Finding Nadar: Rajinikanth's real-life inspiration
Thiraviam Nadar, a native of Umarikadu village in Tamil Nadu's Thirunelveli district, came to Mumbai circa 1954
On 90 Feet Road in Dharavi, towering over the hutments and buildings around it, stands Kamarajar Memorial English High School. The rain has taken a break on Friday afternoon, and it's business as usual in the area. Jawahar Nadar is waiting for us at the gate. The 41-year-old journalist is better known these days as the man who has sued Rajinikanth. The defamation case worth '101cr that was fought in the Chennai High Court last week, has Jawahar claiming that Rajini's latest release, Kaala, is based on the life of Nadar's father, Thiraviam Nadar, which the makers have refused to acknowledge. Jawahar, as he has repeatedly stated in court and in the media, is not after money or royalties. All he wants is a mention of his father's name [in the credits], to give the man, an erstwhile Godfather of Dharavi, his due recognition.
Transit Camp Road, Dharavi. It’s in this area where Thiraviam Nadar built his first home, after coming to Mumbai in the 1950s. It used to be a marshy land then, with very few houses. His molasses shop was also nearby. No trace of Nadar's home or shop remains today owing to several rounds of redevelopment the area witnessed over decades. Pic/Suresh Karkera
The school, we are told, was built in 1976 by Senior Nadar, known to everyone as "Gudwala Seth" and "Kaala Seth". The foundation was laid by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, K Kamaraj, after whom the school is named. "My father was the biggest supplier of molasses to breweries in Mumbai back then, hence the moniker 'gudwala'. And, his skin was dark," Jawahar tells us. Across the road is a small firecracker shop run by a man called Selvakumar. Jawahar leads us to the shop and we are all greeted warmly. Selvakumar makes space behind the cash-counter. Offering us tea, he says, "I saw half the film on Facebook after it got leaked. Had Jawahar told us about the case before, we would have stopped the release." Selvakumar is visibly devoted to the Nadar family. His father and grandfather were friends of Senior Nadar. Jawahar says, "If my intention was to stall the release, I could have. But that's not what we want. My father was not that kind of a man, he never arm-twisted anyone."
Thiraviam Nadar, a native of Umarikadu village in Tamil Nadu's Thirunelveli district, came to Mumbai circa 1954. "He had a fight back home and fled to Madras and later came here, with only two rupees in his pocket. He was in his early 20s. He found a job at a factory called Krishna Glass Factory. When he got his first salary, the local goons started to beat him up, demanding hafta. The kind of man my father was, he retaliated. A fight ensued, and the police caught hold of them. The goons being locals were set free, while my father was fined."
Rajinikanth plays a Dharavi don in Kaala that has been directed by Pa. Ranjith. The character is said to be modelled on Jawahar's father, Thiraviam Nadar, something that the makers have not acknowledged in the film
A young boy fighting seasoned goons was unheard of in those days. Word spread and gradually Nadar began to be respected by those around him. "They were Tamilians mostly, routinely harassed by hooligans. They started to look at my father as a protector."
Dharavi was no more than marshy land then. Nadar built a small house for himself there and slowly people started following him and settling there. He established his molasses business bit by bit, and the rise in his wealth and clout paralleled each other. Those days, Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar were two of Mumbai's most feared dons. Nadar was their close associate, especially Mudaliar's. It was a little Tamil clique. Unlike the other two, Nadar, however, was never involved in smuggling. "They would tell him, 'Annachi, aap aa jao humare saath. My father never gave in," Jawahar says. He continues, "Those days 'godfather' was an honourable term. A bhai literally meant, big brother, protector. At that time, dons would not take advantage of poor people." Walking the line between legal and illegal, Nadar could have fallen on the wrong side of the law. But, those who know him vouch that he didn't.
An old boy's club
After copious rounds of chai at Selvakumar's, we set out for a stroll in the neighbourhood. We are on Transit Camp Road Number 1, where Nadar built his first home in the 1950s. A few men have joined us — everyone seems keen to tell us about Gudwala Seth. A man in his mid-60s greets us. "He's Abdur Rehman, he used to be Varadarajan's driver," someone tells us. Before we know it, it's a free-flowing nostalgia trip. The Tamil chatter continues, Rehman is only too excited to relive the days of yore, with Jawahar and others gathered around him. His eyes gleam as we catch words like 'rowdy' and 'Haji Mastan' and 'Varadarajan'… "I have known Thiraviam Nadar for 45 years. He was never involved in anything wrong. He used to talk with respect and he commanded it," Rehman tells us. An incident recollected by Ponnu Swamy, an 89-year-old man, explains why.
