Julie M: Finished Nayakan (The Godfather, 1987). WOW. A “godfather” movie with heart. I have not seen the American Godfather series but if they are anything like this I will have to go right out and see at least the first one.
Jenny K: You and I may be the only two film buffs around who haven’t seen Coppola’s The Godfather! I always heard it was the inspiration for Nayakan, but I’m reading Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interviews with Mani Ratnam, the director, and in the chapter on this film, he says that it isn’t strictly so. When asked by Kamal Haasan what kind of film he’d like to make if they worked together, Mani said, off the top of his head, that he’d do a film based on the life of real life Mumbai don, Varadaraja Mudaliar. Of course, every filmmaker alive in the Eighties has been influenced by Coppola’s film, in some way or other, but the only scene that everyone seems to agree was a direct homage, was having a scene of enemy gang members being killed while the godfather is performing a religious ritual…of course, I have no way of citing this as gospel, as I haven’t seen both. Yeah, yeah…I’ll remedy it. Soon.
Here’s a link to the info on Baradwaj Rangan’s book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam. I’m really enjoying it. And his blog and reviews are wonderful, too. The book is available on Amazon. Enough interruption by me. Back to the synopsis.
Julie M: Young Shakti Velu, a Tamil, is accidentally responsible for the police killing his father, a labor leader. After killing the policeman who killed his father the boy runs away to Mumbai, where he is taken in by a poverty-stricken but kindly slum dweller and hangs around with other Tamil street kids who become his lifelong associates. Velu (Kamal Haasan) grows up hotheaded, distrustful of police and fiercely protective of the community that took him in. He also turns to committing petty crimes in order to bring in some money, even challenging local crime bosses, but also performs good deeds on behalf of individuals in the community. When his father-substitute dies at the hands of police he kills the inspector who killed him; his local community, used to his goodness, refuses to identify him and he goes free. He then suffers an attack of remorse and protects the inspector’s family with kindnesses and cash.
As he ages, Velu grows into the role of “Nayakan,” or godfather, of his community, never hesitating to use violence when necessary but it doesn’t seem to be necessary very often, and helping his people with favors. He falls in love with a young prostitut, Neela, (Saranya Ponvannan) and marries her, and they have a son and daughter as he continues to solidify his position as the don with the heart of gold. Unfortunately, he also sucks up all the criminal enterprises and as time goes on, his enemies start to move in ever closer.
The film is mostly about the personal trials and tribulations of an ordinary man who happens to be in the crime business, and I can see how every subsequent “godfather” movie in India looks to this one as its wellspring. He almost makes crime not so criminal. He loves a girl, loves his children, suffers heartache and loss, seeks redemption and grows old, just like all of us. I appreciated that the film did not dwell on his criminal enterprises and instead focused on the man himself; Kamal Hasan is AMAZING as he “ages” from a young man of 20 or so to about age 70. Unfortunately he succumbed to “Marlon Brando Disease” and stuffed cotton in his cheeks to signify aging–ew–and mumbled a lot at the end; thank heavens for subtitles! [Ed. note: but, alas, not in this clip!]
Jenny K: Nope…not cotton. The interview tells me that Kamal Haasan is wearing a pair of dentures cast to give him that lovely jowly look. “We didn’t want to do too much; otherwise it might have become another Marlon Brando. It was done subtly.” Obviously didn’t work on us…my reaction was the same as yours.
Julie M: Mani Ratnam’s direction and highly realistic settings–even the one dance number seemed natural–added to the storytelling. This retrospective article by Kamal Haasan gives some great insight into the process of making the film and its lasting impact.
Highly recommended all around; thank you so much for sending it!
[Editor’s Note: Available, in full, here, but with no subtitles.
Available here, with subtitles, but the first fifteen minute segment has been removed. Or, go get it from your library…your choice!]
Jenny K: Glad you liked it as much as I always have. Mani Ratnam is my favorite director, as I’ve said many a time before. I haven’t seen it for quite a long time, but Nayakan and Kamal Haasan’s own directorial offering, Hey Ram are two of only a handful of street violence films that I truly enjoyed. Company, by Ram Gopal Varma, comes to mind, but that may be heightened by the Ajay-factor.
But on a more “down” note, I think you’ve had a lot more friendly visit to Tamil film-land than I have…Went to the theater the other day to catch the highly touted Paradesi (Wanderers), the new Tamil film by national award winning director Bala. Well, I haven’t seen any of his other films, so I can’t truly judge, but I’m inclined not to see anything else. Here’s the trailer.
I really wanted to like this film, as it has high aims. It’s based on the novel Red Tea by Paul Harris Daniel, which I haven’t read (and I’d have to go to the Library of Congress to get a copy) but deals with the terrible experience of naive Tamil villagers who get tricked into working on the southern tea plantations during the last two decades of the Raj. It shows their suffering and I’m sure it’s an issue which deserves to be known, but the execution, especially in the second half of the two hour film, has gaping holes, which to a non-Indian audience are almost unbridgeable.
