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35 years of Nayakan: Interesting facts about the Mani Ratnam-Kamal Haasan film

We provide some fascinating tidbits about the making of Nayakan.

35 years of Nayakan: Interesting facts about the Mani Ratnam-Kamal Haasan film
Kamal Haasan in Nayakan
  • S Subhakeerthana

Last Updated: 09.33 AM, Oct 22, 2022


One of Kamal Haasan's most well-known films was Nayakan (1987), in which he acted in conjunction with Mani Ratnam's talent for precise detail. The narrative opens on the tranquil Tamil Nadu coast. A little boy named Velu is on the run after a shootout between some groves claimed the life of his father, a trade-union leader. After exacting revenge, Velu flees to seek safety in the slums of Dharavi. He resides in a cramped, gloomy room after being adopted by a foster father. The peculiar life of a vigilante justice starts here. The picture unfolds with fragmented incidents that are expertly knitted together, much like “montage cinema” of the 1920s.

Kamal Haasan in Nayakan
Kamal Haasan in Nayakan

  • Sivaji Ganesan agreed to feature in the movie, after Muktha Srinivasan, told him a story that was influenced by The Godfather, in the middle of the 1980s. It was confirmed that Amala and Kamal Haasan would also appear. But, Ananthu, Kamal Haasan's then-associate, believed that Sivaji Ganesan would be the focus of the movie rather than Haasan. The project was ultimately shelved.
  • Mani Ratnam received a cassette of Pagla Kahin Ka from Muktha Srinivasan when he visited his residence. After seeing the movie, Mani Ratnam declined the remake offer, claiming it wasn't his style. Instead, Mani Ratnam suggested two scripts: one was based on the biography of underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar, and the other was similar to Dirty Harry (1971) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Kamal Haasan chose the former, as he was so impressed by the plot. It was called Nayakan (Hero).
A still from Nayakan
A still from Nayakan

  • Notably, Mani Ratnam had previously told producer RC Prakash the concept while it was still only an idea a few years prior, but it wasn't picked up at that time.
  • Kamal Haasan needed to look as authentic as possible, according to director Mani Ratnam. Unlike the typical, bearded, and suit-wearing gangsters, he favoured Haasan dressed in traditional Hindu outfits. He believed that a thick beard would hide his jawline, which would indicate that a younger actor is playing the part. Initially unsure of his appearance, Kamal Haasan wanted to sport a beard resembling his older appearance from Sagara Sangamam (1983).
Mani Ratnam on the sets of Nayakan
Mani Ratnam on the sets of Nayakan

  • Mani Ratnam, however, insisted that Kamal Haasan not embrace a look that was similar to any of his earlier movies. After speaking with numerous skilled makeup artists, Kamal Haasan finally decided to wear dentures to give Velu Nayakan, an aged appearance by adding some weight to his jaw.
  • To make Janagaraj and Delhi Ganesh's characters convincingly their age, Kamal Haasan asked them to have their hair cut and assisted in the makeup for the other actors on the sets. As they were on a low budget, Ulaganayagan saved Mani Ratnam from using a dummy by purchasing his gun to shoot.

  • For the action scenes in Nayakan, Mani Ratnam had set aside about 1.2 million. Jim Allen, best known for his work on the Sholay (1975) film, was picked to make those sleek. However, he was fired from the movie after three days because he wanted Rs 200,000 a day. The producer Srinivasan was unable to afford him.
  • The initial schedule for the movie, which began in November 1986 and lasted 10 days, was abandoned because Kamal Haasan wasn't happy with the scenes that had been shot at that time. This led to script revisions.
  • Mani Ratnam later disclosed that a three-day test shoot was conducted after the initial shoot without Muktha Srinivasan's knowledge. Kamal Haasan donned a variety of get-ups during those days, but none of them was used in the movie. However, the test shots were beneficial in getting the technical aspects in order.

