Some films are impossible to review in themselves: such is their impact, so thorough their influence, that when one re-visits them, even if after a deliberately long lapse of time, one is unable to view them afresh, for in them the film as it must have been back when it was released is only dimly discernible, and the prism of the film’s history and what it has come to mean almost the only vantage point that affords a view any longer. Almost. For the great film (like the great book, painting, or any other work of art) is not merely reducible to the history of its reception, even if it is inextricable from it.
Mani Ratnam's Nayakan (Tamil; 1987) is such a film, and it would be no exaggeration to cite it as the one Tamil film that even Indians who have never seen any Tamil film are likely to have heard of. Yet its status as one of the seminal works of Indian popular cinema rests on more than this, on more than the fact that it was commercially successful or that the film arguably represents the high point in the storied career of its lead actor, Kamal Haasan, on more even than the sort of acclaim that saw it win a place in Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss’ list of the 100 greatest movies ever. Nayakan deserves its place in the annals of Indian film history because it changed what we came to expect from our movies, and thus in time came to change how movies were made. Whether the industry is Hindi, Telugu, or Tamil, the film Parinda, Pattiyal or Company, the director Mukul Anand, Mahesh Manjrekar, or Ram Gopal Verma, the representation of crime and criminality (and the problematic glamorisation of the same), of the life and death associated with India’s mean streets, heck of Mumbai itself, that by now has come to seem normal to us in Indian film, is unimaginable without Nayakan.
Underneath it all is the story of Velu Naicker (Kamal Haasan) – rumoured to be modeled after the legendary Tamil Mumbai don (and folk hero to “his own”) Varadarajan – who while yet a boy kills the policeman who has murdered Velu’s trade unionist father and flees to Bombay, in time becoming a basti hero in Dharavi and ultimately an underworld don. Along the way the police kill his foster father, rival gangsters his wife, a criminal mishap his son, not to mention that his daughter ends up appalled at and alienated from his worldview. The film ends as all Indian gangster films after Deewar must, with the death of Velu himself, shot by the retarded son of the first man Velu killed in Mumbai. In the end, Velu’s karma catches up with him.
Nayakan is not an especially profound film, and does not to my mind offer any new insight into the nature of power or of criminality; as in Bombay from a few years later, Ratnam’s politics are fairly conventional (that is to say genteel bourgeois), and certainly nothing in this film matches the visionary cinematic mode of Iruvar a decade later (still the best Indian film from the last twenty years that I have seen). But in the context of Indian cinema Nayakan is the more important and influential film, and rests on a number of assumptions that have irrevocably marked Hindi and Tamil cinema, mostly for better (though, in the hands of unthinking filmmakers, also for worse). The most important of these is the refusal to condescend to the viewer, and for the film to at all points take its audience’s intelligence for granted. In practice this meant that not every detail of the inner life of Nayakan’s characters needed to be spelled out, leading to a more suggestive, more nuanced way of filmmaking for those who have followed Ratnam’s lead. Obviously not everyone has (and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that everyone should), but it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the majority of the more intelligent popular films have tended to appreciate the virtues of this approach over the last two decades.
A second and related feature was Ratnam’s insistence on making a film that could be very Indian, very rooted, without necessarily hewing to a formula. Thus Nayakan has no parallel comedy track, and no hero/heroine song and dance sequences. And that’s not because Ratnam was embarrassed by his cinematic heritage, far from it: Nayakan has a number of songs, but most of them are superbly situational, and are inescapably part of the experience of watching this film. Songs are one of the singular pleasures of mainstream Indian cinema, and Ratnam accords them the respect that is due by ensuring that in Nayakan they do not seem forced into the narrative. The lesson has not always been learned well (witness the recent Pokiri or Dhoom 2) but it has been learned by many, and by filmmakers as diverse as Bala, the Rakeysh Mehra of Rang de Basanti, the Ashutosh Gowariker of Lagaan, not to mention the usual suspects like Manjrekar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and even Ram Gopal Verma on occasion(ironically, the later Ratnam’s excellence at song videos has been similarly, though often unfortunately, influential, leading many a director and viewer to conceptualize songs as breaks in, and hence removed from, the film of which they are part, something that no Ratnam film I have seen is guilty of, barring Agni Natchathiram, although no doubt in the later Ratnam the songs often become more abstract than the film around them). This too is part of the filmmaker’s respect for the audience, in that "the people" are to be conceptualized democratically, as thinking beings who may be counted on to appreciate a film on its merits, not a mass who will simply react to stimuli presented according to a certain formula. The Nayakan way certainly doesn’t guarantee commercial success (the film was a hit, but many of Ratnam's subsequent films have not fared well at the box office), but it does lead to more engaged viewers (and in any event I would argue that the surprising degree of success achieved by a Raja Hindustani or Pokiri or Dhoom 2 suggests that something other than formulaic repetition is at work, since mere repetition is inconsistent with such exceptional success).