The first half of the film introduces you to the pre-tea existence of the villagers, as our hero, Rasa, the somewhat simple-minded town crier goes from home to home announcing the upcoming wedding of two of the local young folk. Everyone is supposed to attend, and to feed the town crier, it seems. Rasa lives, and supports his grandmother, on the kindness of his neighbors and seems to have no ambition for anything further than the next meal. Arthavaa Murali, who plays Rasa, is a handsome young man, veteran of only about three films, but makes a good impression with a mix of cheeky sweetness and naivety that reminds me a bit of a Fresh Prince era Will Smith. His abs don’t do badly by comparison, either.
However, Bala is always directing Rasa to erupt into floods of tears from all sorts of causes from the death of his uncle to as little as “I’ve worked hard all day and no one will give me any rice!” It may be a cultural thing, with American audiences traditionally uncomfortable with men crying, but I’ve been watching Indian films for quite a while now, and he still seems way too weepy for your traditional hero. It doesn’t help me to identify with him. The lady that catches his eye, Angamma, played by Vedika, is similarly childlike in her teasing ways…it comes across as half K3G Kajol and half Pippi Longstocking. She, in love with Rasa, feels the need to tease him often and ceaselessly until, of course, Rasa breaks down in tears. This brings them together.
Angamma’s mother puts her foot down against any marriage between the kids, because Rasa is just too much of a “Bin-Picker” (his nickname, the Tamil equivalent of “dumpster diver,” I guess) and has no way to support a wife. So Rasa goes out of the village, determined to succeed or die trying. Rasa brings back a tea plantation recruiter who may just help him achieve the latter end, for himself and a good portion of the village. The recruiter spins stories of easy profit and waves cash advances at anyone who will sign his contracts and go to work on the plantations for a mere year. Many accept, packing their few belongings and head off on a two month walk to their new home. Almost as soon as they leave, Angamma’s mother finds out she’s pregnant and as she’s not married, Mom tosses her out. Rasa’s grandmother, also alone, is happy to take her in. Here falls the intermission, on the body of one of the would-be workers, prone and dying in the path, left where he has fallen as the body of workers are prodded on and over his body, left as worthless. Not a good sign for anyone.
The second half only gets more appalling, on almost every level. First you get the treatment of the poor workers who are tricked into the traditional “owing the company store more than they are paid” scenario. They can’t get away by work or flight, which is punished by mutilation of varying sorts. Of course, the white owner of the plantation is a rapist, and worse still, a bad actor with a very American accent for an officer of the British Raj. This follows in the tradition in many Indian films that all the white actors are at a skill level that suggest they were dragged off their beach chairs and asked if it wouldn’t be fun to be in a movie for a day. Fun for them, not for us. Uniformly bad work by all non-Indian performers.
Rasa finds out after a year, in a letter that gets through, that he’s a father, and is tortured by thoughts of them, as well as overjoyed by the news itself. That’s until the plague hits and reduces the workers by half…then they get a severe attack of the missionaries, too. Can’t these poor coolies get a break?
The missionary doctor and his sexy white wife do a really bad evangelical song and dance to try to bring the relief of Jesus to the poor, downtrodden masses, those of them that are left, anyway. Many accept and join in the dance, primarily because of the bread thrown into the audience during the choruses. I don’t know if I’ve ever before seen an Indian film so openly disrespectful of other religions as in this number. I was tempted to walk out, but it was over fairly quickly, however it left a very bad taste in this Christian mouth. Yes, I know that not all missionaries were welcomed, or pure-hearted in their intentions, but this seemed like a completely out of context cheap laugh cultural slam, and it put me off charity with the filmmakers immediately.
For the plusses: the acting by the principal trio of Arthavaa, Vedika and Dhansika (who played a mother in the camp, deserted by her husband) were uniformly affecting. I’d like to see them in other films. The lovely music by GV Prakash Kumar was very lyrical and atmospheric. The lyrics, by Vairamuthu, at least as translated, seemed almost seamlessly tied to the images that they portrayed, adding depth and poignancy to all the emotional montages they accompanied, especially the climax song. But mostly, I want to applaud the fabulous cinematography of Chezhiyan which is stellar in almost every shot. Very haunting, gorgeous shots of the tea fields and the mountains, especially.
I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend this film with as much enthusiasm as the director and actors had in making it. Their intentions were good, and they achieved some of their aims, but the second half missteps killed my recommendation. If you have the time, threaded through this special promoting the film, are quite a number of nice clips of Paradesi. I wish Arthavaa had kept his short haircut…
Julie M: OK, so this begs the question: what is the purpose? Yes, the Raj was bad. Yes, the scenery is lovely; nothing new there. Acting and music excellent–but does not overcome a bad plot and huge cultural stereotyping. Sorry, just in a grumpy mood today.
Jenny K: No one else has mentioned the missionary scene as bad in the reviews I’ve read, except tangentially. However, all the reviewers were desi, so, perhaps it just hit them as a throw away item number. No biggie. All depends on the audience; the one that the director was aiming at, anyway.