All of November, the political intrigue and drama that accompanied Maharashtra government formation was something beyond the reach of even the most seasoned Bollywood scriptwriter — unless, of course, you hire someone of the calibre of wordsmith Sanjay Raut to write the plot. Thanks to his overactive imagination, a penchant for wordplay and sharp political mind, Shiv Sena’s Raut was instantly declared as the ‘man of the match’ and Chanakya (among other monikers). Subsequently, Sharad Pawar who stitched the impossible NCP-Sena-Congress alliance was proclaimed as ‘man of the series’, the old warhorse who showed everyone who the real boss was. And then, there’s the new Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, whose rousing swearing-in ceremony at Shivaji Park, the historic heart of Sena’s politics, reminded Mumbaikars of the packed rallies once brought alive by his father’s oratory skills and theatrics. The maverick Bal Thackeray has gone, but thankfully he left behind protégé Raut who delights in following in his footsteps. From the Saamna editor’s invocation of ‘How’s the josh?, chants of ‘Agneepath, Agneepath, Agneepath’ and “100 births to understand what Sharad Pawar says” googly to 162 MLAs being paraded like fashion models at a five-star hotel and Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar’s three-day government, there’s no doubt that there was more madness and comical twist on display here than in a Rohit Shetty comedy. No wonder, Twitteratis had a fun time summoning up film references to justify the Maha Vikas Aghadi, as it has now been called. Many equated the unfolding political crisis to Jabbar Patel’s all-time Marathi classic Sinhasan.
Then, some miscreant came up with a tweet about Anil Kapoor’s Nayak (2001). The fan felt it was a ‘jhakas’ idea to suggest the completely apolitical Kapoor’s name as Maharashtra’s CM until the deadlock was revolved. Either he was joking or he had seen Nayak far too many times to start believing that, like Nayak’s protagonist Shivaji Rao, Kapoor alone could make ‘Maharashtra great again’ and ensure everything is copacetic in what is arguably India’s richest state.
The Reluctant Politicians
As CM Uddhav Thackeray takes his new role like Taimur to paps, chairing cabinet meetings and acclimatising himself with legislative arithmetics, he’s not all that different from the rookie Shivaji Rao of Nayak. Astonishing as it may seem, one can point out quite a few similarities between them without sounding incredulous. Thackeray is the son of a cartoonist. So is Rao in the film whose unexpected rise to Maharashtra Chief Minister post is foreshadowed by a cartoon his father draws in the beginning. Rao’s response is one of surprise, just like Anil Kapoor’s was when he brushed off the overenthusiastic fan’s suggestion with, “Main nayak hi theek hun.”
Here’s more: Rao works as a cameraman. It’s a well-known fact that Thackeray was — still is — a passionate photographer before his foray into politics. With his tucked-in executive shirts, trousers and mild manners, Thackeray looks more like a media professional working at a BKC tower than a politician. Ditto Shivaji Rao. It’s only recently that Thackeray has taken to wearing saffron kurtas as if to reinforce his Hindutva ideology. But there was a time in the ’90s when Thackeray was all too happy to take the backseat, letting estranged cousin Raj Thackeray occupy centre-stage. The MNS supremo’s oratory style, mannerism and charisma was similar to uncle Bal Thackeray’s, prompting critics to anoint him as the heir apparent. Finally, here’s the one theme that unites Thackeray and Shivaji Rao: they are both reluctant politicians who’ve had to learn the ropes on the job and remake themselves as they ventured deeper and deeper into the political landscape.
Directed by S. Shankar, long before he became Tamil cinema’s celebrated showman, Nayak is a rehash of his own Mudhalvan which, incidentally, celebrated its 20th anniversary this November. Nayak is for Anil Kapoor what Sooryavansham is for Amitabh Bachchan, the Southern juggernauts that have won new audiences in the Hindi speaking belt. Somewhere, they have touched such a public nerve that it has led to a cult following today, thanks to their authentically tacky flavour, sensational plot twists and funny dialogue. Like Sooryavansham, Nayak would have been doomed to obscurity if not for TV reruns that helped turn it into a dorm room favourite. Not many know that Anurag Kashyap is its dialogue writer.
For those who haven’t seen the film, its biggest conceit is, ‘What happens when a common man goes on to become the Chief Minister for a day?’ The movie follows the twist and turns in Shivaji Rao’s (Anil Kapoor) life and in such a packed screenplay, Shankar also finds time to include an entirely unnecessary love track between Rao and village beauty Manjari (Rani Mukerji). Rao works for Q TV as a cameraperson and lives a pretty middle-class life with his parents. The movie picks up after a bus driver, associated with a union with links to the ruling party, gets into a run-in with a student triggering a riot-like situation. The menacing Amrish Puri is well-cast as CM Balraj Chauhan, whose government needs the support of the coalition for smooth functioning, mirroring the NCP-Sena-Congress alliance of 2019. “The chair I am sitting on doesn’t belong to me alone,” CM Chauhan says, explaining to chief secretary Bansal (Paresh Rawal) why he’s forced to protect his vote bank and cannot fiddle with the state’s fragile caste calculations. (In a sticky situation, you might imagine Uddhav Thackeray saying something similar to a babu.) “One leg of the chair belongs to my alliance partner,” he continues. “Second one belongs to the caste that votes for us, third is of the moneybags who are running this party while the fourth leg stands for our party workers. The seat will tumble even if one leg is disturbed.” Chauhan is a wily politician who believes in maintaining the status quo, never to resolve the issues but, in fact, to use them as political fuel. And that’s what he does best.
