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)