Nayagan : Mani Ratnam’s Tour De Force

With ‘Mouna Raagam’ the film industry took notice of ace director Mani Ratnam, however  the one film that firmly entrenched his name in the memory of movie industry, critics and audiences alike was ‘Nayagan’. The film starring Kamal Hassan as Sakthivelu Naiker was loosely based on the life of famed gangster ‘Varadrajan Mudaliar.’

Migrating to Mumbai in the early 60’s, Vardarajan Mudaliar or Vardhabhai as known by his follower’s mainly controlled Sion-Dharavi area and was famous for his bootlegging and matka dens across the city. Contemporary to Haji Mastan and Karim Lala, they had immense respect for each other and they have been given passing references in some crucial scenes of the movie.

Indian Cinema has always been fascinated with gangsters and smugglers but they had been projected mainly in a stylish and a suave manner leading a lavish lifestyle (perhaps Yash Chopra’s Deewar was an exception to this to a certain extent). However all that was to change with Nayagan.  The film has been shot in a way that depicts the harsh realities and living conditions of people in slums and especially of the migrants in the most realistic manner. The whole film has a dark and a gritty tone which only adds to the realism of the film and helped it to achieve the status of a classic that it is today.

For once you have a Don who doesn’t wear swanky suits or drives in glitzy cars even after acquiring a lot of wealth. There is no unwanted glorification of a gangster’s life which is a common malaise seen in films centered around the underworld. Velu Naiker was as humane, a gangster could get as most of them in Indian films are depicted as either unbelievably good hearted or absolutely despicable. The character of Velu Naiker is convincingly depicted as benevolent as well as an individual, who has lived life the hard way.

On one hand, Velu has no qualms in avenging the death of a dear one by killing the person accountable for it and on the other, he repents this when he sees the deceased’s son being affected mentally due to it and as redemption takes responsibility of looking after the kid.

As mentioned earlier, Nayagan achieves a classic status due to the gritty and realistic narrative style adopted by Mani Ratnam. The film is very close to reality and there are no unnecessary deviations like a forced comedy track, unwanted vulgarity etc. Even Kamal’s character does not make a typical larger than life entry in the film.The dark and gritty tone of the movie is well complemented with the humane touch Mani provides to the movie

Several scenes depict the brilliance of Mani’s direction like when Hassan is beaten mercilessly by the cops and a chase and fight scene between an Inspector and Velu, as also wherein Velu leads an army of a dozen men to a builder’s house who has brought over the slum area are fine examples of Mani as a master film maker.

When it comes to depicting relationships very few people can excel like Mani Ratnam and Nayagan is a fine example of that. The complex relationships between the various characters are brilliantly and subtly depicted like the relationship between Velu and his daughter or the relation between Tinnu Anand and Velu. The initial moments between Velu and a prostitute (Saranya) who later becomes his wife is handled very sweetly with a lot of maturity.

The most noteworthy subplot is that of the bond shared between Velu and his daughter . Here is a man who is a messiah to his community, however his daughter absolutely abhors his approach and his ways and drifts apart. The scene in which Velu storms into the Commissioner’s (Nassar) house only to realise that he is his son in law is a gem of a scene.

The scene which follows thereafter wherein Velu’s daughter asks him to go away from their house as she doesn’t want her dark past to catch up with her married life and refuses Velu to see his grandson is bound to leave a lump in your throat. The climax between Velu and his grandson is another example of cinematic brilliance.

Most of the regional films in whichever part of the world they are set, will always have the characters speaking in their distinctive language, which though is done for audiences convenience, but robs the film of its authenticity and logic to an extent. Nayagan takes adequate care of this issue. Since the film is based in the slum of Dharavi which is located in Mumbai, Mani has ensured that the film has characters who are speaking in Hindi and a bit of Marathi to a fair extent.The character of the commissioner played by Nassar is modelled on Ex-comissioner of Mumbai Police Y.C Pawar  who had successfully curbed Mudaliar’s regime to quite an extent.Though Nayagan was based on Mudaliar’s life, the way the story culminates was mostly Mani’s own interpretation. Co-incidentally Varadarajan Mudaliar passed away a year after Nayagan was released.

Every Mani Ratnam film has an assemblage of some of the best technicians of Indian Cinema and Nayagan is no exception. Cinematographer P C Sriram rightly captures the gritty tone of this film, the way it was intended to be by Mani Ratnam. Art director Thota Tharani has done a wonderful job of creating the slums of Mumbai which looks straight out of life. Little wonder that PC Sreeram and Thota Tharani were bestowed with the National awards for their exemplary work.

Like every other Mani Ratnam film (prior to his association with A.R Rahman) Illaiyaraja’s music plays a very important role in the film. Like most of Illaiyaraja’s musical scores, the BGM of Nayagan is minimal yet supremely effective. While watching the film , my father who otherwise is not very keen of my newly found obsession for South Indian cinema,  for once was very besotted particularly  by the theme song ‘Thenpaandi Cheemayile’ (non understanding of Tamil language notwithstanding) which is  played at critical junctures in the film.

Apart from Mani Ratnam, one man who equally deserves all the praise is Kamal Hassan. If not for his brilliant performance, Nayagan would perhaps not be the classic it is. He has literally lived the role of Velu Naiker and moments such as his outburst after his son’s death, his dejection when his daughter asks him to shun all contact with her or his interaction with his grandson in the climax  display the true acting of this wonderful actor. His transformation from a rebellious young lad to a messiah of the downtrodden is unhurried and extremely convincing. In fact  the physical nuances shown such as change in voice and a slight gait in his walking as he ages only add to Hassan’s performance rather than distracting us from it and making it seem forced (like the recently released Dashavtaram). Quite deservedly, even Kamal Hassan won a National award for his brilliant performance.

