Satyajit Ray's Nayak completes five decades: Exploring stardom in Indian cinema
Uttam Kumar gives expression to Ray's understanding of the star system in India Photograph: (Others)
"In the early morning of Saturday, the first of June, I had a strange and very unpleasant dream."
Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) in Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
My cinephilic precocity must be blamed for this, but I saw Satyajit Ray's Nayak (1966) only after seeing Wild Strawberries, the film that (allegedly) inspired Ray in exploring the matinee idol’s journey into his past. Nayak is one of the few Ray films that have been digitally restored in recent times, and I had the chance of catching it up in its new avatar in the Melbourne Indian Film Festival of 2015. Looking back at Nayak on the eve of its golden jubilee, the three threads that run through it reveal themselves gradually. Some of them are obvious and explicit, some are not.
Nayak is certainly Ray’s comment on the star system, with its various nuances, its fandom, its dark alleys, its surreptitious passages. With star studies being an emergent area of research in Indian cinema studies, Nayak might be a text that deserves more critical attention. Scholars in the field engage more with the south Indian variety, especially for its curious electoral-political linkages. Stardom in Bengal lacks that political connotation, but it is not without its own politics.
Here the star undergoes a radical refashioning and transformation in the late 1960s, as hinted at in Nayak and the film that followed it, Chidiakhana (1967). Uttam Kumar, the romantic star of the 1950s melodrama, represented the ‘vernacular modernity’ of the Bengali nation. The Uttam-Suchitra duo responded to reformations in the newly independent nation, coupling outside the social fabric and ending every film in a scandalous climactic embrace.
Professor Moinak Biwas of the Film Studies department of Jadavpur University at Kolkata suggests that the star figure of Uttam Kumar underwent substantial changes in the troubled times of the 1970s, being afflicted by the madness of his time and leaving the cinematic space for the angry street youths. The star becomes older, confronted by the disillusioned youth in films like Jadubangsha (1974). Before undergoing the metamorphosis, perhaps the star prepares for it, looking back at his way of becoming a star.
The journey into the (often traumatic) past is another obvious element in Nayak. Like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries or Theo Angelopoulos’ Eternity and a Day (1999), Nayak consistently moves back and forth in time in the course of a day’s journey from dawn to dusk. The micro-history of Arindam Mukherjee is juxtaposed often with the metahistories of the nation and its cinema. The change of acting styles, a shift from the overtly exaggerated style of the studio era to the method acting of Arindam, leads to the fading away of a star of the yesteryear. Labour unrests and trade unionism dominate, but Arindam is unable to take part in it.
The train in which Arindam is traveling to Delhi moves with its myriad characters, with its conmen and entrepreneurs, its staunch moralists and its young and the beautiful, its globe-trotter industrialists and its agency-owners who might trade their wives for profits. Arindam is confronted by the most uninhibited of them, the journalist (played by Sharmila Tagore), to whom he narrates his story.
What makes Nayak considerably weak and vulnerable is the dream sequences, especially the famous one where Arindam drowns in the surge of currency notes. Arindam’s dreams are often amateurish and considerably unreal without moving into the domain of the fantastic. The epigraph that begins this article tells us about the “strange and unpleasant” dream that Isak Borg, Arindam’s Swedish predecessor, had. Borg’s dream is much more terrifyingly real than Arindam’s, where he meets death, looking eye to eye with his own corpse.
What is cinema but a platform peopled by dead and alive bodies, or, as Lesley Stern puts it, “bodies that insist on existing after they are dead?” Isak Borg looks at his past, encounters his traumas, his foils, his lost love(s), his long-dead unfaithful, adulterous wife, his notion of futility. These are all real encounters, as Professor Borg intrudes into the past, but does not and cannot intervene. He stands there as a distant observer, substituting the recording apparatus/camera, his existence becoming cinematic. Compared to that, Arindam’s memories are mere recollections. His dreams never haunt the audience, no (past) demons appear inside the theatre. But (cinematic) demons should appear, or they need to appear, either literally (as in the horror flicks of Lamberto Bava), or metaphorically.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, in their Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, notice the uncanny resemblance that Kanchanjungha (1962) or Nayak have with murder mysteries, even though Ray waited for Chidiakhana to try his luck with a full-fledged murder mystery/whodunit. Kanchanjungha follows the country house murder mystery plot, but no murder takes place. You anticipate the crime that never happens. Nayak could well have been turned into a Murder on the Orient express, but the anticipation of it must be scarier than the actual thing, and a Hitchcock-admirer like Ray would never forget that. His interest in mystery form will continue even after Chidiakhana, with Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) delving deeper into the dark secrets of Ray’s world.
Nayak appeared in 1966, two years before the politico-cultural turmoil that shook the world. Cinema was undergoing many changes at that time, negotiating with many issues at the distant shores. Long back in the early 1950s, Italian neorealism (if it ever existed) inspired Ray and his peers. However, the movement dried up soon. At the end of the 60s and early 1970s, Italy experienced an upsurge of new film genres, especially the giallo, which came from stalwarts as Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Named after the yellow (giallo in Italian) covered pulp-fiction popularised by the Milanese publishing house Mondadori, these murder mysteries and supernatural horrors gained critical attention much later. Their recognition came only when their subversive insanity and political content became clear through the making of such films as A Quiet Place in the Country by one of the greatest political filmmakers of Italy, Elio Petri in 1968.
These mysteries and horrors go back into the traumatic past of the characters, and there is no refreshing dream of old yachts and elegantly dressed parents at the beach that made Professor Isak Borg feel lighthearted despite his sense of futility. In the words of Maitland McDonagh, here the past comes back to the characters like a powerful "physical blow”. With her traumatic past and recurring dreams of violence, Nina Tobias (played by Mimsy Farmer) in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) gets decapitated by the truck’s rear bumper smashing into her car. And her creator, Argento, makes it as lyrical as possible, as he loves all his killers.
Nayak, in my reading, tries to respond to both these global trends, the sweet yacht from the 1950s of Bergman's films and the lyrical crimes of the 1960s Europe, even when it discovers its inability to do so.