Velu Naicker tortured in jail by Inspector Kelkar (IMDB)

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

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.

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.

Subaltern Reverence, Elite Skepticism

For the urban poor in Bombay’s shantytowns, the law is a constant tormentor that threatened to evict them and demolish their settlements as well as deny them basic facilities and social services.

The interface between film and reality is intensified by the motif of the festival to supplicate the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, in Nayakan. As Mudhaliar was in real life, Naicker, we are told, has been the Vinayakar Chathurthi festival’s patron for three decades. An inter-relay of meanings between the Hindu deity and the totemic gangster on both the visual and semantic registers is central to the film’s allegorical project. This conflation on the symbolic plane proceeds from the visual overlap between the hero and the sentinel deity as a manifestation of the divine to augment Naicker’s performance of a similar role. Proximity enables an ocular and symbolic convergence between both embodiments of subaltern investment: the spiritual and the reified. Nayakan, itself is a titular allusion; a name that could also imply ‘hero’ or ‘lord’ in Tamil is also used to describe Hindu deities in religious scripture. In cataclysmic conditions that dehumanize the shantytown dwellers, reprieve is to be found in the hallowed godfather who is an earthly surrogate of the divineThe interplay of symbols channelizing the metaphysical allegory acmes in the film’s denouement through a periapt uncovered for its full thaumaturgical potential. When Naicker meets his grandson, Shakthivelu for the first time, before the court trial, he is eager to gift the child something but with nothing else with him, Naicker gifts him with the rudraksha / prayer bead chain around his neck. Yet, his initial reluctance to part with the rudraksha chain reveals Naicker’s own investment in the talisman, which appears to provide him a phantasmic connection to the divine. The chain is first brought to our attention when Charumathi asks Naicker if he considers himself god and he instinctively feels for his rudraksha before shaking his head.

Naicker’s separation from the talisman, a final abnegation of his messianic role after he doubts his ethical position and moral crusade, imperils him almost immediately. The transcendental quality of the separation of talisman from mythic hero elicits comparisons to both antediluvian mythology and popular cultural mythos. The mythic warrior Karna in the ancient Hindu epic
Mahabharata is on the ungodly side in the epic’s clan war despite his hyper-munificence, selflessness, and loyalty. Like Karna who is killed when he parts with his kavach / armour and kundalas / earrings that render him invincible, so too does the gangster Naicker as soon as he parts with his rudraksha.

Mafia-don Naicker-Ayya, who rules over the city of Bombay, finds out that his son is dead

Mafia-don Naicker-Ayya, who rules over the city of Bombay, finds out that his son is dead

A more recent cinematic predecessor of thuamaturgical investment, this time in a working-class insignia, is from the classic Bollywood crime drama,

(1975). The gangster Vijay’s 786-numbered metal coolie identification badge, which insulates him from death, including deflecting a bullet, has similar theurgical properties to Naicker’s
rudraksha chain — one a metonym for the divine in Islam and the other a synecdoche for god in Hinduism, respectively.

In an almost mystical manner once the gangster Vijay in
Deewaar loses his talisman, death strikes him as it does don Naicker. In Deewaar death comes in the form of his cop brother’s bullet, recalling the ritual battle between Karna and his half-brother Arjuna in the Mahabharata to uphold the moral order in the epic, in Nayakan death comes from multiple bullets from a mentally disabled godson disguised in a crooked cop’s uniform. In Deewaar law and order prevail with the police eliminating a wanted criminal, but in Nayakan the law is upheld through a perversion of justice.

If Karna loses his talismanic armor and earrings through his hyper-munificence as well as celestial deceit, Naicker’s generosity costs his talisman. We are invited to compare the lives of both fictive heroes, whose godlike magnanimity becomes their hamartia, and are made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate without the talisman. Both epic hero and epic gangster, who transcended their lowly station, succumb to forces beyond their control.

Subaltern History

Nayakan can also be read as a counter-narrative of the Indian body politic. Seaming together various strands of underground subaltern histories, Nayakan reenacts the deterioration of the state. The extermination of maleficent operatives of the law, as well as the emergence of a parallel dominion run by urban gangsters, subverts the hegemony of the constitutional. Such conditions permit the lionization and subsequent apotheosis of the urban social bandit.

