Primarily known in the west for his magnificent Apu Trilogy, Satyajit Ray continually reached deep into the heart of his native India to craft unsurpassed visual poems depicting India's transition from traditional ways into the twentieth century. He also paints a number of cinematic portraits of contemporary Indian life-many difficult to locate works that are now beginning to trickle into the U.S. via DVD release. Such is the case for Nayak: the Hero, a lesser-known work that was a 1966 Berlin Film Festival winner.
Taking a page from Hitchcock, Ray encloses his characters inside a speeding train bound for Delhi, but this road trip plays strictly as character study (with a nod towards social commentary) rather than mystery thriller. Anyone expecting plot twists and action are certain to find this disappointing, but those people aren't likely to be checking out any of Ray's canon. Without much happening aboard the train and relying heavily on dialogue, Nayak explores the Bengali film industry primarily through a successful but self-doubting movie star idol. Through his mid-life crisis and self-examination we also glimpse the challenges that face Bollywood itself: its lightweight escapist fare, commercial emphasis, and corrupt business practices.
Arindam (played with relish by real-life Bengali romantic lead Uttam Kumar) famously lives an indulgent life of adulation-his every move chronicled by the tabloid press. Currently the subject of notable gossip for a drunken barroom assault, he decides to board a train as a regular passenger to accept an award in Delhi. Most of his fellow passengers are avid fans, staring at him excitedly and seeking his autograph; however, the only passenger that intrigues him is strangely indifferent to his stardom. She rarely watches any of his movies since she finds them trite and hopelessly unrealistic. This is Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), a journalist who seeks an interview for her obscure independent magazine.
Initially, Arindam glibly remains superficial, saying that she would cover the same ground that can already be gleaned from numerous other publications. In actuality, Arindam thinly disguises his vulnerability. He have grave doubts about his latest film and the direction his career is taking, and he fears that the more personal account that Aditi seeks would damage his fan base.
However, a change of heart must take place, or there is no movie. Arindam has a disturbing dream about sinking in a quicksand of money while his original theatrical mentor is unable to rescue him. Hardly subtle, Aridam seeks Aditi out to "interpret" his dream and uncharacteristically opens up to reveal details about his life and career that he's never expressed before. A second dream is even more disturbing and causes the matinee idol to reveal even more personal details in a drunken state.
Secondary characters and subplots sketch in cursory criticism of the Bengali film industry, primarily through an unscrupulous advertiser who "pimps" his wife to an unscrupulous wealthy businessman to seal a deal. His wife agrees on the condition that her husband contact Arindam and grant permission for her to act in an upcoming movie. A number of scenes with other minor characters and larger crowd scenes demonstrate the superficial whimsy of moviefandom.
But the central core of the film revolves around Aridam and his developing platonic relationship with Aditi. Both Kumar and Tagore elevate the simplistic script and the routine camera pans above their literal level with sensitive and subtle touches. They show great range that goes far beyond the obvious physical changes-from attractive young woman to serious intellectual by donning eyeglasses, or from smug, confident celebrity to vulnerable drunk. Without resorting to a cheap sexual encounter, Ray deftly guides the pair through a sensitive restrained relationship that is quite poignant, making this relatively obscure film a worthy Netflix rental.