Arindham Mukherjee is a major Bengali superstar who is on his way to Delhi to receive an important award. He is not that keen to collect the award but decides to make the trip just for the heck of it. He is told by his manager that his latest film is receiving a lukewarm reception at the box office. He seems to be not bothered by this news but we get the feeling that he is. According to him, his presence alone should be enough to sell a film and whether or not it’s something the audience has seen before is not the point. He is also distracted by a news in the morning paper about his involvement in a brawl with somebody. Just when he is about to leave, he receives a phone call from a lady, who may or may not be the reason for the aforementioned brawl. On the train, Arindam comes across Aditi, who introduces herself as the editor of a popular women’s magazine. She is after him for an interview, which he is initially reluctant to give. Slowly, he pours out his soul to her and we learn so many things about him, including his past and certain events that still haunt him. Aditi soon comes to realize that beneath his larger-than-life persona, there lies a deeply tortured soul.
Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, along with the three films in his Calcutta trilogy – Pratidwandi, Jana Aranya and Seemabaddha – is among his most under-seen works. A lot of film buffs outside India are very familiar with his Apu trilogy but these four films (along with some others) haven’t received the wider attention that they very much deserve. I thought this was the most “European” of Ray’s films. You get an in-depth psychological analysis of the main character through flashbacks and dream sequences.
The casting of Uttam Kumar as Arindam was an inspired choice. There are some striking similarities between Uttam and Arindam. One could say that he was born to play this role. Like the main character, he too was a major Bengali star and was obsessively involved in his work. (Perhaps this could be the reason for his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 59.) Uttam plays Arindam so effortlessly that one is compelled to ask whether he chose this film because he saw so much of himself in this character.
Nayak is a remarkably different film for Ray in that it marks a significant departure in style from his earlier films. The focus here is solely on one character and one setting. By placing the character inside a train, Ray gives it a sense of dramatic intensity and we almost get to experience the same claustrophobia that the character is experiencing. Each layer of Arindam’s personality is gradually peeled away to reveal the tortured soul beneath them all. We see that every Bengali looks at him as some sort of “God” but in the end, we realize that he is a sad and lonely man with plenty of issues. Even though Arindam is the central focus of the film, we simply cannot ignore Aditi (played by Sharmila Tagore) who could be his guardian angel in disguise.