Though lesser-known and little screened, Nayak now seems one of Satyajit Ray's most pertinent films: a wry assessment of contemporary celebrity and its effects, set aboard a train heading from Bombay to Delhi. Travelling to collect an award, reckless, apparently carefree Bollywood icon Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) is pestered at every turn: in his carriage by mother-daughter fans, in the corridor by critics, in the dining car by autograph hunters and a PR maven hunting new clients, even in his sleep - during a striking dream sequence that transforms into the genuinely nightmarish - by images that suggest death is calling for a man who sought immortality on the silver screen. For respite, he submits to an interview with a journalist on a women's magazine (Sharmila Tagore, wearing glasses as a shield from starriness): a casual chat that turns into a confession-cum-session on the psychiatrist's couch, revealing the star's attitudes towards friends, colleagues and lovers.
Throughout, Ray displays his usual even-handedness: he relishes the creative urge and the rarefied air of the film set, but he also clearly revels in the democracy of the train, the way it throws people of different backgrounds up against one another. (In real life, a superstar like Mukherjee probably wouldn't have been seen dead in the cattle trucks - he'd be flying first class - but, still, this was 1966.) From the criss-crossing credit design to its diverse points of reference (Freud, Marx, Brando) to the minor character who claims to work for a "WWWW" organisation, it's a thoroughly modern movie, and the film that knocks down once and for all the wall some have constructed or observed between Ray and the Indian popular cinema.
That's evident not only from the casting of Kumar, a real-life Bollywood hero capable of performing in a much subtler, less obviously heroic key, but also in the way Ray foresees the seachange in Hindi cinema whereby the Guru Dutts and Dilip Kumars - those long-time (romantic) legends of the industry - were about to cede the screen to the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and (later) Aamir Khan: angry, troubled young men fully aware of their own status as commodities, whose screen personae would be governed by doubts, neuroses, contradictory impulses. Indeed, the film would make a seamless double-bill with Kagaaz Ke Phool, and not just for its leading man's resemblance to Dutt himself: if the former - downcast, tragic, excoriating - comprises Bollywood's very own Citizen Kane, then Nayak, sly, lively and often very funny, is at once the subcontinent's 8½ and its Stardust Memories, its traincar named Desire.