Nayak: The Hero (1966)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The train has been an integral component in the history of cinema since the Lumiere brothers filmed one arriving at a station that spawned the very medium, the Lumiere’s assisting in the transition of cinema from the novelty of traveling magic lantern shows and penny arcades to majestic theaters as imposing and ornate as hallowed cathedrals of religious worship, while trains distributed the captured light of one location to the rest of the world in boxcars filled with celluloid. A train travels down a stationary track just as film strips are pulled through the winding mechanisms of a projector, only deviating from the sprockets or track when something goes very wrong. Each railroad car offers a new space for intrigue and infinite narrative potential like small squares of 35mm celluloid that carry a passenger load of reanimated light and memories of shadow. Satyajit Ray uses this soulmate of cinema as the location for Nayak, a Felliniesque exploration of the artistic merits of cinema and the soul eroding compromises inherent in the creation of a feature film as one man is haunted by the demons of his past while riding in that most cinematic of transport methods.
Satyajit Ray uses this soulmate of cinema as the location for Nayak, a Felliniesque exploration of the artistic merits of cinema …
Bengali film idol Arindam Mukherjee is on his way to Delhi to accept an acting award just days after a violent altercation with a journalist that has twisted his reputation and sent the actor on a silent journey of self-doubt and painful introspection. He carries himself with the effortless confidence of Federico Fellini’s Guido Anselmi. Like his Italian counterpart, Arindam uses sunglasses to mask his contempt for the world as he answers banal questions about the world of cinema and defends himself from the attacks of those that misunderstand the medium. Like anyone with a life properly lived, his mind is haunted by every bad decision and ignoble act he has committed over the years. Left to the torturous whims of his thoughts by a lack of stimulation and alcohol within the confines of the train, he is particularly receptive to the moans and wails of the ghosts that haunt his memories. Unlike Fellini’s Guido, who dreams of a life beyond the maddening indignities one must perform to make a living, Arindam dreams of dunes of fluttering currency but quickly learns that this desert of withered bills is haunted and holds no lasting treasures for the living.
Ray and Arindam are both heroes, not because they have superior morality or can perform acts of superhuman strength; they are heroes because they have a rare capacity to bring joy to the lives of others …
Satyajit Ray would have been as alienated as Arindam during his travels abroad as a representative of Bengali cinema that he shared little in common with. Both Ray and Arindam would be forced to answer for the sins of others while unable to reconcile their own transgressions that life in a public eye has a tendency to amplify and exacerbate. Ray would have found no peers in his own travels abroad as his illustrious career was filled with international awards from the beginning, nor would he find peers once he arrived home again as the elements that set him apart from other Bengali filmmakers and got him international attention would alienate viewers from his home country. Such is the plight of all artists and poets who can see the flaws and merits of humanity with too much clarity to participate easily. Ray and Arindam are both heroes, not because they have superior morality or can perform acts of superhuman strength; they are heroes because they have a rare capacity to bring joy to the lives of others, not necessarily because they chose to, but because they are incapable of living any other life.
Nayak is one of those rare gems that gives us a glimpse into the torture and banality found in the artists’ mind, reminding us that heroes are of our own creation and not necessarily an accurate representation of reality. We project the elements that define our own versions of greatness onto the personas we endear and hold as heroes, but they are ultimately members of the same flawed species as the rest of us, filled with hopes and dreams both shattered and realized, and subject to the same ignoble thoughts and secret insecurities that gnaw at us all.
Nayak is one of those rare gems that gives us a glimpse into the torture and banality found in the artists' mind, reminding us that heroes are of our own creation and not necessarily an accurate representation of reality.