There is no repudiating that Nayak saw Ray entering a period of digression, from a fecund classical style to one of artistic self-examination. Nayak questionably deconstructs both masculinity and stardom in equal measure, and is clearly self-reflexive. But the film is also part of a longer struggle Ray expressed in a concatenation of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This had much to do with Ray exploring where he stood politically against a backdrop in which Kolkata was becoming radicalised in the late 1960s as a result of growing unemployment and disaffection from the youth.
Where this political expression finds certain clarity is in a subplot that involves Arindam (Uttam Kumar) and his college friend, Biresh, a political agitator (most probably a Marxist, Communist or both). In a flashback triggered by a series of intimate conversations with reporter Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), Arindam recalls this particular incident. In the sequence, Biresh is shown to agitate the workers whereas in stark contrast Arindam is busy rehearsing his lines for a play. Later, Biresh questions Arindam’s refusal to partake in the agitation. Arindam sheepishly dismisses Biresh’s political deconstruction. In the following sequence, Arindam is involved in a protest that turns ugly. On this occasion his anger explodes into an impotent rage and the crowd of protestors swallows up Arindam. Five years pass by and in another flashback Biresh comes to visit Arindam who is now a rising film star. Biresh, still the committed political activist, takes Arindam on a car journey and they end up outside a factory with striking workers. When Biresh asks Arindam to say a few words to rally the spirits of the workers, Arindam can do no such thing. Arindam is overcome with the fear of what this might mean for his film career and flees.
Arindam’s cowardly retreat is a theme Ray would return to in his Kolkata trilogy expressly Pratidwandi. A new political radicalism much of it instigated by a call for a cultural revolution in Bengal was visible throughout Kolkata in the mid to late 1960s and Arindam’s hesitation to become part of the new culture of protests articulates Ray’s anxieties about this particular moment. Both Arindam and Siddhartha in Pratidwandi are passengers, casual spectators who can become angry but are unable to commit fully to the political cause because of where it might lead such as revolution. But Ray’s treatment of the political activist is flawed because he never gives us any real context to what exactly Biresh is involved in politically. One could postulate Ray sits on the fence. Degrees of ambiguity draw attention to Ray’s inexorably muddled attempts to engage with the politics of the time. The reliance on political caricatures undermines Ray’s moralistic political intentions, divulging intransigence and appeasement. And while Ray might be gratuitously critical of Arindam, an emblem of a tabescent Bengali middle class who turns his back on the striking workers, Biresh is thinly sketched, at a distance from us and ultimately peripheral. Moreover, by framing the political as a moral crisis for the male protagonist, often an alter ego, lets Ray off the hook when it comes to detailing the politics of the era. Biresh is personified as part of the moral conscience of a sycophantic middle class, a role taken up by Aditi in an unobjectionable style. In doing so, the political activist is reduced to a decorative fixation that fades away into the background – an ephemeral holograph so to speak.
Nonetheless, there is a moment in the car when Biresh asks Arindam to step out and say a few words since the workers have been anticipating his arrival. As a popular film star in the public eye Arindam is hesitant to speak out and although he chooses to drive away, the political symbolism of his retreat masks a trenchant anxiety to do with Ray’s own supposed real life political neutrality, a sanctimonious position to adopt in the face of social and political turmoil. Although Ray would continually defend his questionable political choices notably with the character of the Naxalite in Pratidwandi, many of these films dismantle masculinity and carve out a transgressive gender space that was taken up by the New Bengali Woman. But in the case of Nayak, a tergiversation finds Aditi erasing the traumatic recollections of Arindam’s dubious moral choices. In doing so, the film consolidates a doleful political acquiescence that frees the middle class from past transgressions and cultivates a surreptitious anti-Marxist sentiment that sticks in the throat.