After almost three decades, director Mani Ratnam is returning to the gangster genre with Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Academy Award-winning composer AR Rahman ramped up the curiosity about the upcoming film when he said that the director has gone back to his “Nayagan days.”
‘Will I ever do anything worthwhile?’ That is the question that keeps most filmmakers up at night. And it was a sheer blessing for Ratnam to have been freed of that pressure very early on his career with Nayagan (1987). He made this Godfatherish drama with superstar Kamal Haasan in the lead, just four years after making his directorial debut with Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983).
Nayagan was instantly recognized as a landmark moment in Indian cinema by the country’s intelligentsia. And even the casual viewers appreciated the daring attempt in Tamil cinema by making it a roaring success at the box office. 23 years later, TIME magazine updated its ‘All-TIME 100’ list with this film. More than 30 years on, and the movie continues to influence filmmakers from across generations.
Nayagan to date remains a case study for filmmakers in terms of directing, screenwriting, acting, cinematography, editing, background score, production design and so on. Most of the audience of my generation, who were yet to be born when this film was made, never got to experience what it was like to watch this masterpiece on a big screen. The image that I derived from reading umpteen number of articles about this film, both by national and international critics, almost gave it a mythical status. And a close and repeated examination of this Ratnam work reveals that the endless effusive praise for this film is not unfounded.
Nayagan is a beautiful portrait of an existentialist hero who picks up a sword (should I say a sledgehammer in this case) to uphold the rights of the oppressed. And Velu Nayakan (Kamal) was not the first hero in Tamil cinema to do so. For decades, we have had hundreds of films passionately justifying a hero’s call to arms in the class struggle. But, unlike other heroes, Velu was not cocksure about the path he chose to serve the poor of Mumbai’s Dharavi. Yes, he did not have regrets about breaking the law as long as it made the lives of poor people a bit tolerable. But, even moments before his death, he was open to reassessing his life’s only guiding principle that made him the legend in the eyes of the poor.
In the climax, when Velu’s grandson asks him, whether he is a “good person or a bad person?”, his entire life flashes before his eyes. He could have easily answered the question with a ‘good man’ narrative for he had thousands of people to vouch for it. Instead, the simple question forces him to look inward as he had been looking for the answer outside.
The question about what’s right and wrong haunted Velu since he was a boy. His father, a slain union leader in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, couldn’t solve his confusion. Finally, he thought his foster father in Mumbai answered it when he implanted a debatable philosophy in him: “Nothing is wrong when it does good for other people.” Velu shapes his life based on that principle. And he embraces a life of crime without qualms.
Velu’s armor suffers a small crack when his five-year-old daughter gives him a new question to grapple with. When Velu’s wife gets killed by his rivals, his daughter Charumathi asks him, “People say mother died because of you. Is it true?” Her words must have felt like a stab to his heart. And he responds to it with shock and silence.
Velu was a tormented soul. In spite of being surrounded with people that loved and worshiped him, he was always a loner. Whether knowingly or unknowing, his impulsive actions led to the deaths of his loved ones (his biological father, his wife and finally his son). And his daughter abandoned him. His life was destined for tragedy.
In the end, when his grandson asks him whether he was a “good person or a bad person?”, it makes him reevaluate his entire life. “I don’t know,” comes a deep answer from a misty-eyed Velu.
Ratnam could have taken a clichéd route and allowed Velu to ride off into the sunset. But, he had written a violent film in a moral context and he could not have ended on a different note, just because Kodambakkam would have loved it. One who lives by the sword has to die by the sword, right? The film opens with a bereaved son avenging his father’s death. And it ends with another son doing the same.
With Nayagan, Ratnam and Kamal showed the industry what could be achieved within the confines of a mainstream studio production. And for me, the film’s remarkable contribution lies in the fact that it thwarted the misguided conviction that the general movie audience won’t appreciate a quality film with strong artistic sensibilities.