There is cricket in the subcontinent, and while it’s good see Bangladesh being competitive, nationalism often leaves me cold. There is, however, one part of life where I am, if not nationalist, quite parochial — the stronger sex. There is something about Bengali girls. As with many things, Satyajit Ray captures it brilliantly:
A Bengali girl once asked me why Uttam Kumar is so mean to Sharmila Tagore. I was surprised she hadn’t watched Nayak. I shouldn’t have been, as this is one of Ray’s lesser known gems. That’s a shame, because arguably it’s one of his best work.
Of course, the Apu trilogy or his Tagore adaptations are better known both in the west as well as in India. Less appreciated is Ray’s depiction of the mid-20th century Calcutta bhadralok. He was from that milieu, and knew it much better than the rural Bengal or the gentry of Tagore’s era. It’s hard to find another body of art that shows that time and place so touchingly, without judging, than movies like Kanchenjungha or Mahanagar.
Nayak is firmly in that part of the Ray oeuvre, but unlike those movies, it’s not focussed on the domesticity of the so-called real people. The protagonist, as the title suggests, is a matinee idol, played by the biggest idol of Bengali cinema — Uttam Kumar. That man did a lot of movies that can be charitably characterised as trash. But when he was good, he had what I’m going to flunk in ability as a writer by calling the screen presence or the x-factor. And in no other role does he deploy that more than here, channeling Brando and Bogart as much as himself.
Ray shines a light on the rat-race and loneliness of the mid-20th century capitalist men. Not just our hero with his nightmares and suicidal demons, but also corporate men with pretty or homely wives and sexist hypocrisies. Of course, this being the 1960s Calcutta, we see a flash of red too — presaging his Calcutta trilogy, there is politics, without ever being preachy or polemical.
There is a touching scene about the loss of innocence. And did I mention the movie is set in an overnight train from Calcutta to Delhi? Few things in life are more fun than an old fashioned train journey.
But the best part of this film is Sharmila Tagore, who isn’t really the nayika but well on her way to Paris — there is no romance here, but there is real conversation, hard questions, honest answers.
Tumi Nayak dekhoni? Come on, you must watch it! I told the Bengali girl.
It will be 50 years this May that this movie was released, and a good copy is available on youtube. You could do far worse with your evening.