On Nayak

Posted in Drama, movies by jrahman on March 17, 2016

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.






4 Responses

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  1. উদয়ন said, on March 18, 2016 at 5:22 am

    BTW, why do you think Ray never tackled Bangladesh in any way? Apart from Babita and Ekushey February in 1972, I’m not aware of any other interest from him.

    • jrahman said, on April 9, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Good question. This is all the more interesting because he is acutely aware of the Muslim heritage of and their presence in Bengal / India.

      I’ve never seen this raised anywhere, so this is pure conjecture. I think he saw himself as a liberal Indian — that is, to the left of Hindu chauvinist nationalism, but to the right of Marx-inspired politics of mid-20th century Calcutta. This much is well understood. But most other such liberals never really accepted partition. I think Ray is exception. He accepted that Bangladesh had made its choice and gone separate ways, and its journey wasn’t something he was invested in.

      To elaborate, that he was liberal

  2. BigPapaBojo said, on March 18, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    LOL: how different we all are. I’m a staunch nationalist [I want to see Bangladesh DESTROY the rest of the pack in this world cup, and I won’t settle for anything less], never found myself attracted to Bengali girls [became heavily enamoured with Central/Eastern-European Muslim & Scandinavian women], and find it incredibly difficult to attach myself to Indian Bengali cinema/culture [though this is probably a function of my age]. I yearn for Bangladeshi cinema that captures the current flavour of things on the ground in Bangladesh, and increasingly good Bangladeshi music, food and culture.

    Also unlike the historical and current sectarianism between different factions, I’m apolitical. I don’t care which party governs, as long as they get the “job” done. The different “tribes” of this political scenario we are in, never really interested me much.

  3. kgazi said, on March 22, 2016 at 7:50 am

    I am a staunch nationalist when it comes to hating the “Hori Loot” of my country by our national gangstas, a big one exposed in the form of hacking Bangladesh Bank funds.

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