“Nayakan” - Mani Ratnam (1987)

Nayakan (aka Nayagan, 1987) is an immensely popular South Indian gangster film, which, despite having been filmed in the minority Tamil language, is considered to be one of the most popular Indian films ever made [1,2].  Indeed, TIME magazine even ranked Nayakan on its universal list of "All-Time 100 Best Films" (2005) [3,4].  However, Nayakan is not very well-known in the West, and, unfortunately for those seeking a suitably subtitled version, currently available prints of the film are not of good quality [5,6]. 

For the Indian masses who have seen the film, Nayakan probably stands as the Indian version of The Godfather (1972) [6,7].  However, I would say the film could perhaps just as well be likened to some of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epics, such as Casino (1995) or The Irishman (2019).  In any case, what we essentially have here in Nayakan is the life story of a notorious Indian mafia don’s rise to power and subsequent struggles.  The film was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, but it is loosely based on the real life of notorious Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar.

However, Nayakan’s immense popularity must be due to more than just being an account of a notorious gangster.  It must have special virtues with regard to its narrative themes and/or production values.  With regard to narrative themes and in comparison to earlier gangster films, one might ask whether the key underlying theme in this film is about:
  • the intricate machinations of mob life;
  • a charismatic leader who overcame all odds and inspired his followers;
  • the necessity for the rule of law;
  • morality.
With respect to the first two of those narrative themes, I would say, no, they are not covered.  The machinations of gangster rule are assumed, but they are left in the background.  And though some people might disagree with me on the second point, I would say that the main character in the film seems remarkably laidback and oftentimes passive.  Note that the main character, Sakthivel "Velu" Naicker, is played by popular Tamil actor Kamal Haasan, who also starred in the Indian silent movie Pushpak (1987).  Although many people seem to like Haasan, to me, he is far from charismatic. 

As for the value of the rule of law, there is indeed a key argument about that topic relatively late in the piece, but that does not seem to be a pervasive issue, especially given how corrupt the police are in this film.  That leaves us with the final thematic possibility, that of morality.  But morality only comes into play in this film if you accept the dubious claim that revenge is a moral action.  Indeed much of the action in the film is driven by revenge, so much so in fact that we can say that Nayakan is permeated with revenge, and we can regard it as essentially a revenge film.  To highlight this observation, I will identify vengeance-fuelled elements by “[R]” in the discussion below about the film’s story.

Moreover, Nayakan’s production values are something of a mixed bag.  The cinematography by P. C. Sreeram is expressionistically emphatic all the way.  There are many hand-held moving-camera shots that convey a disruptive, uncertain feeling to what is happening.  These are intermixed with lots of lots of closeups, overhead shots, and high- and low-angle shots, many of them in relative darkness, that further empathize the dramatic tenor.  I particularly liked the several extended scenes, including dance numbers, that were shot in a driving rainstorm.  Overall, the cinematography is provocative but effective. 

The film’s editing by B. Lenin and V. T. Vijayan, though, is not so successful.  There are some pointless axis-crossing cuts, and the narrative flow is disjointed.  When I watched the film, I felt like I was looking at a scrapbook.  And the film’s music by Ilaiyaraaja is disappointing, too [6].  The jazzy soundtrack doesn’t go with the images presented and is constantly distracting.

The story of Nayakan is told over four parts.  Note that a key narrative element throughout this tale is that the police are routinely malicious killers and torturers of poor people and almost represent a force of evil.

1.  The Rise of Velu
At the outset, Sakthivel Naicker, who looks to be about ten-years-old, is beaten by police in search of his father, who is an opposition union leader.  After the police find and kill his father [R], Sakthivel stabs the police inspector [R], after which the young boy runs off to Bombay (Mumbai). These are the first of many acts of revenge  depicted in the film.  In Bombay’s Dharavi slums, Sakthivel finds refuge with a kind-hearted smuggler, Hussain, who becomes his surrogate father. 

Years later, the now-grownup Sakthivel (now played by Kamal Haasan) watches the police maliciously hose-down poor people in his neighbourhood, and when he doesn’t run away, he is taken in and tortured by the police [R].

On another occasion, Sakthivel asks his step-father if smuggling isn’t morally wrong.  Hussain responds that “nothing is bad if it helps others”, and he implies that his smuggling helps poor people.  This becomes Sakthivel’s catch-phrase, and he adopts a Robin-Hood-like policy of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  And so as things develop, Sakthivel becomes an aggressive partner to Hussain’s smuggling activities.  During this time Sakthivel’s friend Selva (Janagaraj) takes him to a whorehouse.  There he is attracted to a teenage schoolgirl, Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who is working there temporarily as a prostitute. 

Soon, though, other smugglers become jealous of Sakthivel’s aggressive actions, and they arrange for corrupt police inspector Kelkar (Pradeep Shakthi) to arrest Sakthivel’s step-father and have him killed in jail [R] so that it looks like a suicide.  When Sakthivel hears of this, he murders Kelkar in a lengthy and violent three-minute fistfight [R].  The poor Tamilians who saw this battle support Sakthivel and subsequently refuse to testify against him.  They regard him as a hero and now call him “Velu”. 

Afterwards, Velu goes to Kelkar’s home and decides to take care of the support for the man’s family, which consists of his wife and a young mentally retarded son Ajit.  Even Kelkar's widow doesn’t blame Velu, because she knew that her husband's immorality resulted in his death.

