Arindam Mukherjee had just been halfway through the script. He took a final sip from his second cup of coffee, collected two of the three one-rupee notes from the waiter’s tray and waved him off. From the corner of his eye, he saw someone waiting near the table to speak to him. Without raising his eyes, Arindam could not only tell it was a woman, but also who it was. It was a special skill of his.
“Whom is it for this time?” Arindam asked in a mocking tone. “Cousin brother?”
“No, I was wondering if I could bother you for a few minutes,” Aditi asked softly. “Of course, if you mind, please feel free to refuse.”
“You mean if I mind being bothered?” Arindam did not make any effort to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Aditi fidgeted with her handbag nervously and said,
“No, I mean...I had a few questions for you.”
“Oh damn!” Arindam scowled. “You’re a journalist, aren’t you?”
Seeing the star ready to coil back into his shell, Aditi quickly clarified, “No, no,...I edit a women’s magazine. Here...”
“Adhunika? I see!” said Arindam. “The Modern Wo... why are you standing? Please, have a seat.”
Aditi sat on the chair opposite Arindam Mukherjee, clutching her handbag firmly. Arindam had begun flipping through the pages.
“Miscellaneous stuff...you know?” she clarified, “Short stories, poems, essays...”
“But nothing on films...”
“Well, an interview with you could fill that void. Now that I have you...”
“Have me?” Arindam’s eyebrows curled into a frown once again.
“I mean...now that we are on the same train... and...honestly speaking, you are right at the top of the popularity charts these days. So...”
“Look,” Arindam Mukherjee returned Aditi her magazine and said, “the story of my life has been printed so many times by so many magazines and newspapers that other than a fistful of insignificant people like you, everyone knows it by heart.”
“I don’t think I know any less than what they do, Mr Mukherjee.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. For instance, you lost your parents when you were five. You were raised by your uncle’s family. You earned your BA from Bangabasi College. You even worked in a merchant office for a few years. And then, at the age of twenty-seven, you did your first film. Within a very short span of time, you earned a lot of fame, acclaim and money. And...”
“And, you’re still a bachelor.”
Arindam retorted, “You’re a bachelor too, aren’t you? Or does the modern woman find it beneath herself to apply vermillion on her forehead these days?”
“No, a bachelor.” Aditi smiled and immediately brought the discussion back on track, “But you see, all these articles and stories about you – they, how shall I put it, they are not very interesting to read.”
“Indeed? So, what, according to you, would be interesting to read?”
“For instance, the first question that comes to one’s mind,” Aditi began, “this immense popularity of yours, this...this measureless fame – how does it make you feel?”
Arindam shrugged his shoulders and said casually, “Makes me feel good, of course! How else would it make me feel?”
“But...” Aditi tried to scavenge around for the right words to build her question, “you...you seem to have everything...more than what you need perhaps. But... deep in there, isn’t there a void somewhere? A painful longing for something? A regret of some sort?”
A switch seemed to flick inside Arindam’s head, plunging the insides into total darkness. He immediately sat upright, straightened his lax shoulders and said in a calm yet firm tone, “Why the hell do you want to know all these things, huh?”
He immediately regretted being so harsh with the lady, because she was visibly at a loss for words. Clearly, she had never spoken to a film star before, had taken his approachability for granted and had been momentarily carried away. She seemed abashed and embarrassed now, so Arindam softened his voice and said, “Divulging such things can be severely detrimental to our marketability, you know? Look, Miss Sengupta, we stars are not much different from the ones you see in the sky – twinkling and glowing brightly in the dark firmament, giving people down below joy and hope. But, it is best to watch us from a distance. The closer you try to get, the more uncomfortable it becomes.”
“I see!” Aditi smiled politely.
“Do you?” Arindam sneered. “Because I don’t think you understood a word of what I said.”
“Perhaps I do, Mr Mukherjee,” came Aditi’s calm response. “Perhaps you prefer to be seen as a hero off the screen as well.”
“Well then, that begs the question...”
“No, Miss Sengupta, in fact it doesn’t.”
Aditi stared at the calm and smiling face of the actor for some time, and once again, she found herself at a loss for words. The man had, quite tersely, asked her to leave, and he hadn’t pulled his punch at all. Shocked and disappointed, she rose to leave.”Well, in that case, thank you for your time!”
“Hang on a second,” Arindam said, looking around for the waiter. “Let me offer you a cold drink at least. Or else you’ll jump up and write in that magazine of yours that Arindam Mukherjee doesn’t even know his manners.”
“And I suppose that would be detrimental to your marketability as well?”
“Of course! It’s quite clear that you don’t know anything about this field. All you do is sink into your comfortable seats in an air-conditioned cinema hall and watch what we do and say on screen. And then, when the lights come up, you come out of the theatre and pass your one-word judgements – Bogus! Rubbish! Trash!”
“That’s not inaccurate, but I assure you, Mr Mukherjee, had I known that your so-called marketability is so fragile, I’d never have come to bother you. Goodbye!”
As Aditi picked up her handbag and prepared to leave, Arindam Mukherjee called out to her, “Miss Sengupta? I think you’ll do very well for yourself in life.”
Once again, the tinge of sarcasm in Arindam’s voice didn’t escape Aditi’s attention. This time, she decided to do something about it. She said, “I wish to, Mr Mukherjee. But people like us really have to work hard to succeed.”
Arindam Mukherjee laughed. “And us? You suppose we will sprawl around on our velvet thrones, do nothing all day and bask in all that glittering success, isn’t that so?”
“So, you won’t have that cold drink after all?”
“No, thank you.”
As Aditi walked away, Arindam smiled to himself and prepared to leave. Aditi rushed into the chair car, and despite her usual composure, it was obvious to Shefali and Ajay that something was wrong.
“What happened?” Shefali asked. “What did he say?”
“Nothing!” came the brief reply.
“You know how these film stars are?” Aditi said in a slightly agitated voice. “There’s a certain type of plant...the ones you need to keep in a greenhouse, sheltered from the wind, and you can’t let anyone go too close lest the leaves wilt? These people are just like those plants.”
Aditi plonked down on her seat, took off her glasses, pinched her forehead and shut her eyes, trying to compose herself. Shefali looked at her husband with a nervous and apologetic look, and Ajay shook his head, subtly asking his wife to leave the young girl alone. Quietly, Shefali picked up the issue of Ulto Rath and buried her face in the magazine. From within its pages, the centrefold in fact, the god-like face of Arindam Mukherjee beamed at her.
Excerpted with permission from Nayak: The Hero, Satyajit Ray, novelisation by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, Harper Collins India.