Playing with fire
The film’s most popular scenes take place when Rao gets a rare platform to corner Chauhan. In a televised interview, Rao, the journalist, pulls off a Hard Talk on the CM. He poses one uncomfortable question after another. Illiteracy, poverty, crime rate, public finance, IMF economic reports and World Bank loan that never reached the masses. The mounting accusations make the strongman shuffle in his seat. It is revealed that the funds were misused by Chauhan’s corrupt aides. Hailing from a poor farming stock, Chauhan is also accused of graft. How else did he end up amassing wealth to the tune of Rs 500 crore. Rao’s tough questions unsettle the unscrupulous CM. “Don’t play with fire,” an irate Chauhan warns Rao. Caving under the journalist’s firing line, Chauhan challenges Rao to become CM for a day. At first, Rao rejects the offer saying that’s not his job. “You reporters are like dogs barking behind cars. The moment the car halts, you run with the tail between your legs,” Chauhan scoffs, attempting to provoke him. Chauhan makes the offer in the heat of the moment but after initial hesitation, Rao accepts the challenge to wear the “crown of thorns,” as Chauhan describes the CM’s seat. “They are playing one day match with the CM’s chair,” says Bansal tersely, before trailing off, “Ever since the CM’s been to Bihar, he talks baloney.”
Thus is born Rao, the politician and the idealist, the embodiment of New Maharashtra. He quickly gets down to business, but what can he achieve in a single day what previous governments have not done in decades? Bursting with new ideas, he personally goes to slums to fix problems and to hospitals to draft suspension letters. To the surprise of the veteran Bansal, flushed with newfound power, he arrests Chauhan. Waiting for long to serve an educated and honest CM, Bansal helps Rao crack the code. Rao’s rise is contrasted with Chauhan’s depleting fortunes. In a face-off towards the end, Rao makes Chauhan sample the taste of his own bitter medicine. “It was a fine interview,” would be Mogambo’s famous last words while as far as Rao is concerned, the ultimate outsider has honed his skills so well that he has finally become the Machiavellian politician that he never set out to be in the first place.
Most of Nayak is frankly a guilty pleasure. While Anil Kapoor as Mr Nice does a great job, it is Paresh Rawal, Saurabh Shukla and Amrish Puri who are the veritable scene-stealers. Rawal’s Bansal is a backroom player who invests his performance with sardonic delight. As a bureaucrat, he may be forced to work with Chauhan but never passes any opportunity to take a dig at his ‘bagadbilla’ boss. Like, in the early scene, when he replies to a villager’s innocent query if the CM is disturbing dhoti with, “Run away, otherwise he will snatch the one you are wearing.” Saurabh Shukla, on the other hand, plays Chauhan’s loyal Man Friday who would become famous for flaunting his hole-ridden slippers on prime-time TV. There’s also the bankable Johnny Lever (with his ‘kya be chhakke’ refrain that plays as a running joke every time he feels ticklish) and Razak Khan for some good ol’ comic relief.
Like Indian and Sivaji: The Boss, Nayak is S Shankar’s take on ordinary heroes who aren’t afraid to confront the system and change it for the larger good. Indian starred Kamal Haasan while Sivaji: The Boss was a Rajinikanth vehicle. Reportedly, he had written Mudhalvan for Rajinikanth and even offered it to Haasan. Hence, the name Shivaji Rao. Honestly, the original and more rooted Mudhalvan starring Arjun and Manisha Koirala holds far better than Nayak. The Hindi version sometimes has a dubbed quality that makes it just another Southern export with hysterical drama and comedy crammed in for mass appeal.
Yet, there’s no denying that it is a laugh riot. In the end, what makes Nayak a quintessential Shankar spectacle is the way he manages to tell an ingenious story in the most enjoyable and mass-friendly device, avoiding sending out preachy messages. Instead, he leaves the social issues for the hero to unpick. Shivaji Rao shows us that it’s possible to clean up the rot in politics. Rao stands for the rank outsiders and reluctant politicians who enter the fray and make an attempt to reform the system. Like Uddhav Thackeray (though he’s from a political family and still to prove his Chief Ministership), Arvind Kejriwal and many AAP leaders.