Nayagan released 25 years back yesterday and Kamal wrote a superb piece on it for The Hindu. I watched the film again after reading his piece. A few intrigues fell in place. For instance, I have had issues with killing one of the Reddys inside a car as was done in Godfather. That aside, there is no denying the films its place. Though not the greatest film made, it certainly is a special film simply because it was a first of its kind in Tamil cinema.
That the not so great production values had to be brought out by Kamal for us to notice is an achievement in itself. As a film and a screenplay, it might be inferior to Thevar Magan, the other twin from Godfather’s womb. But I won’t deny that Thevar Magan had the hindsight of Godfather and Nayagan. Kamal’s performance here could seem more wholesome than in Thevar Magan but that is because this is a biopic centered around a male protagonist.
The eye for detailing was interesting in Nayagan. A young Velu Nayakan screams thiruttu kamnaattiyaLa at a young Selva and co. Velu Nayakan, many years later, is widowed and argues with his daughter in the now cult Brutus-is-an-honorable-man-esque avangaLa nirutha sol dialogue and slips in a seth kamnaati. The widowed Velu Nayakan, still with his kids, names a child during Ganesh Chathurthi at an earlier instance. Later on, an old and forlorn Nayakan is arrested by the police and they go looking for witnesses. The same father tells the police that his son was named by Velu Nayakan. There is consistency and detailing in this. Also, it is curious how Mani took pretty much the same content to Thalapathi and turned it into a vehicle for Rajnikanth. A child wrested away from its parents which does not refuse anything anyone asks, kills a wicked guy and later learns that he has a kid and takes care of the family and the clashes between the police and the grey side seem to suggest Mani did have elements of Velu Nayakan in Surya and Karna in Velu Nayakan to turn a Varadaraja Mudaliar into the Nayakan he created on screen with Vitto Corleone contributing to the plot elements.
What I found interesting was how Velu Nayakan is carried by his calling. He starts out a reluctant Don being forced to kill Inspector Kelkar. It is Kelkar’s son who eventually leads Nayakan to the assistant commisioner’s house (is Nasser ever named in the film?) which carries the plot further leading to Nayakan’s surrender and it is the son that kills him, presenting a case of harping back into being sucked into a chakravyuha which eventually leads to the downfall of the protagonist. The same theme has been handled in different capacities by different films. Lohithadas’s Kireedam was direct and Thevar Magan was subtle (with an extended shot of Kamal’s feet in the muck, before he chases after a culprit after which he decides to stay in Chinnathoovaloor which pretty much seals his fate, so as to suggest that Sakthi (interestingly, both protagonists are nearly namesakes) is being sucked into a vortex). Thevar Magan has more apparent similarities with Mahabharatha and I am guilty of indulging too much in the epic. But such is the nature of the beast. Velu Nayakan, like Lohi’s Sethumadhavan, takes the knife and has to live by it. Never is this more apparent than when Nayakan concedes to his rebel daughter, niruthuna sethuruven ma.
Ilayaraaja’s contribution to this film, as with any film in the 80s, deserves a bow. The rerecording is widely talked about, as are the songs, and deservedly so. The piece of music closest to my heart is not the Thenpaandi Seemaiyile refrain or the theme that plays for Neela, from the brothel (a small cue that grows into a counterpoint that is overwhelming), till Nayakan has lost her. It is when Nayakan is with Kelkar’s son, Ajith. That mera baba mar gaya scene is widely noted for its impact. But Raaja plays a cue in Saarangi, less than a minute long, that is wrenching, engulfing and overpowering, all at once. It plays from 7:07 till 7:53.
However, what clinches the writing in this film is how the crown is passed on, albeit reluctantly. Velu Nayakan does not want it. He does not want his children to take over from him either. His son does, realizing his fears. His daughter does not want her son to be influenced by him. Yet, in the final frame, we see a young Velu with what can be construed as a passing-on-the-baton symbol over his neck, looking over his namesake curiously. The hero lives on.