Life is a journey, a process of travelling through time, space, experience and relationships. It is an ongoing process that begins with life and moves beyond death because even if the physical journey ends, memories are left behind for people close to one and in the places one has lived and loved and worked during different phases of one’s life.

Cinema is at once a slice of life, a reflection of life, a window to life, a way of looking inwards into oneself and all these put together. Therefore, cinema also is a journey in itself. Within its genres of comedy, family drama, suspense, thriller, tragic love story, romance, there are road films and journey films that overlap these genres and at the same time, define a genre unto themselves in different ways.

Satyajit Ray's Nayak (The Hero) completes 50 years this year. Nayak (The Hero) happens to be one of four digitally restored Ray movies that will be shown in PVR cinemas from January. Though it is an outstanding film, it seems to have been ignored by critics and film scholars compared to the attention paid to his other films. The storyline spans the time it takes for Rajdhani Express to travel from Kolkata to New Delhi.

Almost the entire film is shot inside what appears to be a moving train compartment but in actuality, is a classic example of art director Bansi Chandragupta’s magic creative powers His design of the interior of a railway compartment for Nayak was so flawless that most viewers took it to be real.

The story revolves around Arindam Mukherjee, the film-star hero, an icon who is travelling to Delhi to receive the National Award. His secretary, once his close friend, has failed to get a flight booking. Mukherjee is forced to get into the Rajdhani Express. Irritated with the unwanted attention of fellow-commuters, he shifts to the dining car. He chances upon Aditi Sengupta, the editor of a woman's magazine who is going to Delhi to get a grant for her magazine. The physical and geographical journey changes into a journey of introspection for the hero and of discovery for the journalist.

To celebrate their brief bonding, and respecting his regret for having given away his closely guarded secrets in a moment of drunken weakness, Aditi tears up the sheets in which she took notes during the impromptu ‘interview’, a prized assignment for her, in his presence.

When the train chugs into Delhi railway station, people and fans that have come to welcome the hero surround him and soon a crowd takes shape. The journalist walks away quietly with her uncle. The hero tries to reach out and look at her over the heads of the crowd, but she does not turn back. For the journalist, it is just a chance but memorable encounter.

For the hero, it is a painful emotional journey he had never bargained for when he began the journey. There is a real journey in a real (constructed by the art director) train moving from Kolkata to Delhi. But the journey is multi-layered with different stories branching out of the central encounter between the famous hero and the anonymous editor of a woman’s magazine.

The journey is filled with flashbacks that include a couple of nightmare scenes from the hero’s perspective. His character has a history that maps his journey as a small-town guy who used club theatre as a way to become a hero in films. But we do not learn about his family background – his parents, etc because in retrospect, these do not seem mandatory to the film.

There are several journeys-within-the-journey in Rajdhani Express. Aditi is not given any history except that comes across during her talk. We learn that she is single and has a niece, edits a woman’s magazine with some articles on cinema, does not watch too many films and is going to Delhi to get the grant for the magazine. She is familiar with the name and face of Mukherjee but has hardly watched his films.

The social markers are evident. Aditi is travelling in the chair-car of the train while the star is settled in a first class coupe. The dining car that everyone has access to is the common denominator. The ‘interview’ becomes a kind of a ‘confession’ charting the slow and steady rise of Arindam Mukherjee to become the top star in the Bengali film industry with the usual quota of gossip in the media about his affairs with women, particularly one young woman who is married and visits him at his home one night trying to seduce him into giving her a role in films.

Nayak is a multi-layered film though on the surface, it appears to narrate the biographical history of Bengali cinema’s top hero framed within a straightforward train journey, atypical of a matinee idol who would generally take a flight.

The train journey is the framework, the backdrop and the centre stage within which Ray placed several stories, each featuring Arindam Mukherjee as the central figure.

There is the ‘social’ journey the hero unwittingly embarks on as he is forced to interact with his fellow passengers in the same first class coupe – a married couple and their teenaged daughter who appears to be frail and sickly. After a point, both mother and the teenaged daughter are equally besotted by the hero.

The small touch of the mother (Bharati Devi) looking into her hand mirror to touch up her face is a small detail. There is another couple where the husband is much older than the wife. He is a marketing person who has no compunctions about using his wife to bag an assignment from an old, powerful would-be client travelling in the same train. But the wife refuses and the old man angrily turns the husband away.

Behind the veneer of his glamour, his fame and his star charisma, the narrative reveals that Arindam is a lonely, vulnerable and insecure young man with normal points of weaknesses and strengths like any other ordinary man of the street. During the journey, he tries to refrain from his usual addiction to cigarette and liqueur as a courtesy to his fellow passengers but after some time, he smokes and drinks openly and even teases an old man in a neighboring coupe who keeps saying he cannot stand the smell of alcohol.

The two dream scenes are scary and are orchestrated and positioned so well that they point out to how richly Ray can choreograph and compose dream scenes that are ideally suited to the character who dreams them. The first dream scene shows Arindam walking across a mound of currency notes till he is sucked into a hole that opens within that sea of notes and drowns because his theatre mentor from back home does not save him.

The soundtrack is filled with the ringing of many telephones that spring up like mushrooms in that ocean of currency notes, held by skeletal hands and then, Arindam suddenly wakes up in a sweat. The second one is also a very dark and scary scene. It shows a dinner party where every guest is wearing dark glasses. Someone tries to bash up Arindam till the scene cuts onto some anonymous railway station with the sound track filling up with announcements over the speaker.

These very dark, depressing and defeatist dreams reflect the pathos and the loneliness of Arindam with much greater intensity and depth than the other scenes in which he is awake.. None other than Uttam Kumar could have gone into the skin and flesh and blood of Arindam Mukherjee the way he did.

Sharmila Tagore as the journalist-editor Aditi Sengupta comes across with a low-key, subdued performance that is filled with restraint. There is one point when near the door of the compartment, she arrives to find Arindam completely drunk. At that point, she does not have her glasses on. Arindam tells her, in his drunk state, “Why, you look really good without your glasses” and she shyly looks down and does not respond.

Passengers from other coupes and coaches, who recognize him, approach him with different aims, visibly awestruck with the rare opportunity of meeting Bengali cinema’s top star in flesh and blood. The ‘introspective’ journey begins when Aditi approaches his table in the dining car with an autograph book requesting an autograph for her niece. He likes her because she is the only one among his co-passengers not awestruck by his starry glamour.

There are the emotionally disturbing journeys through his nightmares. Most importantly, he goes through the introspective journey back into his life as a young man who rose to the position he finds himself in now – famous, rich, powerful, but alone, without friends, misunderstood by the media, by old friends who approach him only to exploit his stardom, or young women who befriend him to get some role in a film through him.

The imaginative sound track with a single theme of background score is minutely designed to fit into the running train ambience which changes from Arindam’s first class coupe to the dining car where the sound of the wheels seeping into the car changes, then it becomes very loud inside the toilet and louder when Arindam stands at the open door of the compartment and stares at the parallel tracks, possibly with thoughts of suicide flashing momentarily as the camera cuts to show the disturbed and sad expression on his face.

The road sometimes reveals an absence of moral virtues either through the characters who hit the road, or morally upright characters who tend to get stripped of moral virtues somewhere along the way. The road peels the masks of the travelers to strip them down to their bare essentials. This happens when men and women leave the comfort of their rooted lives to step out into the unknown and the unexplored. This does not always hold true for the Indian road movie and Nayak is a classic example.