What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020, and how they have aged (if at all).
Like most of India's Hindi speaking population, my idea of southern cinema growing up was groomed by tabloid-like investment. I saw Rajnikanth in Andha Kanoon (1983) and would hear about his popularity for years to come but would also witness Bollywood's struggle in importing the same to Hindi speaking homes. It was Tamil cinema's man behind the camera, a director instead, who tore into Hindi cinema, when I was growing up.
You only really need to watch one Mani Ratnam film to establish his genius or at least empirically estimate his indelible impact on Indian Cinema. Ratnam is a genre in himself, so versatile and wide-ranging has been his influence on Indian films. Roja " the cult hit and perhaps the first film to overcome the barrier of the vernacular long before the record shattering Baahubali " is how I was introduced to Ratnam. Bombay, Dil Se and the underrated Yuva are other markers that underline Ratnam's ability to wed coarse politics to ordinary life. So, when asked to pick a classic from Tamil cinema, I could only think of Ratnam's Nayakan (1987) for it offered a definitive view of Maximum City, Mumbai, a city that has inspired homages in all languages.
Nayakan begins and ends in tragedy as all epics, perhaps, must.
A young Velu Naicker (Kamal Hassan) accidentally leads the police to his father, an anti-government union leader and watches him die at their hands. Ridden by guilt and anger, Naicker exacts quick revenge by stabbing the policeman and escapes to Mumbai where he is raised by a kind small-time smuggler Hussain, in Dharavi. Having taken a life at such a young age, Naicker is emboldened by a maturity that has been thrust upon him. He sees the possibility of decency even in a cruel world. After he demands better payment for a small job he performs on Hussain's behalf, Naicker is arrested and tortured by the police. The clash of language and cultures plays out brazenly as Naicker is reprimanded for being the outsider. "Jhopdi ka keeda," the brutal cop says, as he drops a broken and bruised Naicker back at the slum.
Classics are called classics because they age better than most films, and reconstitute themselves according to the eras they must sieve through.
The police's role as executioners of political will rather than social justice has only recently probed the conscience of this country. In Nayakan, the police acts like the licensed mob, illicitly bypassing its own commandments that define what is fair and what isn't. Naicker, as if cursed, brings about the demise of Hussain, his second father. His body hanging from the ceiling, visibly rotating as if struggling to find peace even after death, is a harrowing sight captured thrillingly by Ratnam's framing.
Naicker comprehends the law differently for it has now twice taken away a father figure. He retaliates and takes another life but unknowingly erases a verminous presence, an act he is eventually celebrated for. Naicker becomes Nayakan (Hero) overnight.
Justice after all is the destination and not the cursive, morbidly indulgent path one must take to get to it. "Anything done for the good of others cannot be wrong," Naicker claims at one point. Where would one get justice in a dog-eat-dog world, anyway. Nayakan is of course inspired by The Godfather. Naicker's righteousness, his concern for the people of Dharavi (mostly outsiders), and the justice they must forego for breathing out of the gutter, has its traces in Puzo's book, but it also improvises to set its contexts in India.
Nowhere more than Mumbai has the battle between the insider and the outsider been so keenly contested, often at the expense of innocence and life. Naicker matures into a full-blooded 'don' in Nayakan, but he remains attuned to his father's ideals of working for the good of others at the same time.
Several aspects of Ratnam's film point to both the present and the future as we are living in now. A scene in a brothel where Naicker's masculinity is momentarily shaken would a decade later be copied, almost verbatim and to resounding critical acclaim, in Vaastav.
The Gaitonde of Sacred Games owes a significant debt to Naicker who rather than melt and disappear into the sewers of Mumbai's culture, holds his own, be it through the lungi he wears or the Hindi words he painstakingly offers to people around him. This symbolism is crucial to understanding how certain men make the leap to becoming godmen. Because they simply offer people a way past orthodox living, be it in science, money or the idea of prudent egalitarianism.
Not everything in Nayakan has obviously aged well. Naicker's marriage to Neela, where the question of consent doesn't even arise, is jarring in an age where we have at least been sensitised to similar problems.
Naicker's court of justice, that he runs for the local people, can seem far-fetched at times. But considering Bollywood still had the 90s and all the gendered flatulence that came with, to put us through Nayakan feels like a visionary document. It begins and ends with a form of cyclic vengeance, as was the seed of the man we see our protagonist in.
Not without suffering can one deliver its end for someone else, Nayakan tells us. The value of sacrifice only becomes visible from the altar of justice. Everything else we shall continue to refer to as compromise.