A quintessential Ray classic, Nayak is his second original screenplay after Kanchanjunga (1962) and the first of the two films made by him in which Uttam Kumar acted in (the other being Chidiakhana (1967)). Comprising an excellent ensemble cast, the story moves through small and confident strokes as different characters are introduced inside the train and in flashbacks that not only bring the protagonist's character in sharp relief, but also depict the aspirations and insecurities of the individual characters through small touches as they interact with the star or outright ignore him or feign to be indifferent to him. The first time Aditi approaches Arindam Mukherjee inside the dining car for an autograph, she makes it clear that it is for her cousin. When Arindam lays sprawled on his berth, dead drunk and with one of his feet dangling and touching the floor, his co-passenger, a star struck housewife Manorama (Bharati Devi) carefully holds his leg and puts it back on the berth; her teenaged daughter Bulbul (Lali Chowdhury) who is lying sick on the upper berth on the opposite side does not fail to notice her mother's servile act and remains quiet. In an earlier scene, Manorama's husband Mr. Bose (Ranjit Sen) flaunts about his foreign jaunts and his vast knowledge of American and Japanese film industries vis-a-vis the Bengali industry that is more interested in quantity than quality; the condescending dig at the star is obvious but Arindam does not mind. He also does not mind when he meets and pays his regard to an elderly passenger (Hiralal) at the beginning of the journey who hates cinema and alcohol and carries on an agenda to banish films through his letters to the editor in the famous newspaper The Statesman. But Arindam does get back at him in a drunken state later in the film in a witty scene, much to the old man's chagrin and the amusement of the audience.
The film is strewn with such wonderful moments that make it an enriching experience and reinstates the master's hold over the craft of story-telling. Amongst the gems that layer the film, one recalls a small scene at night in which a drunk Arindam throws an empty whiskey bottle from the door of the speeding train and we just hear a faint tinkle sound as it hits the receding tracks after a few beats. That is what one calls a director's touch!
Of course, the main track of Arindam and Aditi forms the bulk of the film. In his interactions with the young journalist, he talks about his early theatre days and his mentor Sankar-da (Somen Bose) who was vehemently opposed to his entry in cinema despite an offer to act in the period Devi Chowdhurani; the death of Sankar-da to a stroke and his decision to take the leap to cinema (Arindam casually flicks the butt of his burning cigarette into the funeral pyre of Sankar-da that marks the symbolic end of his tryst with Sankar-da's ideals); his interactions with and humiliations under the veteran film actor Mukunda Lahiri (Bireswar Sen) whom he always considered a bad and a loud actor; his gradual rise and shift to a plush apartment at Ballygunge area; the fading of the aging Mukunda Lahiri till he comes begging for a role to his house one night few years later but is gently spurned by Arindam; his friendship with Biresh (Premangshu Bose), a leftist political leader who tries to take advantage of his stardom to score a brownie point with striking workers which Arindam angrily rejects because it could affect his star persona and gain him adverse publicity; his immersion in costly whiskey and a flamboyant lifestyle that is always at stake if a film happens to flop (his latest film is poised for a flop when the film begins, the first such flop in his illustrious career and he is jittery); his courtship of beautiful girls who are awed by his charm!
Interweaving these flashbacks are personal reminisces of the hero like his seduction by a beautiful aspirant Promila Chatterjee (wonderful cameo and performance by Sumita Sanyal). In a poignant scene set in the corridor of his compartment, a drunken Arindam summons Aditi and wants to confess his affair with the married woman that ended in a brawl with her husband at a party, but Aditi stops him; she is not interested in such juicy stuff anymore. Because by this time they have hit a chord in each other's heart, but in absolute friendly and sympathetic terms. She has ceased to be a journalist at this unearthly hour and Arindam's brittle starry exterior sheds itself to reveal a vulnerable and a fragile soul.
The interviews and reminisces through flashbacks are set off against a few dream sequences. The one in which Arindam wanders around through mounds of currency notes and then gradually sinks in the money as he tries to reach out to the ghostly hand of a smiling Sankar-da who pulls away his hand as telephones hanging from skeletal hands keep ringing all around is too literal though; but the one in which he walks through a deserted landscape at night which is lit up by film lights as if in a set and he enters an ornate doorframe in the middle of nowhere to find himself in a garden full of party goers and he calls out the name of Promila till a man who claims to be her husband confronts him and Arindam punches him on the face is brilliantly recreated.
Secondary characters and subplots are weaved in unobtrusively that act as solid subtexts to the protagonist's story and underline his predicament and reveal the double standards of society. Most of the passengers seem to be more interested in the drunken brawl that the star has been engaged in (as reported in the day's paper) and other salacious gossips, but are blissfully unaware of the adman Pritish Sarkar's (Kamu Mukherjee) sordid efforts to pimp his good looking wife Molly to the 'big fish' Mr. Bose to get his company's account. But when Molly in turn proposes a deal to her husband that she will comply with his requests if he agreed to talk to Arindam Mukherjee about her acting aspirations, the brazen adman is shocked and promptly refuses; as a result he loses the account of the 'big fish.' But what the adman has been unaware of throughout the journey is another potential account in the form of the portly godman (Satya Banerjee) who has been occupying the berth opposite him: the godman who runs an organization called WWWW, World Wide Will Workers, offers him a lucrative account and the adman is zapped out of his senses; this is literally not what he had bargained for. This marriage of adman to the godman in an unforeseen but profitable business deal through just one funny scene is a brilliant touch and a happy ending to the adman's goal. Damn the 'big fish' and the film star (whom he anyway never acknowledged because he had nothing to gain from him); he has met his target!
The masterly screenplay shuttles seamlessly between flashbacks and dreams and the actual journey, which is punctuated by shots of the train from outside as it blazes through the Indian landscape. The sound designing wonderfully recreates the passage of time inside the compartments as the train moves through different time frames, from late afternoon through evening to night till next day morning when it reaches Delhi. The casting is sure shot and the acting and mannerisms rightly represent the slice of the affluent Bengali society inside the train and the varied characters and faces from different social strata in the flashbacks. Ray did not have much faith in Uttam Kumar as an actor and he always wondered if he understood the finer nuances of the characterization; but he was more than satisfied with the star's performance at the end of the day. Maybe, since Uttam Kumar was a reigning star, he did not have to put too much of an effort into the role and blended easily. This is amongst Uttam Kumar's most understated and brilliant performances in his memorable career. And of course, Sharmila Tagore with her cotton printed saris and specs once again plays the role of moral touchstone with unassuming aplomb as she does later in Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) and Seemabaddha (1971). In fact in one scene, the character of Uttam Kumar does tell her that she could play the role of bibek (moral) in Bengali films!
No discussion of the film would be complete without the mention of the interiors of the Rajdhani Express recreated to absolute perfection by Ray's old time companion Bansi Chandragupta. Coupled with rear projection the film, even after so many years, continues to baffle its viewers in terms of its acute realistic representation; with all our updated film appreciation and education we are still kept wondering if the interiors of the compartments and the receding sceneries glanced through the train windows are staged or are for real or a combination of both. Apart from the sheer brevity of the screenplay that actually packs in so much characters, information and layers, the film excels in sheer technical craftsmanship and marks out Ray as the pioneer of Indian cinema and a brilliant craftsman who made the best of given resources and made amazingly sophisticated films within budgetary constraints and technical limitations. Nayak continues to enthrall its viewers even aftermore than 40 years since it was made and does not fail to surprise us every time we see it.