Films that are 50

Films that are 50: There are movies about the movies and then there is Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’

Uttam Kumar plays a version of himself in a superior examination of the flip side of fame and glamour.

The central problem that the hero of the Bengali film Nayak (The Hero) faces is articulated early in the film, when a journalist on the same train asks him, “Don’t you feel something missing? Some emptiness somewhere?” The journalist’s interview is one of the many techniques that Satyajit Ray uses with finesse to question the life that matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee has chosen for himself.

On his way to Delhi to receive a national award for acting, Mukherjee is not normally prone to introspection. He’s just come out of a messy affair involving the actress wife of another man who is seen, in flashbacks, to have offered herself as a casting couch candidate. As the film progresses, we see Ray bringing in all the clichés of the glamourous acting life and turning them on their head by bringing out the vapidness of it all from the star’s perspective.

Uttam Kumar as Arindam Mukherjee
Uttam Kumar as Arindam Mukherjee

Throughout the train journey – which is, of course, a convenient metaphor for a journey to a certain realisation for Mukherjee – various passengers ask him uncomfortable questions. Perhaps the most priceless exchange is the one with a nonagenarian who lectures him on his dissolute, alcohol-soaked lifestyle. When the star asks the old man whether he’s referring to a legally married wife, the acerbic reply, in English, is: “What other kind of marriage there can be in civilised society?” (Ray’s ear for real-life dialogue was impeccable, as evident in the use of “there can be” rather than the grammatically correct “can there be”.)

In his 13th feature film, Ray turns away from a larger social-humanist canvas to focus on a single personality and his intersection with his sociopolitical, economic, and artistic milieu. Nayak is the second film for which he wrote an original screenplay, the first being Kanchenjhunga (1962). Both films have the qualities of symphonies, the “movements” alternating between quick, medium, and slow, with a number of stories being told simultaneously, independent and yet interwoven. And neither has the classic storyline of films made from literature.

Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) prises open the lid that Arindam Mukherjee has shut on his real self
Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) prises open the lid that Arindam Mukherjee has shut on his real self

In Nayak, particularly, Ray exploits the formless narrative, where it’s not the story but the progression of time that takes the viewer along. Unlike in Kanchenjhunga, however, he uses the flashback to introduce the hero’s backstory, as the softly relentless questioning of the journalist Aditi Sengupta, played with a welcome lack of coquetry by Sharmila Tagore, prises open the lid that Mukherjee has shut on his real self.

Both the hero and the audience are confronted by the systematic breaks with conscience that the road to a soulless success entails. There is no moral judgement here, but Mukherjee’s agony is presented in terrifying dreams, one of them of sinking into a pile of money – surely a deliberate hat tip to Orson Welles – that effectively says it all.

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Films about films are always rich for insights into a craft that a director knows intimately. But here Ray is less concerned with the illusion of filmmaking than with the shifts in the moral compass of the biggest cinema stars. In a further deliberate blurring of the lines between art and life, he picks Uttam Kumar – Bengali cinema’s real world equivalent of Arindam Mukherjee in terms of fame, adulation and an existence littered with hangers-on – who was popularly referred to as Mahanayak, to star in the film.

Kumar’s performance is the nearest thing to pitch perfection that a film told in the language of realism can have. Not only is he coolly distant and yet cordial with fellow passengers, he also brings out the agony that lies beneath the surface of poise and authority that his character exudes, without being dramatic about it.

In one of the flashbacks, a young Mukherjee, appearing in a scene with a seasoned actor, pitches his tone so low, so close to everyday cadences of speech, that his fellow performer asks, “Is this a soliloquy… or Hollywood?” The irony can’t be lost, even as the hero tries to bring his acting closer to real life, his career as a superstar takes him ever further away from that very life. And the train journey only works as a brief entanglement with a set of uncomfortable truths, as he is led away by an adoring crowd on his arrival in Delhi.

Nayak may not be Ray’s most memorable film, but it is unparalleled in the intensity of its inward gaze. What a travesty that it was remade in a shallow contemporary version titled Autograph as part of a new wave of Bengali cinema that confuses a middle-of-the-road slickness with uniqueness and depth.

At 50, Nayak is as young as it could be.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.