Nayakan, a transfer of power from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi-speaking inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel racist cop, described variously as mirugam / animal or kaattaan / barbarian, who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the shantytown. If Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state”, according to Professor Gopalan, the ritual battle becomes a means of discrediting the state, delegitimizing the law, and empowering the subaltern.

Nayakan does open itself to criticism for its violence and gore, such reprove obfuscates the larger modalities of bloodshed captured visually. To understand this idiom better, we need to look back at peasant insurgencies in India’s colonial history. Annihilating feudal authority figures in peasant insurgencies was a means for the subaltern to recondition his selfhood. According to historian Ranajit Guha, overlords imposed the identity of the peasant on him — a status structured by deep inequalities in wealth, power, and rank — to reinforce his subalternity. For the rural insurrectionary in colonial India, “he learnt to recognize himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by diminution, if not negation of those of his superiors” (See: Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, 1983). By eliminating the illegitimate authority, the insurgent peasant ends his subordination and reconstitutes for himself a new identity through bouleversement. Rather than being just seen as an act of anarchical vengeance, the negation of elite power in Nayakan must be seen as a rational act of radically usurping power.

Applying the subaltern paradigm to a more recent phenomenon of militancy corroborates the necessity of idiomatic violence. Historian Sanjay Seth explains the violent strategies of the renegade Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML) cadres, known in popular parlance as Naxalites. From the late ’60s, Maoist Naxalites placed varying gradations on the method of annihilation, weaponry used, and degree of violence employed. Seth suggests that for the Naxalite the greater the violence and display with which he killed his enemy, “the greater the distance he put between himself and his previous identity as subordinate” (See: Sanjay Seth, “From Maoism to Postcolonialism? The Indian ‘Sixties’, and Beyond”,
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 7, 4, 2006). Transposing this subaltern paradigm onto representing the slum dweller’s desire to transcend his inferior status in Nayakan, the cinematic carnage becomes less gratuitous and more a conscious aesthetic choice through which to display the arrogation of power.

For the urban poor in Bombay’s shantytowns, the law is a constant tormentor that threatened to evict them and demolish their settlements as well as deny them basic facilities and social services. Catastrophe impends from the iron fist of the state that ostracizes and neglects its own citizens. Invisible to official machinery, slum dwellers live in conditions of extreme economic deprivation. As much as the apocalyptical tenor in
Nayakan facilitates melodramatic investment in the crusading mission of the godfather, it also gestures towards the failure of modernity and the state. It is in this vacuum of legitimate authority that slumlord Mudhaliar, like his filmic clone Naicker, existed.

Mudhaliar’s counter-establishment of a “parallel system” exposes the degree to which the Indian state and local governments failed to register and deal with the discontent of communities on the fringes of society. Mudhaliar provided the Tamil migrant workers in the shantytowns of Bombay with protection from official tyrannies, like the demolition of their settlements, functioned as a private adjudicator in disputes, and dispensed justice where the official legal system failed to deliver. Living in a state of permanent “estrangement from the official-legal machinery”, which serves the legally recognized Bombay, Mudhaliar’s mafia redistributed power between the powerful and the powerless (See: M.S.S. Pandian, “Varadaraja Mudaliar: Counter-Obituary”,
Economic and Political Weekly, 23 April 1988).

In the absence of democratic accountability and legal restitution, Bombay’s poor could only turn to Mudhaliar for redress. Though this assistance came at extortionist prices, unaccounted for in
Nayakan, Mudhaliar’s role as a private dispenser of justice nonetheless accounted for his popularity among the Tamil migrant workers, the urban underclass, and those who found a chance for survival in the city’s underworld economy.

