Slumgod Millionaire: On 'Nayakan', the Godfather of Indian Gangster Films

Velu Naicker tortured in jail by Inspector Kelkar (IMDB)

In revisiting Nayakan we are reminded that men become gods not as a sign of presumed cultural backwardness but because the modern nation-state has failed.

An apocalyptic undercurrent surges through auteur Mani Ratnam's Tamil magnum opus, Nayakan (Hero, 1987). Scenes evocative of persecution, torture, displacement, and unrest portent the effacement of a subnational identity or worse still, genocide. Visions of prelapsarian innocence, conjugal bliss, or utopian communitarianism are ephemeral and presage imminent catastrophe or recrudescent evil. Scourges are forestalled only by the intercession of the messiah. Posturing the film's protagonist as a redeemer further augments this vision of ineluctable calamity on a besieged community. Despite being on the wrong side of the law, this anti-hero remains tethered to orthodox or even religious notions of heroism. The violent mobster in Nayakan is a savior deity.

Gangster Epic

Despite adapting conventions from the gangster drama genre in the West, Nayakan's pedestalling accomplishment is an autochthonous realism interspersed with commercial elements from popular Indian cinema. The painstakingly constructed period verisimilitude revolutionized the commercial medium with an aesthetic virtuoso usually reserved for art-house films. Receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim upon its release in October 1987 as well as subsequent box office success, Nayakan remains to date one of the finest gangster dramas to come from India's cinemas.

Thirty years on, no list of the best Indian films of all time is complete without Nayakan. A status foreseen by an India Today reviewer who believed the gangster epic deserved " a permanent place in the Indian cinema pantheon" after watching Nayakan at the 12th International Film Festival in Delhi (1989). In her retrospective of '80s Bollywood, writer Madhu Jain proclaims Indian screen legend Kamalhaasan, who plays the titular Mafioso Velu Naicker, as Indian cinema's "actor of the decade" for his performance in films like Nayakan. The eminent film critic Isbal Masud, writing in Cinema in India (1988), lauded Nayakan as a “landmark" of popular Indian cinema while epitomizing the rancorous and recusant zeitgeist of the decade.

An India Today review of the Bollywood remake Dayavan (1988) referred to lead actor Kamalhaasan's performance, in the Tamil original, as “mindblowing". Director Feroz Khan hailed Nayakan as an “acclaimed masterpiece" that his Dayavan had to better. However, as the review makes clear, it failed to.

India's intelligentsia also felicitated Nayakan. The film fraternity in South India awarded the Cinema Express Award for Best Film and Best Actor to Nayakan and Kamalhaasan, respectively. Three National Film Awards were given by the state in 1988: Best Actor to Kamalhaasan, Best Cinematography to P.C. Sreeram, and Best Art Direction to Thotta Tharani. Nayakan was also India's official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category to the Academy Awards the same year.

Foreign critics recognized influences from director Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Parts I and II on Nayakan but esteemed the film on its own merits. Film critic David Chute commented that Kamalhaasan's performance “stands up well to an obvious comparison with the Corleone dons of Pacino and De Niro", while commending director Ratnam as a “breakthrough figure" in Indian cinema after watching a retrospective of his movies at the 19th Toronto International Film Festival in 1995 (David Chute, “Gods Walk the Earth", Film Comment, January 1995). Nayakan was selected to be on Time's “All Time 100 Best Films" from around the world in 2005.

Nayakan was also included in the Moving Arts Film Journal's list of hundred greatest films of all time in 2011. The international film database IMDb currently ranks Nayakan as the third highest rated film from India of all time, making it the top Indian gangster film on the list.

Needless to say, a polysemic text like Nayakan opens itself to diverse and at times contradictory interpretations. Professor Venkatesh Chakravarthy, writing in The Toronto Review, reads Nayakan intertextually with other films by Ratnam as permeated by a middle-class Hindu worldview and morality. Chakravarthy critiques Nayakan for imposing “a bourgeois moral angst" and Hindu middle class “hysterical conscience" that hegemonizes the semantic field in the narrative. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema interprets the parochialism of Nayakan as a form of ethno-linguistic nationalism. The portrayal of mob boss Velu Naicker being the composite of three decades of iconic Tamil politicians' images in India. The interpellation of a migrant community forced into insularity by an inhospitable host environment creates the conditions for provincialism in this reading.