"Someone once owed me around '3 lakh and refused to return it. I approached Annachi for help. I took a taxi to his home in Sion Koliwada, to bring him to Dharavi to settle the matter. He wanted to walk instead. That would make him angry enough to bring the culprit to task, he said. The man, on seeing Nadar, was so scared that he returned the money immediately. As expression of my gratitude to Nadar, I told him he could take any amount he wanted. He refused saying he did not do this for the money. Then I took some fruits for him, which he accepted. The fruits, he said, showed respect, whereas, the money would've shown fear." We are told Swamy loves recounting this story.
Abdur Rehman, once a driver to Varadarajan Mudaliar
There are more nuggets — how Nadar helped youngsters with money to set up their business, how he would beat up drunk men who beat their wives. Sundresan Nadar, 73, who now runs a ration shop in the area, says, "I came to Mumbai in 1962 and set up a small kirana store here. The local goons used to bother me, but Nadar always came to my rescue." Another Sultan Mohidin recalls a time in 1974, when the government had asked them to vacate their homes in order to build public toilets there. "They gave us no assurance of accommodation, we had to just pack up and leave. It was Nadar who helped us find homes." This instance has been depicted in the film, Jawahar says. "My father did not have an army of musclemen. He was a one-man-show, which is another trait of Kaala in the film." We learn that a team of local Dharavi boys spoke to old timers in the area to get to the finer details of Nadar's life.
Growing up with a godfather
For as long as Jawahar can remember, there were always at least 50 people coming to see his father at their home in Sion Koliwada every day. "My mum would grumble about making chai for so many people every day. We were always puzzled. We would wonder who was he to solve their problems. When I was in Std IV, my teacher asked me, what does your father do. I had nothing to say, so I said that he is at home only; that was the truth. My teacher concluded that he must be a social worker." Nadar kept his family away from his other life. Jawahar first realised the clout of his father during his sister's wedding in 1996.
Nadar with Varadarajan Mudaliar
"There were 25,000 cards to be distributed, and we couldn't do it in time. My father then put a half-page ad in a local Tamil newspaper, apologising for his inability to invite everyone, and requested that this apology be taken as an invite. That ad ran for six days. I was stunned at the number of people who came. They were like 'ghar ki shaadi hai'." Nadar was also not without his quirks. Barring the pristine white dhoti-kurta and a formidable black umbrella specially made in Sri Lanka — three people could fit under it, we are told — he always wore a clean-shaven look. In his twilight years, when he was in the hospital after an asthma attack, one day he refused to meet visitors. Not because he wasn't feeling well, but because he had not shaved that day. "I have seen him cry only once in my life. It was the day Rajeev Gandhi was assassinated. My father was a Congress fanatic. I am named after Jawaharlal Nehru, my sister is Vijaylakshmi. My father couldn't take it that the PM was killed by Tamilians."
The fight is on
Chennai High Court dismissed Jawahar's case on Thursday. "Not because of lack of proof, but because of delay. The procedure requires that the censor certificate be challenged before the release. I think we were among the last to know what was transpiring, and by then the film was ready for release. We still have a civil suit though. I am in talks with my lawyers," he says. A common friend has informed Jawahar, however, that Rajinikanth would like to meet him to clear the air. "I don't know how far it's true. Let's see how it goes.
Ponnu Swamy, (left) 89, says he once approached Nadar to help recover Rs 3 lakh from someone who refused to return the amount that was owed. "The man, on seeing Nadar, was so scared that he returned the money immediately. As expression of my gratitude to Nadar, I told him he could take any amount he wanted. He refused saying he did not do this for the money. Then I took some fruits for him, which he accepted. The fruits, he said, showed respect, whereas, the money would’ve shown fear," Swamy says.
We were thrilled to know that he was playing my father. It was a fitting climax to the real story. What transpired later is not something we saw coming." Until this case, Jawahar has never spoken of his father, except to a very few close friends. "We have never used his name to get anything done. My mother was not in favour of us going public with the case. People who have scores to settle with the makers of the film are pressuring me to escalate the case, using my reach as a journalist. But that is not my intention. I only want the makers to acknowledge my father's name. If I fail to get that, I will have failed as a son. I have named my son after him, Thiraviam Raj. He's 10 now. Tomorrow when he asks me why is there no mention of his grandfather in the film, I am answerable to him."
And what will he do if he wins the case? "We don't want a penny of it. Everything will be spent for the development of Dharavi. Pa. Ranjith shot the film here, and is reaping the benefits now. What has he given back to the area that gave him his film?"
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