided to withdraw from the recommended stage actor’s connectivity with his audience and become a more widely known screen actor.

Subsequently in their conversation, Arindam recalls his first movie-acting experience, where he was overshadowed by the domineering veteran Mukunda Lahiri and forced into overacting his part (Flashbacks 2 and 3).  Later, after Mukunda’s career had collapsed, Arindam took his revenge on the out-of-work actor by refusing to help him get a job.  Although Arindam’s behaviour here echoed Ray’s own practice in connection with offering bit parts [3], it again reflected Arindam’s tendency to withdraw from human engagement.

Then Arindam told Aditi how he refused to help his longtime friend Biresh in connection with his friend’s social activism (Flashback 4), and once again we see Arindam’s instincts on display to withdraw from situations he fears might damage his image as a hero.

Finally, after Arindam and Aditi have returned to their separate quarters, Arindam has a personal flashback reminiscence of his encounter with a cheeky young actress, Promila (Flashback 5).  Her insistence on getting Arindam to help her get an acting job was successful on this occasion, so we see that Arindam’s principles that led him to refuse Mukunda were not so steadfast when feminine charm came into play.

3.  Coming to Terms
Arindam has another surrealistic dream, this time involving Promila, his extramarital affair with whom was apparently the cause of the reported nightclub alteration.  In response to all these troubling recollections and nightmares, Arindam starts reflecting on the now-recognized emptiness of his life, and so he gets roundly drunk.  In a besotted daze he even contemplates suicide before encountering Aditi once more.  He wants to make a further confession to her, about his affair with Promila, but Aditi sympathetically tells him she doesn’t need to hear it.  She abandons her selfish concerns about publishing their interview and even tears up her notes that she had taken about it.  She assures him that she will only keep it in her memory.  When the train arrives in Delhi, everyone goes their separate ways and returns to their earlier preoccupations.

Although the train has arrived at its destination, Nayak’s ending does not offer a full resolution of what has come before.  The passengers in the story’s background – Bose, Sakar, Molly, and the swami – remain as avaricious (they see themselves as “deal makers”) and self-centered as before.  As for Arindam and Aditi, they return to their separated lives, presumably never to see each other again.  There was no romantic involvement between them, only a growing respect and mutual sympathy. Thus their encounter has evolved away from personal exploitation towards interpersonal empathy.  This is often the case in Ray’s films, where the full situated complexities of life are on display and simple plot resolutions are unlikely to resolve the complex issues before us. Instead, Ray’s films often conclude by turning the protagonists in a new direction.  This is the case with Arindam at this film’s end.  The opportunity provided by Aditi to reflect on issues that had unconsciously been troubling him offers Arindam the chance to come to new terms with his life. 

Nayak is an example of Satyajit Ray’s elegant and sympathetic portrayals of people trying to come to terms with the complex world around them. That he always managed to do this by engaging his audiences in the contexts and terms of a number of different cinematic styles and genres has always been a wonder.  Partial credit for those achievements must go to key members of his production team, including Subrata Mitra (cinematography), Dulal Dutta (film co-editing), and Bansi Chandragupta (production design).  Together with Ray, they managed to make the confinements of the train environment real and dynamically alive with atmospheric vitality.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Nayak (1966): Satyajit Ray's brooding character study featuring a heart-wrenching performance from Uttam Kumar”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (July 2015). 
  2. Ranjan Das, “Nayak”, Upperstall, (2014).  
  3. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 194-201.
  4. Chale Nafus, “NAYAK (The Hero)”, Austin Film Society, (2014).
  5. Max Nelson, “The Intrusion Artist”, Public Books, (15 November 2016).