In 2005, when TIMES magazine compiled a list of 100 all time best movies , it included 3 movies from India. Two of them were made prior to 1960 by legends – Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray. Third was a Tamil movie released in 1987 – Nayagan. A lot of Indian movies had been inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather. Nayagan was one of those and inarguably the best among them all. Nayagan fetched Kamal Hassan his second National award for Best actor in 1987 and it made the entire country to start taking notice of the director named Mani Ratnam.
Nayagan told the story of how an ordinary young man, Velu Naicker rises to a don and leader to the people in Dharavi .As a boy, he has heard from his foster father – ‘Naalu perku udhaviyenna yethuvum thappille'(‘ Its not wrong if that helps people’- a much famous dialogue) and he has lived his whole life by that principle.So he does smuggling activities but always lend a helping hand to the people who come before him. At the end of the movie ,his grandchild asks him – ‘Neenga nallavara kettavara’ (‘Are you a good man or bad man’ -another popular dialogue used again in the recent Vishwaroopam ) and Velu Naicker says ‘I don’t know’. What we know is Velu Naicker is one of the most well written and acted characters in Indian Cinema.
Nayagan is also one of those rare movies that defied time . When you watch the movie today, its difficult to imagine this was a movie that released 26 years back. The movie making style ,cinematography, techniques used , even the performances all looked like at a time much ahead of 1987. The dialogues were top-class and Ilaiyaraja’s song – ‘Thenpaandi cheemayile’ that repeats throughout the movie is an absolute gem.
Kamal Hassan delivered the performance of a life time in Nayagan. He just literally lived as Velu Naicker on screen.He had to portray three phases of Velu Naicker’s life – as a young man , middle aged man and then in his last days- and from his body language, posture, walk to voice modulation ,all were pitch perfect in those parts. There are several memorable moments that showcase his outstanding acting like when he has a dispute with his daughter and hits her , his outburst on seeing his son’s dead body ,when he meets his daughter who had left him after a gap of few years and when she doesn’t allow him to see his grandson. My favorite one is when he visits the family of the inspector he killed and holds his son saying he knows how difficult it is to grow without a father.
In 1986 , Mani Ratnam showed us romantic movies need not be always candyfloss through Mounaragam which told a beautiful mature love story of a husband and wife after marriage. The very next year , in Nayagan, he went steps ahead and gave his career best work .Kamal Hassan in a recent interview said Mani Ratnam did not want him to wear wigs or shave his head for the old man get up but wanted him to pluck out the hair. Such was the level of perfection that Mani Ratnam brought to Nayagan that its almost impossible to find a single flaw in the entire movie. His panache to create tense powerful scenes with extreme attention to detail is something that sets him apart from other directors and it was visible at several places in the movie.
Sometimes you watch movies to witness a director’s genius at work and sometimes for the sheer pleasure of viewing a magnificent actor at his best. Nayagan is a movie which you could watch for both. Its a big loss for movie lovers that these two stalwarts never did a movie together again. It might be the fear that they wouldnt be able to create a product that can match up to Nayagan. You might be disappointed with some of the recent movies of Kamal Hassan and Mani Ratnam today but years ago their work in Nayagan is among the best ever by an actor and director in the country. Nayagan is a movie that lives up to the term ‘masterpiece’.