Greatest Tamil Films 1. Nayagan


‘An essential element of any art is risk.
If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?’

 – Francis Ford Coppola


How many Tamilians are there who don’t know the Nayagan theme song, including the prelude? How many Tamilians are there who don’t know the characteristic response of Velu Nayakkar when his grandchild asks him whether he is a good guy or bad guy? And how many Tamilians think Nayagan doesn’t deserve to be in the number 1 slot?

I can safely bet that there is only one answer to all the above questions: zero.  Essentially, one statement should define it: No other movie changed Tamil cinema the way Nayagan did. Technically, culturally, and intellectually it was a milestone. It was the first movie to bring art-house cinema to mainstream. And it didn’t just ‘bring’, but bulldozed its way into it. The audience couldn’t just believe what they were seeing. Everything about the film was new, the story-telling, the soft, saturated cinematography, contained, subtle music, a refurbished Kamal, villains who don’t look menacing, an uncompromising narration, and finally the abrupt and action-less climax.

If you read the last sentence again, you will know Nayagan had everything a flop should contain. Especially in the mid and late eighties, when being a villain essentially meant you should wear a fluorescent suit, live in a surrealistic den where you have in-built lock-ups, remote controlled torture rooms, and always have a focus light beaming at your face. If you don’t believe me, watch Sivappu Suriyan, the film released in the same year.

The legend has it that the original producer, after watching the final rushes, was shocked about the ‘non-commercial’ nature of the film and demanded his money back. Left with no option, Mani Ratnam turned to his brother GV Srinivasan, who dabbled in film distribution until then. GV paid up the producer and, thereby, became a producer for the first time. I don’t know if this story is true and if it is, we can perfectly understand his concern. It is difficult to place the genre of Nayagan. It has action but it does not pay enough attention to it to become an action film. It has drama but it’s not melodramatic. It doesn’t make you root for any specific character. Even Velu Nayakkar, the protagonist, is often questioned on his values. We don’t know whether he is good and whether we should care for him. Nayagan brought out the first ever ‘hero’ with shades of grey. His own daughter questions his practices, and his son-in-law, who is a police officer, arrests him. Did he hope Velu Nayakkar, whom he struggled very hard to nab, to go scot free? Did he expect that Velu Nayakkar will be acquitted? We are not sure. But we are perplexed at these intriguing dilemmas presented to us on big screen. For the first time, we had to make judgements based on our own values and we’re not even sure if those judgements are correct.

Nayagan challenged the audience on all levels, visually, intellectually and technically and got away with on all grounds. When films were reeling in lazy scripting, mechanical music, and nonchalant acting and pathetic production values, Nayagan took one straight leap of 30 years. To understand this, take at random any two films released in 1987, the same year as Nagayan. Let’s say, Kadhal Parisu and Sivappu Suriyan. Try watching these two films immediately after Nayagan. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

Mani Ratnam

In his creation of Velu Nayakkar character Mani Ratnam certainly was inspired by Don Corleone. He must have even been inspired by Omar Mukhtar for his climactic setting. Scenes such as the police inspector cum son-in-law visiting Velu Nayakkar on the eve of judgement and the grandchild picking up the glasses after Velu Nayakkar was killed were all from Omar Mukhtar. They were, I repeat, they were not plagiarised shots like Raja Paarvai climax, but they were more of Mani Ratnam looking for tools. He perhaps required a tool to build the climactic setting and he must have (even unconsciously) internalised the sequence and the way it was constructed. As for Godfather inspiration, what can I say? Simply look at the big picture. That is, without Nayagan, chances are we wouldn’t be where we are! Is it a problem that it was achieved with a bit of ‘inspiration’? Well, the whole of British Empire was first built on the efforts of petty pirates, but that changed the world didn’t it?

Nayagan transformed Tamil Cinema. Godfather transformed Hollywood. It is ironic that the film that did the same for Tamil industry had to be inspired by it. Kamal might have been a bit more excited about his imitation of Brando, but the Mani Ratnam, thankfully, seemed clear on his vision.

Creatively and technically, the Tamil film industry can be divided into two: Before Nayagan and After Nayagan. Though it took quite a while for other directors to even think of going beyond the bar set by Mani Ratnam, the journey began with it. Even Kamal, who until then was trying to compete with Rajini on mass entertainers, was compelled to change his direction. It took a while and a few more films from Mani Ratnam for the rest of the industry to follow, but the journey had begun. Today, many directors dare to imagine more and the audience expect more challenging content. From its long slumber and apathy, Tamil cinema woke up to look around and began its slow journey to become nationally and, even internationally, significant. For this, we owe it to Mani Ratnam. And to Nayagan.