Saturday, September 22, 2012

Film #87: Nayakan (1987)


Director: Mani Ratnam

Initial Release Country: India

Times Previously Seen: none

Semi-Rapid-Fire Summary:

A young boy, Velu Naiker, in the Tamil region of India sees his union-leader father brutally shot by local government officials. Naiker flees to a massive slum in Bombay, where is taken in and fostered by a Muslim man who smuggles local goods and uses his profits to help those in poverty like himself.

When he becomes a young man, the clever and capable Naiker decides to help his foster father with a smuggling run. Naiker is successful, but his father is discovered and killed. Naiker takes revenge by finding the man responsible, a corrupt police official, and killing him in the middle of the slum. Naiker’s neighbors witness the act, but see him as a brave protector against the government, so they all support him rather than turn him in.

Over the next several years, Naiker continues to expand his smuggling empire, while also defending the poor in his foster neighborhood. His status grows into a man who is respected by other organized criminals, loved by his neighbors, and feared by the privileged elite. Naiker marries a former prostitute and has two children with her.

The young Naiker, complete with high-rise bouffant hairdo, ruminates in the presence of his future wife.

Nearing middle age, Naiker is stricken by tragedy when his wife is killed during an attempt on his life, as revenge by one of his criminal rivals. In retaliation, Naiker kills all of those responsible, further consolidating his power hold on the Bombay underworld.

More years pass, and Naiker’s two children are nearing their late teens. Despite his father’s desire that he have nothing to do with his criminal empire, Naiker’s son wants to involve himself in the organization. He takes it upon himself to set up an assassination of a potential witness against his father. The witness is killed, but Naiker’s son is also killed in the process. Naiker is grief-stricken, and his daughter leaves the family, so as to remove herself from the death surrounding them.

About another decade passes, and Naiker is now a patriarchal crime overlord. A new, young police commissioner launches an all-out war on Naiker, in an attempt to take him down. Unbeknownst to either Naiker or the officer, the officer’s wife is Naiker’s daughter. When Naiker is finally captured and brought to court, his daughter helps to negotiate a peace between them. Naiker actually escapes conviction, as he is far too beloved for anyone to testify against him. However, he is assassinated upon exiting the court by the deranged son of the corrupt policeman whom he had killed when he was a young man.

The aged Naiker, shortly before he is acquitted and then assassinated.

My Take on the Film:

Nayakan is billed as “India’s answer to The Godfather”, according to many summaries. If so, then it’s a rather weak answer, in my opinion.

Maybe I would have a different feeling about it if I weren’t so heavily steeped in the high-quality film making and masterful execution of The Godfather, Parts I and II. It is quite clear that, while having its own Indian influences and adaptations, Nayakan rather shamelessly takes more than a few elements from Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppolla’s classic movies. So many that it nearly crosses the line between “homage” and “rip-off”.

The Naiker character is a very thinly veiled Tamil version of Vito Corleone – a young man on the run from corruption who enters the criminal world out of survival, and whose intelligence, personal integrity, and character set him apart from other criminals. These kinds of stories are usually compelling, and maybe Nayakan’s would have been as well. Except for the fact that it really is Vito Corleone’s story – one that I’ve watched at least half a dozen times.

The young Velu Naiker, facing off against the corrupt cop who eventually kills his father, a la a young Vito Corleone in Sicily. This is just the first of many aspects that the movie apes from The Godfather films.

Granted, it’s not a wholesale rip-off. The tale of Velu Naiker involves social and political themes that are nowhere to be found in The Godfather story. Naiker represents a dark defender of the absolute poorest of the poor in Bombay. His refusal to buckle under the pressure of selfish and power-hungry authoritarians puts a different twist on the familiar story, and it makes him sympathetic in a way somewhat different from Vito Corleone. This is one of the few novel strengths of the picture.

Another way that Nayakan pales in comparison to The Godfather is character depth. Naiker himself is actually rather well fleshed-out, and is easily the most complex character in the movie. His wife and children also show some range. Virtually every other character, though, is at best two-dimensional. Aside from the Naiker family, nearly everyone else is either a sneering, leering, scuzzy criminal or simply not given enough time to show any depth beyond blind loyalty to their benefactor. This lack of time for development is at least partially due to another hallmark of Indian films – the music.

Ahh, the music. First of all, I am no fan of musicals, as I have chronicled in my reviews of Meet Me in Saint Louis and Singin’ in the Rain. At least in that latter film, though, the music was integrated into the movie in a logical way. Nayakan, just as literally every movie produced in India, has a handful of musical and dance numbers. A few of them fit into the story somewhat organically, and the theme song is actually really good (I might even download it on iTunes). Most of them, however, are shoe-horned into the tale in ways that are really bizarre and awkward. I’m sure that, to a viewer from Asia Minor, this does not seem in the least bit odd. For someone like me, though, it’s completely incoherent. It was a far cry from the mostly enjoyable melodies in the other Indian film I reviewed last year, Pyaasa.

The setting of the first music and dance number of the film - the brothel where Velu meets his future wife. While there isn't a massive amount of musical numbers in the picture, most of them are oddly placed and break up the coherent tone of the film.

As far as the filming goes, there is actually a bit of merit. While this movie was made in 1987, it was clearly working on a budget of, I would guess, around $87. The visuals and sound effects have that cheap, grainy quality of the cheesiest of Kung-Fu Theater movies from the 1970s. Despite these limitations, there are actually some really well-framed and choreographed shots. Also, some of the long shots in Bombay are rather stunning, capturing the different regions of that massive, ancient city. For the most part, the cinematographers did a lot with very few resources.

A final problem I had with the movie is something that could not be controlled by the filmmakers – the subtitles. Nayakan is not an easy movie to get a hold of, and there has seemingly been no high-quality version of it produced for Western audiences. The subtitles were sometimes linguistically clunky and sometimes grammatically mangled. Also, multiple characters’ lines would pop up on the screen simultaneously, often before the second or third person would even speak. This added to the “Kung-Fu Theater Effect”. If a company like the Criterion Collection could get the rights to this movie, polish it up, and do the translation justice, it would help immensely.

Actor Kamal Hassan does a good job of bringing the necessary intensity and heart to the role of Velu Naiker. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to overcome the elements that I didn't like about the movie.

Ultimately, I have no real idea exactly why the reviewers at TIME magazine put this movie on their “All-TIME 100 Movies” list. While there are some clear merits and strengths to it, Nayakan did not give me anything original. It recycled one of the most famous film stories, and did it with weaker visuals, far less character development, and shoddier execution. Will I ever watch it again? I think you know the answer to that question.

That’s a wrap. 87 shows down. 18 to go.

Coming Soon: The Decalogue (1989):


 This is another film “series”, consisting of ten one-hour movies by the famed director of the Red-White-Blue trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski. These will take me a while, but I’m going to do multiple posts on it, so stay tuned.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.