Later a new landowner comes to tear down a Dharavi slum in order to construct a new building, and he orders the eviction of the slum tenants.  So Velu leads a group armed with clubs to destroy landowner’s wealthy house in another lengthy violent scene [R].

Eventually Velu marries Neela, and the film features some intimate bedroom scenes (which I found a little surprising for a mass-market Indian film).

2.   The Emergence of a Don
Years have passed, and Velu and Neela now have two pre-teen children, a son Surya and a daughter Charumati. 

Velu now goes to meet the top gangsters in town, which include the Reddy brothers, and he tells them that if he can pull off big heist in the harbor (which the Reddys have failed at), then the harbor should “belong” to him.  There is then a lengthy scene, featuring music and dancing, showing the successful heist.  In response to this, the Reddys vow to kill Velu and his family [R].  Later there is a violent hit job that results in Neela’s death [R], and in response Velu kills the Reddys [R].

3.  A Reckoning
Years have passed, and Velu is now a greying, admired don.  Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Charumati (Karthika) are now young adults, and somewhat  to Velu’s discomfort, Surya shows interest in emulating his father’s gangster ways.   However, soon a policeman comes to Velu seeking justice, i.e. revenge [R].  His daughter was sexually molested by an upperclass boy who is above the law, and the policeman wants the boy to be punished.  Velu sends Selva out to torture the boy [R], and Charumati happens to see it.  So she confronts Velu in what amounts to the most interesting exchange in the film.

Charumati asks Velu, who are you to play God?  But Velu merely answers that the authorities can’t be trusted to deliver correct punishment [R].  Later the same policeman comes to report to Velu that one of Velu’s own men is ready to testify against Velu concerning the torture incident.  Surya vows that he will “take care of him”, but in the event, Surya is killed in an accidental explosion. Afterwards, Charumati accuses her father of being responsible for the deaths of both her mother and her brother, and she renounces him and leaves home for good.

4.  Closing Down
Years later, a new assistant police commissioner, Patil (M. Nassar), is appointed, and he vows to put an end to the gangster activity in Mumbai.  He preemptively confiscates the private ambulances that Velu had been using to service the neglected Dharavi slums [R], and he jails Selva.  Velu goes to Patil’s home to see if he can talk to him, but when he arrives while Patil is out, he is shocked to discover that Patil’s wife is his daughter Charumati.  She explains to her father that she married the police officer in order to atone for her sins (of having been a member of Velu’s family).

Patil soon secures an arrest warrant for Velu, and he proceeds to carry out a ruthlessly brutal campaign in search of his target.  But the people of Dharavi are loyal to Velu, whom they regard as a hero, and they refuse to disclose his whereabouts.  During these police investigations, however, the now-adult, and still mentally retarded, Ajit Kelkar learns finally that Velu was responsible for his father’s death years ago. 

Seeing the poor people of Dharavi's undeserved suffering from the relentless police brutality, Velu surrenders himself to Patil.  Patil, however, is awed by how much the people support Velu, and fearful of a violenet civil backlash, he comes to Velu’s cell begging him to mollify his angry supporters.  It as if there are two equally contending groups seeking civil authority here – the police and the mob headed by Velu – and Patil is finally reaching out for some sort of peace treaty.  Velu agrees to try to calm the people down.

Just before entering the trial chamber, Velu meets for the first time his grandson, the son of Charumati.  The boy asks Velu if he is a good person or a bad person, and after reflection, Velu says, “I don’t know”.

Then the trial takes place, and because none of the citizens will testify against Velu, he is acquitted of the charges against him.  The people outside the courtroom are jubilant when they hear the verdict.  However, when Velu comes outside to join them, he is murdered by Ajit in revenge for his father’s death [R].

So is there a moral to this story of Nayakan?  If there is, I didn’t see it.  All we are shown in this sombre tale are two equally malicious forces – the mobster gang and the police – each perpetually driven by unprincipled revenge.  There could be no satisfying outcome under these circumstances.  The two leaders of these forces – Velu and (symbolically) Patil – are far from inspiring, whether looked at from a narrative, moral, or dramatic perspective.  As I mentioned above, Kamal Haasan’s relentlessly blank and deadpanned countenance in the role of Velu leaves a dramatic hole in this story that is never filled.

Far more satisfying is the film’s atmospheric cinematography, with its many darkened and heavy-rain-filled scenes.  They transport the viewer into a grim, revenge-fuelled wold from which there is no seeming escape.
★★★
 
Notes:
  1. “Nayakan”, Wikipedia, (3 May 2020).   
  2. “Critical reception”, "Nayakan", Wikipedia, (2 May 2020).    
  3. “All-TIME 100 Movies”, TIME, (12 February 2005).    
  4. Richard Corliss, “Nayakan”, TIME, (14 January 2010).   
  5. Heather Wilson, “Nayakan (1987)”, Cinema Chaat, (27 October 2013).   
  6. James Berardinelli, “Nayagan (India, 1987)”, REELVIEWS, (24 August 2019).   
  7. Kumuthan Maderya,. "Slumgod Millionaire: On 'Nayakan', the Godfather of Indian Gangster Films", PopMatters, (3 November 2017).   

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