Watching Nayakan for the first time in 36 years
After 36 years of its release, I watched Nayakan for the first time. On my quest to explore the Mani Ratnam magic, I stumbled across Nayakan, a landmark film in the history of Tamil cinema. Many Tamil filmmakers have mentioned how Nayakan inspired them to foray into the film industry. In a way it gave new horizons to Tamil cinema, challenged Kamal Hassan’s acting prowess, and told a gangster story rooted in reality and rich in emotions.
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The police officers trick a young boy Shakthi Vel to find the whereabouts of his father, a union leader, who they later kill. Feeling betrayed, Shakthi Vel stabs the police officer and flees to Mumbai. Here begins the journey of Shakthi Vel, a betrayed young boy who later becomes Velu Naicker, a gangster to the law but a messiah for the people in that locality. According to him, if what one does benefits the helpless, then it can never be wrong in any way. His entire life, he has gone by this philosophy. And later crumbles into doubt, unable to answer if he falls on the good or the bad side of history. This is one thing I like about the film as well. The vigilante hero is torn apart by his own belief system and pays for his deeds, in good ways and bad. On one side the people worship him like their god and will take a bullet for him without a second thought. On the other side his daughter, unable to accept his methods, leaves him in his declining stage all alone.
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Nayakan is a film very different from the Mani Ratnam films I watched so far. Yet in every frame, which is so captivating, I could see the man behind the masterpiece. For a long time, I never understood when people raved about the Mani Ratnam frames. Ever since I forayed into his magical world, I myself have become one of those people who cannot stop gushing about his visually captivating frames. Just like in most of his films, Nayakan has shots and angles that give away a lot of inner meaning and add strength to the story. Hussain, Velu’s adoptive father, hanging from the prison ceiling, and Velu meeting his estranged daughter after a long time are a few to mention.
While Nayakan is a breakthrough film in many ways, there are elements that might not sit well with today’s generation. It is true that Velu marries Nila, a prostitute, rescuing her from the treachery, but her consent in that marriage is nowhere mentioned. But given the time of its release, this is something that can be swept under the carpet for now.
This was also my first time getting a glimpse of the peak Kamal Hassan era. His unmatched performance in Nayakan earned him his second National Award for best actor. It is remarkable how he effortlessly shifts between the different stages of Velu Naicker’s life. It’s nothing less than perfection.
A whole story set in the backdrop of Bombay’s underworld was surprisingly shot in Chennai by setting up locations matching the expected architecture.
Nayakan is said to be loosely inspired by the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a gangster known for several criminal activities in the underworld empire of Mumbai. It also takes inspiration from the classic, The Godfather.
Velu Naicker may be a messiah to many, but the truth remains that his acts in the name of justice were criminal. From being proud about being of help to the helpless and being torn apart by his own beliefs, Velun Naicker’s life comes in a full circle. And that’s why Nayakan is one of the best-written gangster stories ever.
You can watch the film on Amazon Prime
Image Courtesy: YouTube
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