Nayagan (alternative spelling Nayakan, Hindi dubbed version titled Velu Nayakan) is often called one of the greatest Maniratnam and indeed one of the greatest Indian films of all time (it even earned a mention on TIME magazine's 100 Best Films of All Time), so it's rather odd that I get to this film so late in my film-watching career. It's even lauded as India's answer to Hollywood legendary The Godfather. Nayagan, in short, is an epic tale of criminal glory throughout generations, a story of an orphan boy, who ends up a hero for the poor community Tamil-speakers in Mumbai, regularly discriminated by various people in power. It's a tale of good and evil, and the hopelessness that drives people to cheat the system, and the contradictions of this criminality.
I suppose it makes sense that I only got around to watching this film now, because I've recently realised how strange my relationship is to Maniratnam (or Mani Ratnam, if you prefer). I began watching his films, thoroughly impressed with every aspect - the wild visuality that usually accompanies gorgeous A.R. Rahman songs, the strong, performance-driven stories, and the popular tackling of certain, heavier subjects. I was shocked by Dil Se, moved to tears by Bombay, and adored Alaipayuthe madly. Then something happened. I liked Guru, but did not love it; I was certainly impressed by Iruvar, but again, it didn't make it into my favourites; Kannathil Muthamittal was pretty good, I suppose, but I was just kind of lukewarm about it.
It's as if I moved from feeling Maniratnam's stories on a purely emotional, raw level to just appreciating the competent film-making from him. There are good performances in the films that did not make it into my favourites - I love Aishwarya in Guru and Iruvar, Madhavan was great in Kannathil Muthamittal, Prakash Raaj in Iruvar blew my mind - but overall I would rate none of these as favourites. Out of all these films, I think I like Raavanan the best, and even so, I think what I appreciate most about it are the performances, and the way its cast play off one another. The story is good, but could be better, and somehow ends up secondary.
So where does Nayagan fit in, then? While watching, I suddenly realised that this was where Maniratnam's real life inspired biopic career began, and also understood what binds all the male protagonist-centric biopics that he's done so far: the hero who breaks the law, but wins people over. There is a scene in Nayagan, where a police officer is eager to nail the main character, Velu, who's risen up the underworld rank to be a don of sorts, so he interviews those ordinary people closest to Velu. The common people won't betray Velu, however; he is their hero. Contrast this to the scene in Raavan/an where the exasperated Dev hears from villagers how amazing Veera/Beera is in their eyes - the similarity is crystal clear. In Guru, Abhishek's character may be corrupt, but this corruption helps him succeed, so it is not condemned by the film's narrative.
Maniratnam's heroes are folk heroes, not revered by the institutions of the state, but by the people - there's an almost naive populism to them, but at the same time you can't fault him. The characters are all based on real people, who are also held up as heroes despite their crimes. Perhaps, instead of thinking about any kind of moral message woven into these stories, one should instead admire the lack of moralism - for better or worse, the films all present both sides of the story.
So I didn't fall in love with Nayagan, but was instead fascinated by this common thread that the film started in Maniratnam's career. There are other interesting things, too, though. Kamal Hassan, who I've always found charming and a good actor, does excellent in the role of the steadfast criminal, torn at times by his understanding that what he does is against the law. I've never been the biggest fan of Kamal, but in here he is at his very best: commanding the screen with such a presence that it's impossible not to pay close attention. The portrayal of the Tamil community is interesting as well - the sense of being outsiders in Bombay, despite being in their homeland, and the discrimination that comes from this, as well as their poorness, helps explain why Velu does become such a revered hero to them.
The songs are gentle and lovely Ilayaraja compositions and P.C. Sriram's cinematography showcases Bombay beautifully. Karthika, the Malayalam actress playing Velu's daughter Charumani, was a definite stand-out, so I was surprised to see the actress having a film career shorter than five years, retiring at a time when her career was reaching its peak. Sigh, the choices actresses have to make between a marriage and a career..
Another interesting performance was by a very young Nasser, as the police officer doing his damnest to catch Velu in the later parts of the film. Every bit as intense as Nasser's later performances!
Nayagan is a classic, but it is another one of those films I'd be forced to recommend purely on the strength of the performances. This film just didn't quite move me, didn't quite speak to me - I understand it might have a different appeal to different people, for different reasons. As such, I merely liked it, and would rate it among Maniratnam's best films - however, I'd still prefer the gut-wrenching Bombay, or the beautiful, equally well-made biopic Raavanan over it. These are purely personal picks, admittedly.