Furthermore, Naicker’s threat in Tamil — “you will die if I hit you back” — to the Hindi-speaking Inspector Kelkar, after being tortured in jail, is loaded with ethnic pride. Film critic Masud’s argument is that
Nayakan, unlike any other film in Indian cinema at that point, is about a “minority culture driven inwards” forced to exist in “uneasy cooperation” with the host culture. Nayakan interfaces the fictive and the real to show how, for the powerless, brutalized, and culturally uprooted Tamil minority living in Bombay, Mudhaliar became a totemic figure of cultural resistance, preventing the beleaguered migrant workers from being turned into refugees in their own country. The refusal to submit to a Hindi-speaking figure of authority is also a figurative rebellion against the Indian state, deemed by India’s Tamil nationalists as an alien despotism from which to secure emancipation if Tamil identity is to be preserved.

Besides social welfare organizations exclusively for Tamils, such as the Thamizh Peravai or Tamil Association, Mudhaliar also held a Ganapati procession every year, which were the ”
biggest and flashiest” of them all in Bombay. Nayakan conduits both these realities into the construction of Naicker as elements of realism as well as the narrative’s pseudo-biographical intention. In 1983, Mudhaliar even led a demonstration in protest of atrocities against Tamils during the civil war in Sri Lanka, a rally even attended by Members of Parliament from the state of Tamil Nadu. Mudhaliar’s vocal support of the beleaguered Tamils in neighboring Sri Lanka is not featured as an element of Naicker’s persona. Still, it’s an extradiegetical reminder that the totemic power of the gangster laid not just in his criminal resistance to the state but also in his political opposition.

If Ratnam has been accused of taking liberties with history in his other films, in
Nayakan he stages with much verisimilitude a past outside the official histories of the nation-state. A subaltern history straight out of Bombay’s shantytowns, of munificent Robin Hood-type figures who form phalanxes that rollback the bourgeois state in order to defend the rights of beleaguered minorities and the working classes. Nayakan is not just underworld fiction but also a bricolage of underground micronarrative (petit récit) histories.

One Man’s Villain is Another’s Nayakan

Extending the religious allegory through the motif of
bouleversement, Nayakan also undertakes a kind of iconoclasm in popular cultural memory and epic tradition. The figure of the Tamil gangster in Bombay, easily vilified in Hindi cinema, is redeemed and recast in Nayakan with the nobility of hero as well as a mythologization hitherto unseen in Indian cinema. Naicker was not the cinematic prototype of Mudhaliar, he had antecedents in Bollywood villainy. Even after Nayakan, the Tamil mobster in Mumbai was an easy figure to castigate.

The middlebrow Hindi film
Ardh Satya (1983) inaugurated the trend of slick villains evoking Mudhaliar in the dark-skinned dhoti-clad Rama Shetty, a smooth-talking but loathsome crime boss with aspirations for political office. The film’s rogue cop protagonist in a paroxysm of rage finally strangles to death the villainous Rama, to surgically remove a social cancer before it metastasizes. Similarly, in Mashaal (1984), the businessman and prominent public figure secretly involved in drug trafficking and hooch smuggling is the antagonist S.K.Vardhan, reworking Mudhaliar’s first name and popular cultural memory. The lumpenization of politics, a prominent theme in both ’80s Indian cinema and the Indian gangster film genre in general, is at once obviated and subverted in Nayakan.

The trend continued even after
Nayakan in the critically acclaimed Hindi gangster film Parinda (1989), which was also India’s selection to the Academy Awards in 1990. The deranged, sadistic, and pyrophobic Tamil gangster Anna Seth, is the focus of all evil in the noirish narrative of Parinda, set in the streets of Bombay. The arch villain in Parinda shares a similar name to another dhoti-clad gang leader and petty villain figure, Anna Shetty, in another Bollywood mob film, Agneepath (1990), though more as caricature than calamity.

The use of the name Anna is provocative because
anna / elder brother was also the moniker of C.N.Annadurai (1909-1969), one time Tamil ethno-nationalist, who later became the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Madras and renamed it to Tamil Nadu. A greatly admired social activist and reformist, Annadurai was known in the region as ‘Gandhi of the South’. Annadurai’s compassion and selflessness in public service became synonymous with the name anna, which also became a means of political address establishing fraternal ties between comrades. Leader figures are also commonly referred to as anna in Tamil political culture as a kind of homage to Annadurai. The Tamil gangster in Bollywood vitiates these benign political connotations.

