Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.
Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.
The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).
Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.
The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.
This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):
Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.
The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)
Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).
The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.
I’m particularly looking forward to the 100 Years of Indian Cinema strand in this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. One of the highlights is Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players. I was a fan of Ray’s films up until the mid 1970s but I haven’t seen most of his later films. Perhaps that is not so surprising. The 1970s was when the attention of many cinephiles and film scholars turned towards the New Indian Cinema of Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani amongst others. Ray was suddenly out of favour. Looking back now it seems clear to me that the complexity of Ray’s cinema was not properly appreciated and that many of the assumptions about his work were simply wrong. We’ve covered some of the necessary re-appraisal earlier on this blog and we hope to do more this summer with the BFI’s release of the restored print of Mahanagar (1963) and the screening of several more Ray films at BFI Southbank. All our Ray postings are available via this ‘Satyajit Ray’ tag.
The Chess Players sees Ray exploring a double form of colonialism. In the mid-19th century, the Nawab of Oudh (present day Lucknow) was the ruler of the state and the last representative of the Mughals in that region. The British East India Company were poised to take complete control before eventually giving it up to the British Government and the India Office after the 1857 rising by Indian troops of the company. The Nawab was an ineffective ruler but a great patron of the arts and this becomes one of the discourses of the film. The coloniser-colonised relationship already existed between the Shia Muslim rulers and the local people (mainly Hindus) and involves ethnicity and religion as well as political power. This is then doubled by the arrival of the British as the new colonisers with a new set of power relationships. Ray adapts his film from a story by Munshi Premchand – written in 1924 with the British Raj still in place – and adds some extra scenes in his analysis. The chess players are from the Muslim ruling class and it is their ‘lassitude’ which will allow the British (in the form of Richard Attenbrough’s General Outram) to take over. I’m looking forward to some animated sequences – typical of the devices that Ray used in his films from the mid-1960s onwards. I hope that the festival audience will see a film that challenges some of the assumptions about Ray’s cinema.
It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.