Satyajit Ray may be long gone, but the iconic director who transported Indian cinema far beyond the country’s borders lives – in the hearts of many. Economist-turned-helmer from Bengal, Srijit Mukherji, is one, who was so inspired by the master’s creations that he made his debut feature, Autograph as a loving tribute to Ray’s Nayak (where Bengal’s superstar Uttam Kumar played the title role).
Autograph, starring Nandana Sen, Prosenjit Chatterjee and Indraneil Sengupta, had its world premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Friday night. The work revolves around three people from the world of arts: a young director, a superstar and a theatre actress. Thrown together on a cinema set, they find their lives somersaulting.
Mukherji told this writer in an exclusive chat on Saturday that his love and admiration for Ray began as a child of eight. “I saw Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) and was absolutely besotted by it. It was only later that I could unravel the layers beneath the fable, its strong anti-war message, for instance. Ray had this enormous power to reach out to a child as he could to an adult with very simple text and visuals. He could move the most complex of minds with a stunning economy of words and frame of images”.
While Bergman’s work portrays this through the life of an elderly doctor, who on a 400-mile car drive with his daughter-in-law from Stockholm to Lund, re-assesses his life, confronted as he is by old age, unfulfilled dreams and nightmares, Ray’s Nayak or Hero, also on a journey, on train though, finds himself re-examining his past, his utter egotistical existence and his selfish affair with a married woman. He finds a kindred soul in a co-traveller, a journalist (essayed by SharmilaTagore), whose initial out-to-get-him attitude soon softens, when she realises that the actor is a terribly lonely soul.
Mukherji says that he had also been a great fan of Uttam Kumar. “His charisma eludes an explanation. Old women looked upon him as their son, young women probably wrote letters to him with their blood and men adulated him. He was a phenomenon, whose acting may have been mannered and stylised, but was delightful to watch. He was one of the first to adopt nuanced acting, which was otherwise very theatrical in Bengal, and the rest of India”.
Mukherji avers that he can see parallels between Uttam Kumar and Prosenjit Chatterjee. A lot of people may find this comparison sacrilegious, but well. Kumar went beyond being a matinee idol and held an industry together for three decades. He used to bail out producers with very average scripts by agreeing to act in their movies. In the same way, Chatterjee has held the industry together for about a quarter century.”
And Mukherji pays a brilliant tribute to Chatterjee by naming his character in Autograph Arun Chatterjee, the name that Uttam Kumar carried in Nayak.
Essentially a movie within a movie, the Autograph’s script splits into two parallel strands, playing with the blurred boundaries between reality and the make-believe world of Tollywood (in Kolkata) stardom. The film shifts continuously between the Chatterjee the man and Chatterjee the super hero, who is both the manipulator and the manipulated. While off the sets, he has no qualms about luring a woman to the couch with a hollow promise, he is tolerant or weak enough to let a young a director in the studio to destroy his public hallow.
With gripping performances by actor Chatterjee as character Chatterjee and Sengupta as the director who convinces the star to act in the movie, as well as his girlfriend (Sen), Autograph is certainly one of the better Indian pictures in recent weeks.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Abu Dhabi Film Festival)