25 YEARS OF NAYAKAN

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Twenty five years is a long time, especially when public memory is only limited to what you did the previous week, this is probably the reason why actors and filmmakers are so insecure on Fridays. Films that have broken this barrier of time come to stay with us not just as preferences during a dinner conversation but as important moments of everyday life.

For those who have grown and watched Tamil films in the last twenty five years; Nayakan would be one such movie.

The film begins silently on the shores of a southern town, a town which hints of some union trouble; nothing is shown though, just that the leader has gone underground and that the police are willing to do anything to get to him, here anything means even deceiving a young boy into showing his father’s hiding place, thereby messing up with his ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

What is right and what is wrong?

Sakthivel even asks his fugitive father this, he never gets a satisfactory reply, not through the entirety of the film; but Sakthivel convinces himself of an answer which he seems best, to do right for his people he will be willing to do anything that was wrong.

An answer he derives from an ageing pious Muslim who moonlights as a smuggler at night so that the dead in his slum can have a decent burial.

Nayakan is Mani Ratnam’s first great film, some might say his only; but it is a story told with much ambition and sadness that it can only be called a classic. It is also the most popular Kamal film among people who despise Kamal Haasan, a film that owes more to the city of Mumbai and Varadaraja Mudaliyar than to Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola.

It is the much told story of the outsider, the immigrant who stands for his people in an alien land, dispensing justice; his version of justice but nevertheless justice. In one of the scenes, Kamal rues over how the oppressed cannot truly get justice from the existing system and they shall have their own route until such a time when all differences are done with.

Hero among his people he might be, but his personal life falls like a badly stacked card castle; for he is in a profession where one does not differentiate between home and external affairs, to a point such that he is made to realize that his version of justice to some might be the perfect example of cruelty to others, but he never sways away from his people or his people from him. It is the story of how runaway Sakthivelu becomes Velu Nayakan

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Mani Ratnam employs P C Sreeram’s camera which fights its way through the populous streets of Dharavi, or between two pillars relentless in search of light, it does not mind even a jail keyhole or the mosquito net that adorns Nayakan’s bed; pausing knowledgeably and letting Ilayaraja’s  masterful and timely music take over creating that special place for Kamal Haasan to live in one his memorable roles. Nayakan is the first film that said a film can have foreign sensibilities, but still be Indian in its core; like there is a love track but it doesn’t take much of the time and hindering the path of the story, it just takes one song and the love makes more impact than films which take two acts to establish it. Every song finds a place, even the derided item number has much to tell.

It is not a perfect film, but it is a film that you remember fondly and come back to it, for years I have wondered how Velu Nayakan never speaks much of Hindi for all his years in Mumbai and requires a translator when he needs to communicate or how the sub-plot involving his son somehow seem forced. But these things do not mar the viewing of the film and only discussed when the pulp of the film has been enjoyed.

Debates can be held through the night to know if Nayakan is one the greatest Indian films, leave alone Tamil films; but one can never arrive at a conclusion in these matters, but the fact of the matter is that the movie rests alongside The Godfather, its inspiration in the TIME 100 list of great movies (again a very relative things these lists). One of the three Indian movies to make it to the list and the only one made after the sixties. Nayakan is after all the Enga Oor Godfather and it seems only right we celebrate this silver jubilee especially at a time when a person’s 25th (or lesser rounded numbers) film is being is heralded as artistic achievement itself.

Incidentally Nayakan was Ilayaraja’s 400th film as composer; it is indicated in a much smaller font and within brackets, so much so one might even miss it. Such were the times.

PS

Nayakan made way for Mani Ratnam to become one of the country’s most respected directors; his later works however are open to discussion.

Kamal Haasan went on to win one more National Award for acting after his nod for Nayakan.

Maestro Ilayaraja still composes although his work with Mani Ratnam came to end a few years after Nayakan. 

Nayakan was remade into Hindi as Dayavan, best remembered for a Madhuri Dixit kiss video which has more than 1 lakh hits on youtube.

Nayakan still remains my favorite Mani film.

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