A fresh-faced actress draws a powerful movie star out of his protective shell in “Autograph,” a nuanced exploration of fame and self-betrayal. Taking cues from Satyajit Ray’s “Nayak,” freshman helmer (and former statistician) Srijit Mukherji updates the Bengali master’s classic while treating it with appropriate respect, offering not a remake but an incorporation of the earlier pic’s themes in an inventive tale that becomes increasingly powerful. Notwithstanding some first-film slips, “Autograph” boasts strong perfs and editing plus an ace soundtrack, making it just the kind of non-Bollywood Indian pic Western programmers want for their fest lineups.
When jaded star Arun Chatterjee (Prosenjit Chatterjee) needs a new film project, he handpicks eager novice Shubhobroto Mitra, aka Shubho (Indraneil Sengupta), who appears easy to manipulate. The young helmer then convinces live-in g.f. Srinandita (Nandana Sen) to put her stage career on hold and accept the co-star role in a pic he hawks as a remake of “Nayak” with elements from Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”
Mukherji, also scripting, gets the playfulness of the young couple’s relationship right, fleshing them out via well-paced dialogue and an aura of normal modern life. In one of several problems of balance, however, a shift in Shubho’s character comes all too quickly, eliminating the pair’s very believable rapport in a manner that sweeps away what had been artfully established. The fault lies in how he’s conceived, becoming unpleasantly one-dimensional in contrast to Arun and Srinandita, who grow into more complex figures.
In their “Nayak” update, Srinandita plays the journalist approaching the big star (this time on a plane rather than the original’s train setting) to get his story. In conversations between takes, Arun lowers his defenses, revealing the parallels between himself and his character and gradually exposing the unattractive path he took to reach the heights of success. As Arun reconnects with the person he was all those years ago, Shubho turns into a man Srinandita can barely recognize: arrogant, power-hungry and ruthless.
Transitions between the film-within-the-film and the main narrative are deeply satisfying, cleverly complementing each other with their invocations of Faustian bargains that advance careers but chip away at the soul. Several scenes are especially memorable, such as a multilayered sequence during a take when Shubho browbeats Srinandita as Arun helps her run lines about the heartbreak of loving in vain. It’s this complex interweaving of narrative and emotional states that especially reveal Mukherji’s budding talent.
Chatterjee (“Chokher Bali”) gets better and better as the pic and his character develop, gradually stripping away masks to expose the things Arun wants to forget; the more introspective he grows, the more interesting the thesp becomes. Sen effortlessly combines warmth and intelligence in a role that sporadically feels underwritten.
Occasionally the dialogue is overly dramatic, and there’s a late flashback montage that’s unnecessary and derivative, but otherwise the script is successful in its ambition. At times Mukherji is too fond of shaky handheld lensing, sliding the generally graceful camera from one interlocutor to another, slightly zooming in and out: When the lines have punch and the songs provide energy, the lensing doesn’t need to compete. Debojyoti Mishra’s excellent soundtrack became a hit one month before the pic’s release.