Professor Vasudevan reads
Nayakan dialogically with cult Hindi films Ardh Satya, and in particular, Parinda, which takes “the figure of the Tamil gangster, strips him of political functions or references, and makes him the ambiguous psychotic villain, Anna” (See: Ravi S Vasudevan, The Melodramatic Public: Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema, 2010). The popular cultural memory of Mudhaliar, even though he had passed away less than a year before the film’s release, allowed Parinda to conceive a terrifying ‘other’ in the unhinged Anna. Anna is finally incinerated in a blaze of fire; the same way effigies of the mythological King Raavana are burned at the North Indian Hindu festival of Dusshehra.

Nayakan reverberates a predilection in modern Tamil politics towards apostasy. Tamil nationalists have applied the dynamic of inversion on the Ramayana to vindicate the epic’s central antagonist, King Raavana, as a ‘Dravidian‘, or South Indian hero who repels the invasion of the marauding ‘Aryan’ or North Indian Prince Rama who, in Hindu orthodoxy was the savior redeemer hero and god incarnate. Dravidian nationalists theorized that the Ramayana was an analogy of a prehistoric conflict between ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’ even though these dichotomies are anthropologically unsound. The Ramayana was interpreted by Dravidian nationalists as “an allegory of northern imperialism over the south”. Dravidian parties fabricated this revisionist vision of the Ramayana narrative to whip up anti-North Indian, anti-Brahmanical, and anti-Congress sentiments against the hegemony of the Indian National Congress party over Indian politics. While the radicalism has been subdued and defanged by the ascent of the Dravidian parties to national and regional office, the legacy lingers on.

A God-sent Solace

If anything, glorifying populist leaders… only entrenches inequality and makes poverty endemic — creating the kind of milieu from which godfathers rise.Nayakan marks for itself a cultural space in the gangster genre in ways that Ardh Satya and Parinda cannot, in trying to see the figure of the kingpin as a historical construct created by disenfranchisement. Neither Ardh Satya nor Parinda dwell on the origins of the abominations they portray. Where Hindi-speaking North Indian heroes are in conflict with the Tamil gangster nemeses in Ardh Satya and Parinda, bouleversement is at work in Nayakan because it is the Tamil outlaw hero who does battle with a variety of North Indian oppressors from Inspector Kelkar, to the real estate baron, the Home Minister, and the legal apparatus unleashed on the slum dwellers. Nayakan thus conveys ethnic subjectivity in the face of subjugation through a militant supertext.

Nayakan inaugurated the bouleversement seen in Ratnam’s other gangster epics. The allusion to the Mahabharata‘s Karna, muted in Nayakan, is fully amplified and articulated in Ratnam’s other Tamil gangster epic, Thalapathi (1991). Thalapathi in-turn pays tribute to Nayakan by indexing the year 1987 to commence the main narrative. Thalapathi recontextualises and recasts the friendship between the Mahabharata‘s chief nemesis Duryodhana and ally Karna, into benevolent outlaws from South India’s underworld. A mafia don and his lumpenproletariat lieutenant defend the city’s working classes and poor from official tyrannies, criminal exploitation, and upper caste / upper class froideur.

Ratnam’s more recent Raavanan (2010) turns to the Ramayana. Raavanan tellingly invokes the Ramayana‘s chief antagonist to characterize a forest tribe’s leader, holding hostage the police chief’s wife to avenge the rape and murder of his sister by cops. Known by the nom de guerre Raavanan, the tribal warlord becomes a latter-day brigand fighting for justice for his tribe. At least one song in the film intimates at Raavanan’s Maoist Naxalite sympathies. Thus, it is possible to read Nayakan, Thalapathi, and Raavanan as a mob trilogy to match Ratnam’s nationally renowned political trilogy.

