Mumbai mob-opera from Madras!

Updated: Jun 03, 2020, 07:22 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Watching Mani Sir's Nayakan, humming Thenpandi Cheemayile, Raja Sir's ear-worm from the film; realising both men born on June 2!

A still from Mani Ratnam's 1987 film, Nayakan. Pic/Amazon Prime
A still from Mani Ratnam's 1987 film, Nayakan. Pic/Amazon Prime

Mayank ShekharPresuming shortly after the commercial success of Mouna Ragam (1986) is when superstar Kamal Haasan ('Kamalahasan' to Tamil fans) reached out to director Mani Ratnam. With a VHS tape of a Shammi Kapoor movie (Pagla Kahin Ka; 1970), for him to remake!

Ratnam wasn't interested in the rip-off. But he had three months to get on shoot with Haasan, to start from scratch on a script of his own suggestion — biopic of the Bombay/Matunga underworld don, Varadarajan Mudaliar.

The film was, of course, Nayakan (1987). During its first schedule, Ratnam had around half the script/story in place. This is what I found to be a surprising discovery, during filmmaker Gautham Menon's chat with Ratnam on his online show, Uraiyaadal And Stuff.

Uraiyaadal means conversation. Best of which often inspire, to talk in 'YouTubese', a call-to-action (CTA). In my case, it was to flip to Nayakan. And realise that while the 160-minute film hasn't aged so much in 34 years, its script/structure/story-line, outside of a rushed prologue for a basic revenge drama, really kicks in around the 56th minute.

It develops thereafter into an evergreen, mature drama; drawing you in deeper and deeper still, with subsequent scenes. Most of which, in the second and final ageing phase of mob-boss Velu Naicker (Haasan), would've been formally written in, only while the film's production was already on! Guess you leap, and the net falls.

Surely everyone has their favourite Nayakan moments. For me (now) it's probably that pivotal yet stray second when Don Naicker decides to give himself to cops on his consigliere's death. Told that cops will finish him off, he sighs casually on what meaning does his life hold anyway. Implying life, whether of crime/passion or more virtuous preoccupations, is rendered useless in the long run — when you look back at it eventually.

It's an element Martin Scorsese, greatest exponent of the mob-opera, patiently explores/examines over the last 30-odd minutes of The Irishman (2019), which I reckon will be considered a much greater masterpiece 34 years hence.

Nayakan surely got its due upon release. Which was a good decade-and-a-half after Francis Ford Coppolla's The Godfather entered our lives (and hasn't left it yet). And four years after Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983). Both films were deemed as modern fountain-heads of the urban underworld genre. Up until Scorsese's, The Goodfellas (1990) came along, opening up a third, overflowing tap!

Nayakan also came out only a couple of years before Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Parinda, that drew comparisons to Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954). And Ratnam's film was up there on the big screen four years prior to Mukul Anand's Agneepath, with Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay Dinanath Chauhan that — on the face of it—was quite Scarface, yes; but ostensibly inspired by the life of the Bombay don Manya Surve.

Chronology samajhiye — to sense the level of love/admiration accorded to Nayakan. Because it was the first Bombay mob-opera in the way that genre, in its realism and grittiness, shaped up and took off thereafter (over a decade before Ram Gopal Varma's Satya). And it was written, directed by an altogether Madras talkies' man, finding odd, conveniently regional alibi (in back-stories) for all characters to only talk to each other in Tamil!

In the way that Bollywood films have always had Hindi speaking parts for all characters placed abroad — "Tum jaata; main bolta; tum kya kaarta!" I don't understand Tamil. And so Nayakan's most famous, terse line, "Neenga nallavara, kettavara?" means only, "Are you good or bad?" in its Google translation to me.

Although even in its subtitles, this question is as effectively answered when the cop who goes after Don Naicker in the film, admits to him in the prison cell, "Our intentions are the same, but with a key difference — I wear the uniform; you don't."

This is an obvious moral universe for a famed don's life scripted as a hero's journey. But bringing to expressed memory every moment that he was wronged to get to where he did — that powerful scene between Don Naicker and his daughter — makes Yash Chopra's Deewar (1975), inspired by Bombay don Haji Mastan's life, as much a precursor to Nayakan. "Jao pehle uss aadmi ka sign lekar aao..." Yup!

What did I miss in Nayakan? As you can tell, Bombay. It's hardly there in the film, which is so much about it. Ratnam made up for it with Bombay (1995), employing his lead character (Arvind Swamy) specifically with the Old Lady of Boribunder. Or, maybe Feroz Khan more than made up for it by ripping off/apart Nayakan as Dayavan (1988), right down to the braless fisherwoman item song, composed by Ilayaraja, guessing credited to Shankar Jaikishan.

Think they left the Ilayaraja track Thenpandi Cheemayile that plays throughout Nayakan alone. It's the ear-worm humming in my head all through June 2, which I realise is coincidentally both composer Raja Sir and director Mani Sir's birthday! CTA for this conversation. Play that track on YouTube. Hear it grow across both membranes of your brain. Hate me later.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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