Kollywood
The plot of 'Nayagan' wasn't novel, it was the treatment that made the film the classic it is.

It’s been 30 years since Mani Ratnam’s epic film Nayagan hit the screens in Tamil Nadu for Deepavali. Memories are vivid of the film even today, so much so that many say that Tamil cinema can be divided into two eras – one before Nayagan and the other after.

When the film released in the October of 1987, the lone interest in the film was its “Kathanayagan”, Kamal Haasan.

Director Mani Ratnam was just a few films old in the industry with Mouna Ragam being his solo hit, so to speak, until then. Devoid of the hype and promotions that precede film releases today, the main publicity for Nayagan was just the posters that were plastered all over, which were quite intriguing. They featured Kamal minus his moustache.

From the time the credits started rolling, we could sense that we were in for something different.

A good film becomes a great film and then a classic when it is remembered and influences filmmaking for years after. Nayagan ticks off many boxes in this regard. There are very few directors of this generation in Tamil cinema who have not admitted to being influenced by Nayagan in some way or the other.

The plot of Nayagan in itself is nothing novel, drawing liberal inspiration from The Godfather in reel life and Mumbai’s erstwhile don, Varadaraja Mudaliar in real life. But, it’s the treatment of the subject and the way it turned out on the silver screen that made Nayagan memorable for years to come.  

The screenplay, dialogues, casting, acting, songs, camera work, art direction, background score, make-up, and of course the direction stood out in the film and that doesn’t happen always.

Here’s a closer look at some of these aspects:

Casting: Kamal towers tall in the film. But the supporting cast of Delhi Ganesh, Janakaraj, Nizhalgal Ravi, Saranya, and Karthika are not far behind. Irrespective of the size of the roles, each one of them leaves an impact. More importantly, the attention to detail in choosing faces that closely resemble each other as the character ages, deserves acclamation. The younger versions of Kamal and Tinnu Anand were perfectly cast.

Dialogues: Mani Ratnam drafted ace novelist Balakumaran to write for the film and the latter didn’t disappoint. He could bring in the native Tuticorin flavour in the lines that Kamal’s character speaks and an overall earthiness to the dialogues. “Neenga nallavara, kettavara?” is the “Kitne admi the?” of Tamil cinema!  

Camera work: One could safely say that though he had few films under his belt before Nayagan, the “brand” PC Sreeram as we know him today was born post Nayagan. Though in this film he didn’t have much scope to showcase the beauty of outdoor locales, we could get a glimpse of his skills in lighting and deploying unique angles.

One could clearly see the difference in the look, feel and texture as the film progresses from one period to another and this was a first, I believe, in Tamil cinema. The shot of fluttering pigeons in the background when Kamal and Saranya walk along the Gateway of India in Mumbai for the Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham song remains fresh in memory.

Music score: This was Ilayaraja’s 400th film and would rank among his best work. The theme song of Nayagan which Raja deployed is talked about even today. Not to mention the background score.

Using the voice of veteran singer Jamuna Rani for the song Naan Sirithaal Deepavali, set probably in the ‘60s, was an outstanding choice. In the song Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham, the situation is that of the regular duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking, any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja came up with a beautiful melody which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers with a tinge of melancholy to suit the script.

Art Direction: One can never make out if the slums of Mumbai’s Dharavi being shown in the film are for real or shot in sets. And that’s a clear sign of a job well done by the Art Director Thotta Tharani.

Acting: A great film is a sum total of great scenes, brought to life by some memorable acting. For example, the scene where Kamal’s character meets Saranya’s for the first time - it’s a brothel and Saranya requests Kamal to leave her early as she has to study for her Maths exam the next day. An outstanding scene with controlled performances, simple lines and an apt background score. And Nayagan has plenty of those. Involving not just the lead actor Kamal but all the supporting cast. While Kamal got recognized for his acting with the National Award, most others got their due by way of promising careers since Nayagan.

Screenplay and Direction: One reckons that Mani Ratnam became the “Mani Sir” of Tamil cinema after Nayagan. The film is replete with his directorial touches, till then a sole preserve of somebody like K.Balachandar. 

The showing of a Plymouth first, then an Ambassador and then finally a Maruti car as Velu Nayakkar’s vehicle, to fast forward his age and life is just one example. There are many more. Talking of screenplay, one wonders how he chanced upon the perfect climax for the film, wherein the don could escape from the long arm of the law but not his past deeds. Any other ending would have been a dampener.

The significance of a film can be borne out by the legacy it leaves. Nayagan bequeathed to Indian cinema some amazing talent. Like Nassar, Saranya, PC Sreeram, Thotta Tharani and of course Mani Ratnam himself.  Kamal, who was till then acting in all kinds of films, started placing a premium to the choices he made in terms of roles post Nayagan. And his body of work since Nayagan bears testimony to this.

For many, Nayagan was a great film, a classic. But for followers of Tamil cinema, it has been a cherished lesson in filmmaking. 30 long years since, as we reminisce and relish the film Nayagan, kudos to the entire team that was part of the classic. And no, we are not rooting for a sequel!