No discussion of Nayakan would be complete without a word about Kamal Haasan’s performance, which is both one of the most overrated performances in Indian history and at the same time nothing less than a superb and ineffably memorable showing by Kamal Haasan. Haasan – who deservedly won a National Award for his role here – cannot be taken to task for the former, and acquits himself faultlessly when it comes to what he was responsible for, namely incarnating a Velu Naicker that would be true to Ratnam’s vision. The result is one of Indian popular cinema’s most iconic performances, and a perennially fashionable one if the slew of post-Nayakan “down home” gangsters housed in “ordinary” homes and in “regular” clothes is anything to go by. And this is about more than "ethnic chic", reflecting as it does a democratic India where power -- political and street -- is increasingly being assumed by those once summarily dismissed as "vernacular."
Kamal’s performance may be divided in two, but not necessarily by Velu’s age. Rather, I see Velu prior to his coronation as different from the later Velu, the former’s combination of sullenness and naivete giving way to an unshakable confidence and resolve. The former is impressive (one can see more than a few traces of it in Madhavan’s own wonderful performance as the “bigtime” writer early on in Kannathil Muthamittal), but it is the latter – showy, obvious, and oh-so-compelling – that makes the role for me. One might cavil that Kamal’s performance lacks the nuance and refinement of Mohanlal’s matchless turn in Iruvar (though who could equal that master?), but that ignores the fact that Velu is a far less complicated being than Anandam. Velu is a stubby, direct, and forthright man, one who traffics in brute facts more than anything else. And Kamal Haasan is perhaps the ideal actor to essay this role, of a man who simply does what he feels is right (a similar line crops up in Sarkar, in the context of which film it was a statement not of simplicity or correctness but of naked power, reflective of the different concerns of Ratnam and Ram Gopal Verma, respectively). Kamal's persona fits in seamlessly with the relativism of Ratnam’s vision: as the famous confrontation scene between Velu and his daughter makes clear, Ratnam is aware of the problematic nature of an ethical code that is purely personal, but he is equally aware that judgment can be presumptuous in the extreme given that who one is amounts to a great extent, in the final analysis, to what has happened to one. This scene is frankly reminiscent of one of the two famous “confrontations” between Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Deewar (there the third in the frame was their mother; in Nayakan it is Velu’s friend and right-hand man Selva), but where the urgency of Bachchan’s charisma and resentful claim draws the viewer firmly to his side, Ratnam and Kamal resolutely refuse to do so, making clear that they are not going to go down the Deewar way (perhaps because if one seeks to replicate that inimitable film as a formula, one might be left with the neo-fascist flirtations of Sarkar as the only real possibility). Velu is not wrong vis-a-vis his daughter Chaaramma, but he is not right either. Velu seems to realize this by film's end -- when his grandson asks him if he is "good" or "bad", his response is simply that he doesn't know -- and Ratnam seems to want his audience to realize it too, for in this film (and how radical this was in an Indian popular film!) it is childish to ask such questions.
Finally: Dharavi; that is, the set erected in Madras for Nayakan is one of the most impressive I have ever seen in any film, so vivid it fits in seamlessly with Ratnam’s on-location shots of various Mumbai landmarks, the combination of the two so memorable that the city would never again be the same on celluloid, as attested to by Parinda, Satya, Company, and even Black Friday. Ratnam does not efface the ramshackle reality of the slum, but he is uncompromising in his insistence that beauty, song, life in the fullest sense, exist here too. He is aided in his efforts by a superb soundtrack by Ilaiyaraja, one that does not seem stale even two decades later, even for those who were first introduced to snippets of it in bastardized form in Firoz Khan's unfortunate remake Dayavan. The anonymous (to us) technicians and workers who constructed the set are among the true heroes of Nayakan, and while we will never know all of their names, Ratnam's incorporation of their work in -- indeed the centrality of their work to -- Nayakan is a permanent memorial to their efforts, and, like all else about this film, a great one.