NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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Nayakan (1987)

Nayakan

This film has been on my ‘must see’ list for a while but it proved very difficult to track down a copy.  Even then I ended up with a Telugu dub without subtitles, and when I did manage to download subs they were somewhat selective in the translation, declining to translate any of the Hindi, and a bit hit and miss with the rest. However they did at least provide translations of Ilaiyaraaja’s wonderful songs which are definitely high points of the film.  Nayakan is one of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films, and is the movie that brought him to the attention of the cinematic world outside the Southern film industry.  It’s based on the story of Varadarajan Mudaliar, aka Vardhabhai, one of the notorious gangsters who controlled the underworld in Mumbai during the 70’s and 80’s.  There are also shades of Coppola’s The Godfather, but essentially Nayakan is a very Indian story, full of emotion and seeped in the violence and grime of the slums of the city.  Kamal Hassan won a National Award for his performance as did P.C. Sriram for cinematography and Thotta Tharani for best art direction, all of which were very justly earned.  The film also features Saranya Ponvannan in her screen début and a generally notable cast including Nasser, Janagaraj, Delhi Ganesh and Tinnu Anand.  But above all this is Kamal Haasan’s film and he is riveting in a stand-out performance which sees him grow from a young man to an ageing don in the slums of Mumbai.

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The film starts with the young Velu Nayakar being used by the police to track down and kill his father, a prominent anti-government unionist. It’s a brutal introduction and it’s certainly apt as the film doesn’t shy away from showing the violence associated with the underworld.  The poignant refrain of Thenpaandi Cheemayile comes from the beating the young child suffers, and the song is reprised throughout the film to underscore the importance of pivotal scenes in Velu Nayakar’s life.  This clip shows two of the versions and, although they both occur much later in the film it’s not really the song rather than the images I wanted to include.  However it is worth noting the cinematography and the way P.C. Sriram uses light so effectively in these two snippets.  The song is sung by Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal Haasan himself.

Velu arrives in Mumbai and is adopted by a small time smuggler who instils in Velu the concept that any slightly less than legal act isn’t wrong if it helps someone.  Over time Velu starts to stand up for the rights of the Tamil people who live in the slums, but it is the murder of his adopted father by a police officer that tips the balance and sets him against the law as he takes his revenge.  However even this act is tempered when Velu comes to understand that the dead police officer has a mentally retarded son and he gives Kelkar’s widow money to ensure that both she and her son will survive.

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This dichotomy occurs throughout the film where Velu is shown as a very human character who smuggles and murders but also helps out when members of his community are arrested or when a child is seriously ill.  He’s a man who makes mistakes and pays dearly for them, but he’s also someone who is trying to make life just a little better for the people around him.  One such instance is when the slum is about to be bulldozed to make way for a factory.  Velu organises a gang of the locals and goes to the developer’s house, tearing it apart to drive home the point that these are people’s homes which are being destroyed, not just a piece of land. It also looks like a lot of fun as the gang rips apart furnishings and throws furniture from the roof!

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Velu isn’t a don who drives around in the cavalcades of vehicles more commonly seen in Southern Indian films, but instead he has a fleet of ambulances and lives in a house which is easily accessible for the people of the slum, making Velu Nayakan a more realistic and believable character.  There are a few odd moments however, such as an item-style dance number on a boat, and an instance where Velu does appear to be channelling the Godfather given his choice of natty pin-striped suit.  

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More commonly however the dim lighting and traditional dress suit the more modest and unassuming Velu, who seems more embarrassed than anything by the adulation he receives.

Mani Ratnam’s screenplay is most effective in describing the relationships between Velu and the other characters, in particular those of his immediate family.  His first meeting with Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who becomes his wife, is beautifully acted and filmed as the two meet in a brothel.  Velu and his friend Selvam (Janagaraj) end up at the brothel after smuggling success and while Selvam appears to have been there before, Velu looks a little more uncomfortable and out of place.  He does manage to enjoy this great song though before heading upstairs for some more intimate amusement.

When Velu gets upstairs, Neela is waiting in the room and almost the first thing she does is ask if she can leave early to study for her exams.  Velu’s reaction is as awkward and confused as would be expected and Kamal Haasan shows this in his indecision as to whether he should lie on the bed or sit on the chair as she studies.  Even his hesitancy the next morning, when he’s not sure if he should wake Neela or not, nicely illustrates Velu’s more compassionate side and this is brought out again when the couple do eventually marry.  Saranya is dignified as Neela, despite starting out in a brothel and she brings a very warm and sympathetic presence into the harsh reality of the slums.

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P.C. Sriram makes good use of the set here as initially Velu stands in the light while the mirror shows a shadowy figure through the curtains of the bed in the darkness of the room beyond. It’s very effective and throughout the film there is a similar use of light and shadow with many shots framed by pillars, doorways or other architectural features.

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The best scenes in the film are those between Velu’s son Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and daughter Charumati (Karthika).  Surya hero worships his father just as much as do the local people in the slum, and he wants nothing more than to be like him. He stands in for his father when a member of the community comes to Velu for help and he sees nothing wrong with the life of a gangster.  However Charu has a very different opinion and eventually she leaves her father after some very emotive scenes where Charu repudiates her father’s lifestyle.  She feels that his style of life is entirely wrong no matter how many people he helps, and Velu is helpless in the face of her rejection.  Kamal Haasan and Karthika are absolutely brilliant together in these scenes and also later on when Charu turns up later married to Velu’s new nemesis, the new Assistant Commissioner (Nasser).  Charu refuses to allow her father to see his grandson in another tear jerker moment, although the most poignant scene in the film between Velu and his grandson is reserved for the end.

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There are many small moments and clever touches in the film which make it so enthralling.  From the joy seen at the Holi celebrations to the despair when Neela dies and her sari unravels in Velu’s hands, each scene is full of little details which add to the drama.  Kamal Haasan provides much of the emotion and driving force in the film, but all the actors are excellent even in the minor roles. Tinnu Anand deserves special mention for his small but important role as Ajith Kelkar, the grown up mentally retarded son of the police officer, and Nasser is very effective in his short time on screen towards the end of the film.

Beautifully haunting music, gritty realistic scenes and an outstanding performance by Kamal Haasan make this a film well worth hunting down, and it really deserves to be restored and released with English subtitles.  Nayakan is an absolute classic from Mani Ratnam, and it’s one I thoroughly recommend. A full 5 stars.