Besides him other actors such as Saranya, Janagraj as Velu’s close aide, Nassar as the Police commissioner, Tinnu Anand etc. have given very good and controlled performances. Tinnu Anand is especially remarkable in a small but significant role, whose character assumes great importance in the climax.

With Nayagan, Mani Ratnam also drives across a point that one misdeed alone is enough to wipe out a lifetime of good deeds.

Nayagan is a milestone in the careers of Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hassan and all other great names associated with this project. It is no surprise that this film finds a mention in Time magazine’s compilation of ‘100 All Time Greatest Films’. It was also India’s official entry to the Oscars that year. Films like these have a timeless appeal and although the film is now more than two decades old, it is still bound to blow you away be it  the first or a repeat viewing.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan (Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)


  1. Souvik Gupta says:

    beautiful film… very well written post.. good job Adi..


    1. Thanks a lot Souvik.


  2. Kushal K Shah says:

    Nice article.This was my first Mani Ratnam film and I was so very impressed by the film that decided to check his Hindi films.Very nice.
    However you forgot to mention couple of things:
    1) This movie was remade in Hindi as Dayavan.
    2) Talking about Ilaiyaraja’s music how could you forget the song which is played on boat.Check this out:


    1. The reason I did not mention anything about Dayavan was ‘coz I didn’t feel it was required specifically to be mentioned in this post.
      Regarding the boat song, I didnt really pay specific attention to the boat song, coz i was totally mesmerised by ‘Thenpandi Cheemayile’
      Thanks once again for your constant feedback and appreciation.


      1. Kushal K Shah says:

        Hard to believe,I was mesmerized by Kuyli 😛


  3. iraanand says:

    An interesting bit of trivia: Raja’s first tune for the lullaby was ‘ Hoyya Hoy’ (the boat song). He himself felt he could do better and then composed ‘Thenpandi Cheemaiyile’. But Mani liked the tune of ‘Hoyya Hoy’ so much so that he requested Raja to use the tune in another situation – and Raja modified it as the boat song!

    An excellent post!


    1. Ajay Nair says:

      Nice trivia Anand…


    2. Thanks for that trivia and your appreciation. I guess it was the right decision. I don’t think Hoyya Hoy would have been as memorable were it used as the theme song .


    3. Rasik says:

      Lovely trivia. Keep sharing.


  4. Rasik says:

    Really well written. Does justice to the epic film that Nayagan is. Can’t believe those slums were sets. They were absolutely real! Kamal Hassan gained kilos of respect from me after watching his performance here. And Raja Sir’s BGM! Like your father, the very first time i heard the song i had goosebumps. Fantastic film. Truly an all-time great.


    1. Thanks buddy for your feedback and appreciation.Even now once in a while you get to see flashes of Kamal’s brilliance in films such as Anbe Sivam or a Virumandi.
      But otherwise his narcissistic side has totally taken over.However as you rightly said for his past work in various legendary films incl. ‘Nayagan’ Kamal Hassan will always be remembered.


  5. wow! i had goosebumps every time i imagined what was written here. I am so much in love with the idea of interpreting and experiencing Mani Sir’s movies. The post oozes genuineness. You have done a commendable job in doing background research of the movie and moved me by giving credits to the supporting actors too! A standing Ovation to you Adi! 🙂


    1. Thanks a lot for your generous praise and feedback , Akila. I feel humbled.However I should thank Wiki & IMDB for helping me with the names of the supporting actors.
      And hope to see more of your comments on MAM.Thank you once again for your genuine appreciation and do keep visiting the site.


  6. seventhsamurai says:

    A very solid write-up on what is probably Mani Ratnam’s best film after Iruvar. The whole idea of using elements of The Godfather movies to tell a totally different story was quite interesting. Almost every scene carries a reference to The Godfather. Velu arriving alone in Mumbai after his father’s death is like Vito Corleone in Godfather Part 2, arriving in Ellis Island after his family in Sicily has been murdered. The growth of Velu’s power after he kills the policeman harassing Dharavi locals is like Vito killing Don Fanucci in 2. Then there’s the scene where Saranya gets shot, which references the scene were gun fire is opened on Michael Corleone’s bedroom when he relaxes with his family. The way Nizhalgal Ravi is gunned down is referenced from Sonny’s assassination at the toll booth.

    Yet, the magic of the film is where Mani Ratnam holds his own in moments of absolute brilliance, the most telling scene being the one where Velu decides it’s time to transfer power to his son. He lies on the bed, ailing, when his son (Nizhalgal Ravi) offers to go for a meeting in his place. As his son leaves, he calls out to him, “Nayakare” and lifts up his Paan box to offer him one. The son willingly accepts, but turns his face away from his father when eating it as a sign of respect. This is the kind of scene great cinema is made of!

    And P.C. Sreeram’s work is so astounding, despite Sivan’s brilliance in Iruvar, Nayakan for me remains Mani Ratnam’s best shot film to date. I have had the privilege of watching this film off a fresh 35mm print a few years ago at a UCLA Film Archives screening. It’s also an example of why films made for the big screen must be seen on the big screen. The complexity of Sreeram’s lighting can only be enjoyed off a print. On DVD, you miss out 80% of his genius.


    1. Ajay Nair says:

      Some references seems to be from Once Upon a time in America too, especially the smuggling at sea with salt to assist. Chhatrapal knows some more snippets as he was egging me to watch it….


  7. Sridhar says:

    Thank you for this post


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