Professor Lalitha Gopalan's centerpiece chapter on Nayakan in her Cinema of Interruptions (2002) looks at period verisimilitude as a strategy of “writing the nation" to service the cultural production of nostalgia, memory, and history. To historicize the narrative of Nayakan, she does a close reading of commodity culture in the period film's mise en scène, especially the automobiles, as “signifiers of authenticity", which helps to place the film in a specific chronology that is set in an otherwise ambiguous postcolonial past.

The significance of Nayakan also lies in its religious allegory. While this supertext seems too obvious to miss, such an interpretation appears either disregarded at best or suppressed at worst. The entreatments of deification in Nayakan are not merely instantiations but a coherent motif of mythic ascent. An epic bildungsroman, Nayakan is the celluloid simulation of a hero's apotheosis from street urchin to deity, summoning memories of extradiegetic realities. If the transformation of Shakthivelu to Naicker-Ayya is a heroic journey of sorts, it is also, more importantly, a process of involuntary deification, as such.

Veneration of the urban social bandit by the slum dwellers in the text coheres with the subaltern predilection to ascribe divinity to the benign though we are warned of the consequences of blind faith. Critical to the mythopoeia of Nayakan is the dynamic of bouleversement, which is the inversion of existing power structures, mythology, and even popular cultural stereotype. Cultural expectations are overturned in a variety of ways, which appears consonant with the film's creative enterprise. Through these subversive devices, Nayakan opens pathological vistas into why and how men become gods in specific historical and political contexts.

Plot Summary

Nayakan begins with a Tamil boy, Shaktivelu Naicker, fleeing from India's southeastern coast after stabbing to death the policeman who executed in cold blood his trade unionist father, who is wrongly accused of being a terrorist. Velu, who drifts up northwest to the city of Bombay, befriends a Tamil street urchin who brings him to the petty smuggler Hussein Bhai living in the city's shantytowns. Hussein Bhai takes both kids under his care. The devout and compassionate Hussein Bhai's creed, 'as long as you do good for people, it is not wrong', impels Velu who both literally and figuratively picks up the smuggling ropes from him.

When we meet Velu again as an adult he stands up to the North Indian Inspector Kelkar water-cannoning the slum populace. Velu is brutally tortured in jail for his impudence. When Velu tries to supplement Hussei Bhai's smuggling to demand higher wages, his boss gets Kelkar to kill Hussein Bhai. Velu avenges Hussein Bhai's murder by slaying Kelkar. Velu also has to protect the slum dwellers from being evicted by a Hindi-speaking real estate baron, in cahoots with a local crime boss, who wants to build a shopping mall where the shantytown stands. Supplanting the crime boss, Velu becomes the mafia-don Naicker-Ayya to the migrant Tamils and Velu Bhai to his underworld colleagues.

As Naicker fortifies his smuggling empire and takes over control of Bombay's harbor, rival mobsters murder his wife. Naicker, in turn, eliminates his wife's killers. His motherless children, sent to live with their aunt after their mother's death to insulate them from Naicker's life of crime, grow up to become adults who take antithetical positions towards their father the city's godfather. His son Surya aspires to follow his father's suit but his daughter Charumathi detests her father's lifestyle, blaming him for her mother's demise. When Surya dies in a car crash at a petrol station after bungling a cover-up job to put away a testifier, seeing her brother's death as the last straw, Charumathi leaves home. Naicker's impunity from the law comes at the cost of losing his family.

However, with the arrival of a Bombay's incorruptible new Assistant Commissioner, Patil, the law catches up with Naicker. When Patil unleashes the full force of the police on slum dwellers, social welfare associations, and businesses loyal to Naicker's mob, Naicker absconds. Naicker evades arrest by being helped by Charumathi who turns out to be married to Patil -- a critical point of anagnorisis in the narrative. Yet, upon realizing the extent of bloodletting by his followers to prevent his arrest and prove their loyalty, Naicker turns himself in.

