30 years of Nayakan – Revisiting a Mani Ratnam film

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​Sometimes, you fervently wish, that you possessed the ability to unlearn and watch a film as if it were for the first time. There is something that is essentially charming about the first time you experience something. Like the first time people experienced the magic of A R Rahman through the mellifluous Roja or the first time you saw Jurassic Park. But when you tend to experience the works of an artist over a period of time, you are curious to know what makes the mind of the creator. Sooner or later, the charm disappears and familiarity takes its place. You notice patterns. You have expectations and pre-conceived notions. You don’t just see the film. You tend to see the actors with their exterior flaws (outside their universe of cinema). You wish, for a solitary moment, that you can rediscover the film without these burdens like you would when you approach a foreign language film.

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The director in my case happens to be Mani Ratnam, who had just a few months earlier directed Kaatru Veliyidai that received a mixed response. The movie I am referring to happens to be the iconic Nayakan (Hero). That it released thirty years ago on the occasion of Diwali seems to be too distant to our memories that we may require time travel. A time when films were known to be made by Mani Ratnam and not known as Mani Ratnam films yet.

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Mouna Raagam had brought him the recognition that he needed. He had wanted to work with Kamal Haasan but time was yet to provide its consent for their meeting which eventually did happen. There were two choices on his mind: a sleek action film or a film based on the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar. It makes me wonder how would we have remembered the Kamal Haasan-Mani Ratnam combo had it been a sleek action film.

So, what makes Nayakan an iconic movie? Is it because of Mani Ratnam or because of us? The answer lies somewhere between the two. People were yet to make up their minds to watch a Mani Ratnam film but they could have been drawn in because of Kamal Haasan. The summers of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were long gone. Rajini and Kamal were labelled the next stars of Tamil Cinema. Compared to today’s standards, the only curiosity the film had raised through its posters were that of a moustache-less Kamal Haasan.

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Before even the opening credits roll, we follow the story of a young boy who avenges his father’s death in a police encounter by killing the policeman responsible right after the funeral rights of his father. The boy escapes and lands in the city of Bombay. As he roams the streets, we listen to Ilaiyaraaja crooning ‘Thenpaandi cheemayile’. The rendition is folkish with minimum instrumental accompaniments, giving it a raw feel that is just about right to make you emotionally invested in the boy’s story. For an audience that had loved Mouna Raagam and returning to watch this, they were witnessing something special. One can merely wonder how the moviegoing experience was before the digital revolution.

The boy grows up in the foster care of a kind-hearted smuggler, Hussain. In order to establish the character, we see his responses to the events in his life. We see Velu standing up to the establishment in the scene where the police try to drive away the people from the slums of Dharavi. Kamal is immersed into this character down to the swelling on his lips and crooked smile. When the kids gather around him to ask if he was hurt badly, he responds by sprinkling the blood on them to lighten the mood.

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In one of the finest scenes in the movie, we see Selvam (a terrific Janagaraj) leading Velu to a whorehouse. Throughout ‘Naan sirithal Deepavali’, Velu is quite disinterested. Towards the end, we see him making up his mind to spend the night there. The way they show this scene on screen looks incredible. We see the camera focusing on Velu from a corner of the room with a meek voice of a young girl asking him if he could let her off early as she had to study for a Maths exam the next day. It allows the audience to instantly connect and empathize with this voice although we have not yet seen her. Velu speaks to the girl, agrees to her request and lets her study. This is when we get to see the naive young girl (Saranya Ponvannan in her debut role). Even in a scene where Kamal is meant to do nothing, he makes it quite believable. Ilaiyaraaja’s mellowed background score is empathetically woven to enhance the sensibilities on display.

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Mani Ratnam brilliantly juxtaposes this scene with a violent one showing the contrasting emotions of Velu. Hussain Bhai has died in Police custody. P C Sreeram shows the conversation between Shakeela, Velu and Selvam in between two pillars. Without these props, the scene feels empty but because they fill the screen, you feel how life has shrunk their space of comfort. Shakeela picks Velu’s collar saying how desperately she wants back her Bappa and on the other hand, Selvam mildly accuses Velu out of frustration. In the eyes of Velu, you see pain transforming to guilt and then to a searing rage. He has lost another father in the hands of khaki-clad men and probably, memories of his childhood crime returns. Velu avenges the death of Hussain by brutally murdering the police officer in the streets. When the police come to question the people, they are angered to not see a single soul coming forward as a witness. A kid gets slapped a few times and Velu almost gets up to turn himself in before a lady comes forth to establish why they will not utter the name. It is followed by Velu visiting the house of the cop’s widow where he promises to take care of her mentally retarded son. This is a classic mythological way of portraying a hero. He grows in the eyes of people.