In the dysfunctional world where the law of the jungle prevails and the state capitulates its custodian role, the lumpenproletariat heroes in Ratnam’s mob trilogy are apotheosized not just for their reversal of existing elite-dominated power structures but also for being able to rise above the catastrophic circumstances and shield the vulnerable. Ratnam’s tendency to put a revisionist spin on traditional Hindu epics through modern retellings allows him to reconstitute notions of justice and heroism. The underworld and deep jungle thus become a kind of utopia when the legal world and metropolis become inimical to subalterns.

Ritual Sacrifice

Yet, it doesn’t contradict the preceding readings to argue that Nayakan doesn’t senselessly glorify hero worship. If anything, aligned with a vision to keep things real, Nayakan also demonstrates hero worship in extremis. In the absence of lasting political structures and legal redress, the logical consequences of undiscerning investment in the divinity of the leader is shown to be the slippery slope of personality cults as manifested extradiegetically. While Naicker’s nobility shines through in his refusal to fully embrace his godlike status, the question of its exploitation and misuse, as it was in the region’s history, is subtly raised through a series of shocking visuals.

Known also for heightened gore in the pursuit of cinematic realism, scenes of human combustion are among the most visceral in Nayakan. When police trap Surya trying to help an assassin escape, he crashes his car into the petrol station and is killed in a conflagration. Later, when the police begin a witch-hunt to take Naicker down, one of his loyal supporters go to the extent of immolating herself to prevent his arrest: an elderly woman, Anjamma, being pursued by the cops, douses herself with kerosene, and lights herself on fire to throw the police off his trail.

The mise en scene in both scenes emphasizes the infernal ordeal of self-immolation. With graphic visuals intended to draw attention to the agony of the victim compounded by diegetic screams from Anjamma, martyrdom is given a deathly pall. Suffering third-degree burns, the comatose Anjamma is given little chance of survival in hospital. After Surya is grotesquely burned to death, everyone discourages Naicker from seeing his son’s charred remains. Since we are never actually shown how badly burnt Surya is, we are left to figure out the extent of disfiguration from Naicker’s cries of anguish.

Velu Naicker's mafia empire is stopped by Assistant Commissioner Patil

Velu Naicker’s mafia empire is stopped by Assistant Commissioner Patil

These igneous images were an eerie portent of a gruesome spectacle less than two months after the release of Nayakan. When actor-politician M.G.Ramachandran (1917-1987), who was also Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (1977-1987), died, 31 of his supporters committed suicide, many by self-immolation. Earlier, when the hugely popular Ramachandran suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984, 12 people committed suicide by burning themselves as sacrifice. More than 100 attempted self-immolation but were prevented from doing so.

When M.Karunanidhi, Ramachandran’s bête noire and opposition leader, himself a former Chief Minister, was arrested in 1981, five people committed suicide by self-immolation, and six more were admitted in hospital for serious burns. When Karunanidhi was arrested in 1986 for fomenting anti-Hindi protests 21 peoplecommitted suicide, most by immolating themselves.

The idea of sacrificing oneself through the morbid act of self-immolation was a demonstration for the devotion of the follower for his leader or the willingness to give their lives for a cause. Heights of adulation and cults venerating the leader figure as a messiah, conditioned a political culture in which death, especially the spectacular act of self-conflagration, became the ultimate expression of piety and devotion.

As historian M.S.S. Pandian writes in his seminal The Image Trap: M G Ramachandran in Film and Politics (1992) conferring divinity upon Ramachandran was part of a religio-cultural practice in Tamil Nadu whereby people “deify the good, the troublesome and the heroic.” Ramachandran was revered as ithaya deivam / god of our hearts by his most loyal followers who belonged to the subaltern classes. The willingness of the slum dweller to immolate herself in Nayakan for her leader was an authentic representation of subaltern common sense with its expression of the deification of human beings and veneration of leaders.

