The last time I saw Uttam Kumar onscreen, I was a tween suffering through Amanush. I still don’t know why I didn’t just turn off the TV and walk away – fixated by PTSD? – but for years afterward I thought Bengalis must be having me on with all their talk of how amazing Uttam Kumar was as an actor. That mumbly guy with the puffy face who pouted for 10 hours straight in that interminable movie about a whiny dude who literally turns into a manbeast because his girlfriend is a big ol’ meanie? You gotta be kidding me.
I mention this, possibly attracting the wrath of crazed Amanush-aficionados everywhere, so you understand I was not an easy sell when Beth suggested we watch Nayak. But now that I have, I want to say – Bengal, I get it.
Director: Satyajit Ray
What Happens: Famous movie idol Arindam (Uttam Kumar) gets on a train to Delhi so he can attend a function of some sort. He’s rather studiedly unconcerned about the newspapers printing details of his tawdry personal life. The camera pans to tiny little columns that make you laugh as you think about the celebrity-tabloid complex of today. Apparently Arindam has been a very bad boy, getting into brawls and such.
Everyone he meets on the train is both fascinated by and distrusting of him: the dad who cautions his wife and daughter to steer clear of him; the crusty old man who refuses to share a compartment with him because it might make him literally throw up; the young wife of a skeezy advertising executive who agrees to be pimped out by her husband if it means she can act in the movies; and Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), the idealistic editor who disdains commercial Bengali cinema but is nevertheless trying to score a circulation-boosting interview with the big movie star.
Stuck with a bunch of horrible people – and one teenager who stares at him with unblinking longing from her sickbed – Arindam zeroes in on the prettiest one for some entertainment. Opening salvos are fired as each tries to cut the other one down to size and soon the two are locked in an exchange. He thinks she is just adorable and hilarious with her tiny little self-important newspaper; she thinks he’s a slippery customer who hides in plain sight and how dare he be so charming and goodlooking when she is so determined to despise him?
The two of them banter about the nature of fame and the expectations of the audience; Arindam enjoys Aditi’s discomfiture when the crazed reality of his fame rudely interrupts her lofty hypotheses. At some point, Arindam has a weak moment and implicitly agrees to the frank interview Aditi is after. This is not entirely clear, however, because Aditi behaves in direct opposition to the subtitles and takes furtive notes behind her small handbag as if he wouldn’t notice her frantically scribbling while seated mere inches away. Idealistic editors aren’t very good at subterfuge, I think.
As Arindam speaks, it becomes clear to us as the audience and to Aditi behind her big, serious glasses of pretentiousness that he is not really doing her a favor: she’s doing him a favor by letting him lance long-festering emotional wounds in front of her.
There is the creepily possessive mentor from his theater days who is violently opposed to Arindam joining the movies. Young Arindam is deferential, cowering from his mentor’s borderline deranged rants against the Cinema Succubus. He hides the fact that he accepted a role in a movie but the news leaks out anyway and the mentor immediately drops dead. God save us all from dramatic mentors. Arindam isn’t so foolish as to renounce his cinematic ambitions because of that but he can’t escape the feeling that his success is built upon his mentor’s corpse.
The first person Arindam meets on the film set is an older actor, famous for his stylized acting, who plays Laurence Olivier to his Marlon Brando. Even though he gets thoroughly dressed down in public by the old man, Arindam can’t help but feel a twinge of pity for him – he’s a fine old dinosaur unaware that he has both feet stuck in quicksand. Years later, when Arindam is an established star, the old man comes to meet him – jonesing for a drink, his once-proud voice – his finest instrument – broken and ruined, unemployed and unemployable. Fate has come full circle and handed Arindam all the power he once lacked, but he can only see his future in this used up old man and is horrified enough to be driven to drink.
This is followed by his best friend, the Communist who wishes he could do some sort of mind meld with Arindam so he could deliver his fiery speeches the way they were meant to be delivered. Failing that, he manages to give a speech that gets him locked up and comes back from prison to find Arindam a huge star. So, as your worst friends do, he completely blindsides Arindam and tries to co-opt him into his political thingamajig. Little red squirrel. Arindam hightails it out of there but is left feeling guilty once again as he abandons yet another part of his old life.
As night falls and Arindam is left to face his demons alone, even sleeping pills and alcohol won’t give him the rest he craves. On the verge of throwing himself off the train, he sends for Aditi and prepares to give her the scoop of the day: his recent bout of bad press comes courtesy his married lover, a woman who hid her marital status from him so she could star in his movie. By this point, it is clear that the brittle nonchalance with which Arindam began the movie was nothing but a sham. He views himself as a transgressor and a betrayer; as unworthy and base offscreen as he is heroic and virtuous onscreen.
But Aditi has heard enough. She tears up the interview and for the first time in a long time, Arindam is faced by a person who sees him as a human being instead of a collection of newspaper headlines or a projection of deeply held prejudice or useful tool. Who cares about him and watches out for his better interest rather than demanding he do something to further her own. There is a definite sense of romance in the way these two characters interact but there is nothing romantic about Aditi’s actions – she displays nothing more than basic human decency toward a fellow being. He is transfixed.
The next morning, Arindam is swarmed by the media as Aditi quietly slips away with her family, leaving him surrounded by his success, staring after her.
What Happens Next: Arindam, famous movie star, sends his minions to track Aditi down. He dramatically arrives at her doorstep and informs her Intellectual Parents that he is there to marry their intellectual daughter. Intellectual Parents are all, “Whu-?” while Aditi is all, “Yep.” Poor baby Arindam finally gets someone in his life who isn’t a total monster. Aditi scores a hot movie star and becomes the Queen Empress of All Nerds forever. The End.