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But when do they truly begin to celebrate the birth of a hero? Mani stages this scene perfectly. A rich person wants to build a factory in the slum area. Since there is no mention of a time period, Mani establishes it quite subtly like in this scene where we understand that the land has been acquired for a sum of ten thousand rupees. The editing is quite fantastic here (B Lenin and V T Vijayan). We see the preparation for construction on one side and the retaliation by Velu’s men on the other. One following the other would not have created a better impact, whereas, it is more of a race against time to sort out things. The belongings are broken and some, thrown out from the terrace of the apartment. The frame of the fridge being thrown is so iconic that when you think of Nayakan, it is impossible not to recollect this instantly. Inflicting an equivalent pain to seek justice leads to the birth of Velu bhai. Selvam from then onwards addresses him as Naicker.

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One particular score I love in the movie is the one that recurs in the scenes involving Reddy brothers. Ilaiyaraaja uses a simple tune that shows the ebbs and flows of emotions. It doesn’t announce pompously that you are about to witness something special and does not act as a musical cue. It is more of what builds up to it. Velu tries to outsmart them and succeeds but does not go well with the Reddy brothers leading to his wife getting killed. Velu takes revenge by getting two of the brothers killed and taking upon himself to kill the last one through the peephole on the door. This particular scene, for all its gory nature, is beautifully brought out. You don’t just witness a killing by Velu. You become a part of it.

Sandwiched between these two is the scene that depicts the empathetical side of Velu in full measure and the classic Ilaiyaraaja number, Andhi mazhai megam. A woman cries out to Velu for help to save her dying child. Velu gets to the hospital and ensures that the doctor treats the child. He is a father now and somehow feels for this child as if it was his own. When the doctor initially refuses, he threatens. When the lady comes to know that the child is safe, she respectfully bows to him but Velu, in turn, directs her towards the doctor. Kamal’s body language in this particular scene is remarkable. He is visibly tense and angry. He does not sit when asked to, with his hands behind the back and later sits on the reception desk as if to underline that Velu was the commanding authority at that hour.
In Andhi mazhai megam, you see the people around celebrate and worship him. He is not a person to have been accustomed to the joys of life. But here, he allows a kid to colour his face and dances with the people. He may have climbed the peak but has chosen to remain in the valley.

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The children of Velu are in stark contrasts. Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) grows up to be the obedient son who does not question his father. Charu (Karthika) may be Velu’s daughter but sees him in a different light. In an earlier scene, we see her as a kid who wants to know whether her father was indirectly responsible. Velu does not answer back then. The two are torn on the sides of morality. Having grown away from her father, she sees him in a new light. Velu is quite attached to his children and you see the pain of not able to make his daughter his worldview.

Even in the little screen presence he has, Nizhalgal Ravi makes his presence felt. There is a scene where he comes forward to finish a task in the absence of Selvam and convinces his father. Just as Surya turns to leave, Velu offers him paan by addressing him as Naicker. Surya accepts and respectfully turns away to have it. Charu witnesses from behind and Velu is filled with a sense of guilt. In the scene following his son’s death, the bridge between him and his daughter finally breaks. She releases her anguish by accusing her father of being responsible and asks him to consider her as an orphan instead.

You have to look at Kamal’s soul-crushing performance here. Velu is quite restrained as he is not willing to show his emotions. He has seen worse things in life. Kamal does not overact but keeps these emotions just about perfect. As audiences in Tamil cinema are quite used to witnessing overtly expressive performances by actors, Kamal’s was a performance that lets you dwell into the mind of the character.

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Take the scene towards the end where Velu calls the house of the Assistant Commissioner (Nasser) to inform that he was turning himself in. Realizing that his daughter is on the line, unsure of how to convey, he tries to speak in Hindi awkwardly and does not speak to her like a father. Once he mentions that he will be performing Thithi for his wife, he bites his tongue to tell her that the AC can come and arrest him after he has done the rites for her mother. Before stepping into the court, Velu finally gets to see his grandson. On being quipped, the kid answers that his name is Sakthivel. For all the differences between their views, the daughter is unable to let go of her father and has named her son after him. But the kid poses another unanswerable question. Neenga nallavara? Kettavara? (Are you a good man or a bad man?). Velu’s silence speaks volumes. These are questions history will pose at his life to which he does not know the right answer yet.

Even as the law considers him a free man, life does not as the sins of the past haunt and hunt him down in the form of the very life he had taken care of. No matter how godly a person is, he cannot escape from the consequences of his deeds. A montage of his life follows with the background score of Ilaiyaraaja. This was the best possible way to end the film as any other ending would not have let us remember.

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The film would deservedly fetch three national awards: Kamal Haasan (Best Actor), P C Sreeram (Best Cinematography) and Thotta Tharani (Best Art Direction). It would go on to be India’s entry to the Oscars and in 2005, would be included in TIME magazine’s “All-Time 100 Best Films”. The 1986 film Mouna Raagam had brought Mani Ratnam his first hit. But Nayakan was where he established a name for himself. From then on, people stepped into theatres knowing it was a Mani Ratnam film.

It is impossible to believe that thirty years have passed since the day of its release. It only serves to remind us that we have grown old while the film continues to remain fresh as it stays frozen in time. No wonder why the world believes a Nayakan (Hero) never ages.

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