Thamizh Talkies: One film to rule them all
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
This week, this column is about a film that has gone on to shape my future lists of favourite films and actors, favourite writers and directors. In a world where cinema exists only in our minds and TV screens, nostalgia is a great pool to dip into and evoke that same effect you once had when you saw a film for the first time. My first such 'film awakening' moment arrived with Nayagan. Not a surprise, as an entire generation's cinematic sensibilities were awakened along with mine, with this one film, before which the name Mani Ratnam had become familiar with the sleeper hit, Mouna Raagam. I was 12 years old when I saw this film in a preview screening as the producer was a family friend. The little less-precocious me, for whom cinema was till then only defined by the big family outings, song-and-dance routines, and popcorn, sat up in her chair, and then stood up, wanting to see the moving images above the heads towering in front of her! The opening of the film was a story of a boy who perhaps was the same age as me then, but whose life was beset with a life-threatening situation! What will the boy do? I was hooked to Velu’s story.
Nayagan left me bewildered, bewitched and shook my understanding of cinema. That one movie made me feel all 'grown up'. Mani Ratnam made me revisit a Mahendran, Bharathiraja and K Balachander. I would devour films made by these auteurs because the term 'director' had a new-found respect in my eyes. On a parallel note, Kamal Haasan set a whole new idiom to the term 'actor' with this film. It was only after Nayagan that I even sat down to see The Godfather. I’ve seen both these films multiple times ever since and I’ve a list of favourite things to draw up from Coppola and Mani Ratnam as much as Brando and Haasan. Not to forget the music of Nino Rota and Ilaiyaraaja and the cinematography of Gordon Willis and PC Sreeram!
When the preview show ended, I was a mixed bag of emotions--I looked for something easier to toy with in my mind. I wanted to forget Nayagan and go back to liking my usual song and dance films, and the fights in them. I also wanted to go back to what was easier to like in terms of how I’ve always seen a 'hero' on screen. Velu Nayakar was not likeable in the conventional sense--he was the most intimidating man I had ever seen up until then. Here was a guy beaten to pulp by a rogue cop, covered in blood, but one who displayed both restraint and power when he says, “Naan adichcha nee sethruva.” And indeed, he keeps up his warning to the erring cop, as much as he keeps up his word right through--be it to Selvam or Neela or the people in his city who go to him for help. Kamal Haasan played Nayagan albeit as a tribute to Brando, but this role is a mix of Brando’s Vito Corleone, Pacino’s Michael and a hat-tip to De Niro’s portrayal of the younger Vito in The Godfather 2. It’s been 33 years since Nayagan released and this is one performance which remains unmatched by any actor across Indian cinema, where the entire life span of a character stands testimony to an actor’s repertoire. Nayagan and Kamal Haasan are inseparable as proof of what magic a synergy of direction and acting can bring to the movie marquee.
As much as Brando made the lines written by Mario Puzo and Coppola, his own, when he delivered them in his method, Kamal Haasan brought his persona and strength of language to the actions and words and of writer Balakumaran and Mani Ratnam. The fact that there is one Nayagan which stands as tall as three parts of The Godfather is proof enough of how much talent there is in Indian cinema that can be put out to the world. Hence, it was no wonder to me when Nayagan was chosen along with The Godfather by the Time Magazine in its 100 Greatest Films of All Time.
Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan have taken their own trajectories ever since and have outshone their joint cinematic victory with their varied films thereafter, but Nayagan remains that 'constant' in both their careers. Mani Ratnam always acknowledges the contributions made by Haasan to this film, in which he went beyond the purview of lead actor, and Haasan never fails to mention the focus and sharpness with which Mani Ratnam went about his work... a camaraderie which perhaps began in Hassan’s Eldams Road residence where many a movie would be seen, discussed and debated upon by directors, writers and cinematographers with Kamal Haasan being the star-actor who would lend his growing gravitas to their dreams.
Rudraiyah’s Aval Appadithaan was one such dream. So was Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum, which didn’t star Haasan, but which happened because he gave Mahendran the necessary and timely help to begin and complete the movie, which has my favourite version of Rajinikanth till date.
There are days when I think of the way Brando succumbs to the bullet midway through the movie and the way he dies pre-climax. The focus in both scenes is not on his face as much as it is on his whole body, and yet, your heart cries on losing the man. I catch myself quickly thinking of the way Kamal Haasan brings in the same heart-wringing reaction in me when he meets his daughter, now the good inspector’s wife (the reaction is now a popular gif). When he replies to his grandson who asks him, “Neenga nallavaraa kettavara?” and he says with a broken voice “theriliye paa”... his countenance appeals to your goodness, asking for atonement for his sins which he’s committed while protecting you. Don Vito Corleone and Velu Nayakar are those bad guys who appeal to our goodness, villains from another perspective (the daughter's in Nayagan’s case and therein, lies Maniratnam’s deft storytelling in making us root for him even more, for he is about to be felled by his own violence), and yet, we remain standing atop our chairs, clapping for them, decades after we first set eyes on them on screen.