These sacrifices were not just to sustain cult leaders but also for secular political causes. While martyrdom for a noble cause proceeds from antiquity in Tamil culture, in postcolonial times, the practice was resurrected in the ’60s — influenced by Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation on the streets of Saigon to protest against Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese regime in 1963. Emulating this, Tamil politics was introduced to the “Chinnasamy Effect” — when the eponymous poor farmer doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire for the cause of Tamil language and to oppose the imposition of Hindi in the state of Madras in 1964. Chinnasamy’s act “inaugurated a dramatic new form of expressing devotion” whether to the Tamil language, a political cause, or even to a leader (See: Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue, 1997). On his death anniversary in 1965 copycat martyrs emulated Chinnasami’s self-immolation, creating a spate of suicides over Hindi imposition in Madras that left as many as nine dead. The land of the Tamils came to attain the disparaging reputation of the “land of self-immolation” after that tumultuous year.

Those who martyred themselves for Tamil nationalism formed the basis of new hero cults. They were “immortalised” by Tamil nationalist parties that staged plays, dedicated poetry, spewed oratory, and sang panegyrics in which their sacrifice was held as a model of heroism. Once in power, the Tamil nationalist DMK party government even named subways and parks after the most prominent among those who gave their lives for the cause of sub-national self-expression.

However, what started as a means of protest in the ’60s, escalated into a “ghastly expression of political loyalty in the 1980s” with the suicides of those who sacrificed themselves through self-immolation to eternalize political icons. Goaded by sycophants, hangers-on, and hagiographies that venerated the personality cult of the leader, the act of self-immolation enhanced the celestial stature of the politico. Some martyrs attained “posthumous celebrity status” but they were never allowed to outgrow the stature of ‘dear leader’ whose divinity cannot be surpassed.

While inviting empathy with those who martyr themselves at the altar of the leader cult, with no other recourse for their grievances, we are ultimately persuaded to disavow such strategies in the moral universe of Nayakan. Here, a middle-class morality and bourgeois angst does prevail, as Professor Chakravarthy reads it. Bearing Ratnam’s authorial inscription, his skepticism towards deifying the living found expression in the film’s reviling treatment of martyrization.

The furthest extent of the film’s didacticism is for Ratnam to remind us of the excesses of hero worship. Populist strategies of mobilization founded on appeals to cults of personality are pointless for economic development and the progress of the subaltern classes. If anything, glorifying populist leaders, especially panjandrums who are better rhetoricians than they are policymakers, only entrenches inequality and makes poverty endemic — creating the kind of milieu from which godfathers rise.

In a retrospective written by Kamalhaasan on the 25th anniversary of the release of Nayakan, he reminisces on the film’s genesis. His most telling comment was the single-minded determination of the creative team behind Nayakan to do something unique in Tamil cinema, in particular to its representations of the underworld. He comments: “We kept saying how long could Tamil cinema keep showing the underworld as people with checked shirts and a kerchief knotted around the neck and laughing like the old villain P.S.Veerappa.”

Kamalhaasan alludes to a variegated number of issues through his enunciation of difference, as a defining quality, “we just wanted to be different“, he says. The dismantling of stereotypes and stock representations of mobsters infused greater credibility and realism into underworld characters. Gritty deglamorized visualizations of genuine material realities distinguished Nayakan from other films about outlaws that depend only on melodramatic investment. There’s even a call to solidarity with the causes of those forced to turn to the underworld, less as anti-social depredations, as official history vaunts, but as victims of historical circumstance.

Of course, Kamalhaasan’s article disambiguates the influence from Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather films. Afflatus aside, it’s clear that the achievement of stylistic virtuosity in mediating elements of cinéma vérité through a popular medium also made Nayakan a classic in Indian film history. In the process, it converged with Ratnam’s own ontological enquiry into the nature of the human condition that permits the involuntary deification of men. The celluloid recreation of a hero’s apotheosis allowed for the retrieval of underground subaltern histories to undergird the narrative.

The fundamental logic of inversion or bouleversement as has been referred to here, whether in terms of power structures, mythological narratives, or popular cultural memory, facilitated mythopoeia in Nayakan. In the process, while empathizing with the helpless and demonstrating subaltern consciousness with authenticity, totemization of the living is shown to be pointless, permitting the film to be seen as a cautionary tale about the consequences of the politics of exclusion. In the final analysis, we are reminded that men become gods not as a sign of presumed cultural backwardness but because the modern nation-state has failed. When the prophylactic becomes the disease, the medicine man becomes god.