Before the trial outside the courts, Naicker meets his grandson, Shakthivelu, for the first time. Shakthivelu asks Naicker if he is a good or bad person, to which Naicker reveals that he is no longer sure. Just when it appears that the courts could not find sufficient evidence to convict Naicker, his godson, the mentally ill son of Inspector Kelkar, puts on his father's old uniform and shoots Naicker to death outside the courtroom. The film ends with a eulogical montage of Naicker's life and times, accompanied by a lullaby-like epicedium, also the film's leitmotif, alluding to the narrative's possible pseudo-biographical intent.

“Do you think you are God?"

In keeping with his messianic emplacement in the text, Naicker's deification is bestowed upon him through two tropes: subaltern reverence and elite skepticism. During the police investigation after he slays Inspector Kelkar, one of the slum women interrogated by the cops, refers to Velu as a deivam / deity who had rescued them from a monster. A mother whose sickly child is saved, because Naicker rushed the child to the hospital and intimidated the doctor who at first refused to treat a slum child, pays obeisance to Naicker as ayya / lord by clasping her hands in a posture of veneration. For the subalterns perpetually fearing eviction, exploitation, marginalization, or death in the precarious social universe of Bombay's sprawling shantytown, the only god-sent solace is Naicker.

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Agents of peripeteia, Charumathi and her husband, Assistant Commissioner Patil, who embody the upper-middle-class voices in the narrative, are skeptical but driven to inquest the atavism that a living man could be treated as a god. A polemical shouting match erupts between Bombay's godfather and his daughter throwing out a rhetorical device that underscores the film's allegorical core. Charumathi confronts Naicker after she witnesses his underboss Selva and their caporegime maim a politician's son, who was part of a posse of scions responsible for the gang rape of the police superintendent's daughter. Charumathi asks what justifiable onus he can invoke to supersede the law and act as a private dispenser of justice, climaxing her interrogation with the question: 'Do you think you are god'?

Somewhat reframed but an essentially similar question is posed by Assistant Commissioner Patil -- emblematizing the bourgeois postcolonial state. Accounting for his failure to apprehend the mobster to the Home Minister, Patil is aghast that no one is willing to provide testimony against Naicker and that people, undaunted by third-degree treatment from cops, are willing to martyr themselves to conceal their godfather. Patil wonders aloud why the slum masses would venerate a criminal as they would a kadavul / god. We now know that the surfeit of references to exaltation conceals a vantage point for creative intention.

The stimulus for Nayakan was the career of a notorious Tamil kingpin in Bombay, Varadarajan Mudhaliar (1926-1988). In a book-length interview with film critic Baradwaj Rangan about his career, Conversations with Mani Ratnam (2012), Ratnam reveals the aspects of Varadarajan Mudhaliar's persona that intrigued him:

The two years I studied in Bombay (1975-1977), he was at his peak. People in the Matunga belt thought he was God. I used to wonder how anyone could treat a fellow human as God. I never understood why they would do this. It fascinated me. It was such a dramatic story, this man going from Tamil Nadu to Bombay and ruling the city.

While in other interviews director Ratnam hinted at modeling the avuncular Naicker's likeness to Mudhaliar, here he elaborates on specific qualities of his journey worthy of dramatization. Apart from the template of a subaltern's ascendance from street urchin to lumpenproletariat to millionaire, despite being from an alien community in a hostile environment, the mythic essence where the gangster reaches apotheosis was the creative spark for Nayakan.

The spatial configuration of the godfather's abode, as well as his patronage systems, serve to augur this messianic aura by inverting our ocular expectations. Film historian Ravi S Vasudevan, deconstructs the staging of Naicker's home as “a brightly lit space blocked to emphasize frontal registers for those who supplicate the Tamil mobster" evoking the architecture of institutions of political and legal power now appropriated by the outlawed subaltern (See: Ravi S Vasudevan, The Melodramatic Public: Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema, 2010). Naicker's sanctuary facilitates the veneration of the gangster in the text. The structuring of his residence as a kind of sanctum sanctorum situates Naicker as the presiding deity. The posture of fealty adopted by the gathering slum folk and Tamil migrant workers, who claim they have nowhere else to turn since they inhabit an iniquitous world, further accords Naicker with god-like ambience.

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