YOU CAN’T WATCH NAYAGAN today with a straight face. Today’s uncles who watched the film in their teens will be guilt-stricken if they watch it again. Some might even feel suicidal. The con job that Maniratnam and Kamal Hassan pulled off with this 1987 cinematic heist easily vies with the likes of Mother India and Deewaar in the infernal world they all inhabit.
Fear not. I have a useful formula that will assuage the guilt of the aforementioned uncles, a tribe I too am a member of. We were all young and impressionable and were in the process of forming a worldview and we lived at the cusp of a changing era in Indian cinema.
We actually thought that Kamal Hassan was a great actor forgetting the fact that if there was no strict director to restrain him, he would run amok like a sloshed ape ample evidence for which is available in Hey Ram, Alavandhan, Virumandi, Dashavataram and Vishwaroopam. The restraint is what differentiates Kamal Hassan the actor from Kamal Hassan the hammer [hammer (n): one who hams; acts excessively]. Sans this, the lotus attempts to bloom at night but it is the audience which suffers its miserable consequences. Check his performances in say Moonram Pirai, Sagara Sangamam or Swati Muthyam to verify this contrast.
We had also groggily woken up to Maniratnam (then Maniratnam, now, Mani “sir”) who had bagged his first superhit with Mouna Ragam after four prior duds. A dud per year. Mouna Ragam was the cinematic equivalent of the ubiquitous Darshini food, popular in Bangalore. The fare is ordinary. The taste is average. It passes the hygiene test. What really makes it successful is the subconscious comfort it offers via familiarity.
But then, we lived in a different India, an India that exists today as a vague mist in these uncle-psyches. Needless, all these factors were conducive to getting conned by Nayagan.
Mukta Srinivasan, the producer of Nayagan, offers the best assessment of the movie: “Had it not been for Ilayaraja and Lenin, the movie would have flopped.”
You can stop reading at this point but we need to give the devil its due in detail.
NAAYAGAN IS THE GODFATHER AND DEEWAR rolled into one. It brazenly shoplifts entire sequences from the former and has a zealot’s devotion to the ideology peddled by the latter.
The climactic scene in which Michael’s godchild is being baptised while his henchmen are simultaneously eliminating his rivals makes its appearance in the scene where Kamal Hassan is performing the Shraddha of his murdered wife. With the thud of each Pinda, one enemy meets a ghastly end. The shoplifting is unapologetic, complete with the bullet that bores through the spectacle-shielded eyes of Kamal’s dreaded foe, Reddiar, making them…err…red with splattered blood. Plus that murder in the car where the rival is strangled from behind by a wire: straight-out copy of Carlo’s death in the Godfather. Plus the horrific gunning down of Sonny near a toll-booth. Mani “sir” slightly shifts the scene to a petrol bunk where Kamal Hassan’s son goes up in flames. Plus that other staple scene, stolen by everyone from Feroze Khan and Maniratnam to Ram Gopal Varma. The teary petition of a wronged father to this Godfather seeking vengeance for the gang-rape of his college-going daughter. Kamal obliges by sending his goons to smash the well-connected rapists to pulp.
Marlon Brando the Godfather smokes a thick fat cigar, a familiar symbolism for unchallengeable authority and ruthless power. Kamal Hassan chews and spits paan. Paan or supari is the age-old Indian tradition symbolising war, power, or a treaty between political equals.
The Godfather’s eldest son Sonny—who gets killed—is transformed into Surya in Nayagan. As an aside, Surya is also resurrected by Mani “sir” in a different shade played by Rajinikanth in Dalapathi with the same comical effect. The obsession with Sonny—Son, Sun, Surya borders on the morbid.
That Kamal Hassan is enamoured by Hollywood is fairly well-known. The fetish remains incurable and is most noticeable in the avoidable English dialogues he mouths in almost all his films. It is clear that these are intended for effect…like punchlines or profundities but the outcome is akin to a toothache which never leaves you until you exit the theatre. Thankfully, Nayagan is devoid of this malaise. But then Kamal overcompensates it in different fashions. Here is Mukta Srinivasan giving us the firsthand account of Kamal Hassan’s Hollywood mania:
Such nuggets are the behind-the-scenes secrets. But the onscreen version is more awful. Specifically, Kamal Hassan’s pathetic imitation of Marlon Brando. While the lazy drawl of Brando’s speech and his slow and deliberate body language embellish the performance, the cheap counterfeit from Chennai makes us cringe and cry and chuckle at the same time. The scene in which Kamal Hassan weeps on seeing his murdered son’s corpse is, once again, a flagrant piracy from The Godfather. But the sheer trowel of overacting that Kamal Hassan plasters it with is a masterclass in hamming. Filmgoers weren’t fooled:
Give me a Shivaji Ganesan or Rajkumar or NTR any day. For all their so-called “loud” acting, the ornament they adorned pathos with had the strength of a seasoned wrestler and was infectious.
Like I said, you can’t watch Nayagan with a straight face today.
IT IS ONE THING to have remorseless guts to massacre The Godfather but it is takes purely original talent to do it the way Mani “sir” has done it. Back then, Indian cinema—especially Tamil cinema—was not exposed to Maniratnam’s “new” style of filmmaking involving elements we now associate him with. While news media has something called stock footage, Mani “sir” has stock scenes, expressions and ingredients which he has rehashed in almost every movie. Like I said, Darshini food. Low lighting is stock. Sex scenes showing the sweaty naked back of the male actor is stock. Intentional loud shouting is stock—the most jarring example of this occurs in Anjali in which huge armies of kids keep yelling throughout the movie. Repeating a word, two words, three words, or a phrase three times in a row is stock. The list is expandable.
But we’ll reserve all this and more for a detailed Mani “sir” exposition at a future date.
However, this stock worked with Nayagan perhaps because of the freshness quotient. And to give credit where it is due, Nayagan is a movie made with an engaging screenplay. In its time, it was considered rather violent and the depiction of violence was pretty raw and uniquely shot. Ilaiyaraaja then in peak form overwhelmingly contributed to its success. The fact that bits from Nayagan’s background score continue to be used as mobile phone ringtones is a brilliant testimony to the endurance of his music.
Nayagan is also portrayed by some movie aficionados and Mani “sir” devotees as a gangster and mafia movie, which is both ill-informed and misleading. The cheap ripoff of substantial portions from The Godfather is a big contributor to such a perception of Nayagan. The Godfather does not pretend that its protagonists are not criminals or that the film has some hidden moral message.
However, Nayagan is exactly that: a hoax. The gangster element is the cup-bearer that feeds a specific narrative. It serves as a canvas to push a specific theme, entirely in tune with Mani “sir’s” ideological leanings.
Which is where we recognise Comrade Maniratnam.
To be continued
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