In the twin decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the uncrowned king of Bengali commercial cinema was Uttam Kumar, without doubt or debate. With Suchitra Sen his screen love interest the pair pretty much wrapped up the industry. At least, where the romance formula was concerned there was no competition: like two colossi they straddled Tollygunge. And no one complained, least of all the audience. Watch any Uttam-Suchitra film and you’ll see why.

On a parallel track, Satyajit Ray was crafting poetry from an altogether different material. As a craftsman, a fine machinist, he found Soumitra, Madhabi and Sharmila excellently pliable for his manifold toolkit. They resonated with his music, their sensibilities in perfect phase with his own, their sensitivities needing no more than a breath or whisper from his own to stir to life. You watch those films, and you wonder where the director ends and actor begins, or vice versa. And Ray was perfectly happy with his devoted band. Although he never called his films art cinema — indeed he always maintained they were mainstream, that he was a storyteller — they were clearly antithetical (if not antipathetic) to the Uttam-Suchitra mould.

But even Ray could hardly ignore the ‘phenomenon’ that Uttam was. The latter’s near-divine status in the Tolly firmament was an immutable fact. Yet Ray was wary of using him, for perfectly sound reasons. A much adulated, indeed worshipped super-star could be a directorial liability: like an ancient hull — in this case, encrusted with barnacles of accreted public devotion — he could prove intractable to a sculptor’s chisel. Which is why Ray left him alone, as he did Suchitra.

But he watched him with an appraising eye, nonetheless. And then, in one of those epiphanies of genius — dazzling in its simplicity — he realised there was indeed one way he could make something out of Uttam: make a film about a matinee idol, the god of millions, make a film on the ‘phenomenon’ itself. In short, let Uttam play himself, be himself. Except — since this was long before the word biopic came into being — his name would be Arindam Mukherjee.

I first saw Nayak (Hero) in 1968 in college, courtesy the Bengali Association which managed to import one film a year through membership fees and a token ticket of Re 1 for the show. In ‘68 my Bengali skills were nonexistent; so I was grateful for the English subtitles, but I remember being deeply impressed. Of course, at the time the cinematic device of setting the plot on an actual train journey from Howrah to Delhi on the then most luxurious train in India, the AC Vestibuled Deluxe, was in itself a novelty, but more than anything else, one marvelled at the logistics and coordination it involved. How on earth did one shoot an entire film on a running train for the entire length of its journey? But Ray showed us how. And, of course, I liked Uttam, loved Sharmila in her non-Hindi film avatar.

Years later, I saw the film on a Sunday afternoon on TV (Doordarshan) at a friend’s place in Calcutta. And this time it was as though I had put on my 3D glasses since I knew Bengali now. That vital third dimension of language, whose lack had made my first viewing flat, two-dimensional (notwithstanding subtitles, which are at best only an approximation) was suddenly added, and the work sprang out of its frame in all its textured and layered complexity. And since then I have perhaps watched the film some twenty times, give or take.

It is unlikely that even Uttam Kumar, had he embarked on an exercise in celluloid narcissism, would have done justice to the principal theme. Of course, it is facile to think and say that, because he would have (one imagines) confined himself to the bare essentials of his progress from obscurity to godhood, within the set confines of traditional storytelling. What Ray gave us — and gave Uttam — instead was a deliberately fragmented, interrupted narrative of a life set against a canvas of minor sub-themes enacted in the claustrophobic walls of a train coach, with the clackety-clack of wheels on rail being the only background music. If the unquestioned star on the train’s complement was Arindam Mukherjee (en route to Delhi to receive a National Award), these sub-themes defined the gulf between the heavens he represented and the humble earthbound — his fellow passengers, ironically his constituency which set him up on high.

And there is irony aplenty. The man trying to persuade his reluctant wife to cosy up to an advertising executive in order to bag a contract, but who rears in scandalised shock when she tells him she wants to act in films; the same advertising executive’s transparent double standards exposed where the two protagonists Arindam and Miss Sengupta are concerned, and his scarcely disguised distaste for Arindam in particular and Bengali cinema in general, in sharp contrast to his wife’s starry-eyed, and daughter’s innocent unsullied adulation. There is Arindam’s own ironic half query to the reporter (Miss Sengupta) at their first meeting, feebly translated, “I suppose you are not guilty of watching Bengali films…?” when she comes seeking an autograph ostensibly for a cousin.

There is the comedy too, with Ray’s unique signature characters. The wrapped, muffled old man (where and how on earth did Ray find them?) who doesn’t think much of the movie business, and even less of actors, and given to petulant, sententious homilies on the evils of alcohol and much else (and naturally the butt of Arindam’s drunken tease); the vague godman type finicky about his personal cosmetic care, who claims to represent an organisation called “WWWW” (World Wide Will Work), providing one of the funniest scenes in all of Ray.

Against this backcloth, Arindam’s life unfolds in the bright window-lit confessional of the restaurant car, his confessor the unostentatiously pretty reporter Miss Sengupta (a primly bespectacled Sharmila Tagore), whose initial request for an interview is brusquely declined by Arindam. But later, after a night troubled by nightmares, he seeks her out as the only one on the train untouched by his film star glamour. As much catharsis as a confession, his opening remarks touch on dreams and their causes: she makes stock responses. And quietly, he begins laying bare his past. That this really is an interview (at least as perceived by the reporter) is hinted only by her opening the cap of her pen, and a small writing pad before her. That Arindam doesn’t mind anymore is obvious from his abstracted gaze outside the window. He is lost in the flow of his reverie. His first exposure to theatre, the loss of his mentor; his first film break and the violent, jealous reaction of the then regnant actor Mukund Lahiri to his defection from stage to screen; his own passionate conviction that Lahiri was all wrong, that the craft he represented was all skewed, that what was needed (a precocious realisation for the young Arindam) was realism, not hammed, heightened, monotonous theatricality (in my opinion, this was the closest Ray ever came to setting out his own personal cinematic credo through one of his own leading characters); the loss of a friendship on account of politics

There is too the tragedy of cyclic film fortunes, a sadly only too real feature of those times: the same once titanic Mukund Lahiri, now old, infirm and out of work, come to the now-famous Arindam, begging for a role however small, however demeaning.

As confessor to a celebrity, Sharmila’s attitude is precisely calibrated. She is scrupulously neutral, unreactive. Only once, in response to something she says, Arindam mock admiringly tells her she could play the part of conscience outstandingly. Otherwise, for the most part, she is an unintrusive facilitator. (She does allow herself a small taunt in jest when she hears of Lahiri’s decline).

The only hint of something approaching empathy comes when he is drunk and raving in the train corridor and sends for her (by now he realises she is not of the ordinary run of women), and she tells him she wouldn’t go back to her coach until he returned safely to his.

Ray’s grip on not just his own narrative but on his audience’s susceptibilities is demonstrated in the closing scenes. With the arrival platform just minutes away, confessant and confessor meet one last time, and they both know it is farewell. Arindam stops just short of one last admission: he fumbles, says haltingly that he feels a curious emptiness inside him. She, however, gives him nothing to hold: instead, she deliberately tears up the interview notes and pushes them into an ashtray, the perfect confessor till the end, carrying nothing with her save the memory — and even that symbolically lost when she is met by her editor in the effacing station crowds. Only Arindam’s fleeting backward glance at her retreating, disappearing form holds a weight of regret, transmitted as a tide of heartbreak to the audience. I wonder how many dry eyes emerged from the theatres.

Fifty years after it was made, Nayak still tugs hopelessly. And it’s easy to see why Uttam will always be called “Mahanayak”.