It was a time when I used to think in Tamil. It was 1987, and I was thirteen. At the time in Chennai, the Tamil Brahmins, in whose company I spent all my boyhood, were not as fond of Rajinikanth as they now claim or pretend. Rajinikanth reminded them of a class of people who took away their engineering and medical seats after scoring merely 80% in the board exams. They did not despise him, but they respected “Kamalahasan” more. Kamal was Brahmin; he could sing classical songs, he could dance disco and Bharatnatyam, and he could laugh and cry at the same time, which was the final frontier of acting in Chennai. But it was also a time when he was in a decline. Rajinikanth was winning, like how the Rajinikanths in many spheres of Indian life were winning.
In fact, when I was 11 or 12, Kamal was shooting near my home, he was just standing in the middle of the road like an ordinary man, and there were no mobs encircling him. I felt sorry for him and tried to wave from a distance so that he felt reassured of his greatness.
When Nayagan released I did not watch it in the theatre. Due to some circumstances that may not interest you, at that stage of my life, I had watched less than ten films in theatres. One day my neighbours invited me to watch a pirated cassette on their video player, as they normally did. It was Nayagan. The exact moment when the film began divided my whole life into two parts. A past where I believed art was easy and boring, like the “good”cinema that Doordarshan broadcast every Sunday afternoon, and a future where art is an enjoyable, hence difficult, layer over mere anthropology.
Nayagan is based on the life of a Tamil gangster who really lived in Matunga, in Bombay. The film’s abstract spine is a song, the saddest song I have ever known. It is a lament about a child in distress.
It was the first time that I was watching a film that was not foolish even for a moment yet entertaining; and it was deeply moving and somehow real, yet never dull.
Even today my central ideas of storytelling are from watching Nayagan, and at various points of my life remembering the experience of watching Nayagan. A story is not an event, a story is an interesting event; Realism is not reality, realism is a fantasy of reality; You can be honest, stirring, uncompromising and still be interesting; Bores and other intellectually frail people have defamed entertainment but never be ashamed of entertainment; There is no such thing as pace in a story, there is only the element of thrill; Your art is not the whole width of a story but islands of greatness in an ordinary story, as in an innings of Viv Richards.
Just over a decade after I watched Nayagan I interviewed Mani Ratnam on the phone, and I asked him some stupid questions about Nayagan. I could sense his disappointment at having to speak to a daft young journalist. I later realised that even though Nayagan was one of the most important events in my life, I really had no meaningful questions to ask him.
Manu Joseph is a novelist and a journalist. His latest novel is ‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’. His first, ‘Serious Men’, which won the Sahatiya Akademi Award for its Tamil translation, will soon be a Netflix Original. His works have been translated into many languages and have been nominated for several international prizes. He is also a former editor of Open magazine and a former columnist for The New York Times.