  • Although the crew shot Nayakan in Dharavi for 15 days, using pictures as references, Thota Tharrani built a Dharavi set at Venus Studios in Chennai. The ghetto environment was recreated with the help of thousands of young artists. Pigeons were also brought.
  • Childhood portions of Velu Nayakan before he comes to Bombay were shot on the OMR in just over a day. The principal photography included this as well.
  • Initially, Mani Ratnam intended to finish the movie in 60 days and with 70 rolls of film. The remaining scenes of Nayakan, including those depicting Velu Nayakan's childhood in the city, were filmed in Bombay.
Nayakan poster
Nayakan poster

  • The original print played for three hours once it was finished. Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam wanted Srinivasan to release the movie as-is. But, Muktha Srinivasan asked editor B Lenin to cut the sequences he thought were unneeded, because he believed viewers would never watch Nayakan due to its length. According to Srinivasan, the outcome “gave life to the movie”.
  • It was Varadaraja Mudaliar who recommended to Ratnam that Velu Nayakan should die in the end.
  • Producer Muktha Srinivasan lists Once Upon a Time in America (1984) as another influence on Nayakan in addition to The Godfather. But Mani Ratnam never acknowledged that The Godfather served as an inspiration for Nayakan. He responded when asked if he will create a sequel to Nayakan: “Never. After seeing a movie, you're relieved to have finished it”.

  • Nayakan received National Awards in the categories of Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. Also, it was India's official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988 at the 60th edition; however, it wasn't shortlisted among the final entries.
  • In its list of the “All-Time 100 Best Films” published in 2005, TIME magazine listed Nayakan. A superb gangster epic in the Godfather style was the tagline TIME gave to the movie.
  • Additionally, Nayakan was listed as one of the top 13 movies of all time by The Moving Arts Film Journal.
On the sets of Nayakan
On the sets of Nayakan

  • Mani Ratnam desired a “fresh face” to play Neela because he believed a newcomer would represent the role with the necessary vigour and zeal.
  • The well-known Bengali actor Debashree, who played the lead in Manaivi Ready, claimed that she was asked to play Neela but turned it down because she thought it would be impossible for her to speak Tamil.
  • After passing her screen test, Saranya was subsequently added to the cast. According to Mani Ratnam, she was the only person to have auditioned for the role. And, it was Muktha Srinivasan, who came up with the idea for the scene, in which Neela studies for her math examinations.
  • Saranya's father (Malayalam filmmaker AB Raj) was against her taking up a career in films, but eventually, she and her mother managed to convince him.
  • Raghuvaran was considered to play Charumati's husband, but Kamal Haasan recommended Nassar to Mani Ratnam.

  • The location where the Taj Club House is now was used to film the song ‘Naan Sirithal Deepavali’. The Indian Express building was the name of the former structure that was there. The exterior was turned into a brothel by Thota Tharrani, who also used the opposite end of it as the location of Velu's home.
  • Nayakan is famous for its frame-within-the-frame filmmaking technique, which PC Sreeram recommended to Mani Ratnam.
  • In a 2012 interview, Kamal ridiculed Muktha Srinivasan, saying that the latter “wasn't engaged in films as an art” and that he “wasn't enthusiastic about shooting the film in Bombay”. Muktha Srinivasan responded by accusing Haasan of “distorting the facts for motives best known to him” in an article headlined “living in past glory”.

  • Nayakan was a commercial success and ran for almost 175 days in theatres before being designated a silver jubilee picture. The film faced stiff competition from Rajinikanth's Manithan.
  • Rajinikanth had long wanted to play the lead in a movie like Nayakan. One reason is that he did both Kaala and Kabali.
  • Nayakan “did tend to celebrate violence and depict the anti-social, smuggler-king in an approving and sympathetic light”, emulating Robin Hood, claimed film historian Theodore Baskaran.
  • Nayakan was Ilaiyaraaja's 400th film, as a music director. All the songs were written by Pulamaipithan, except for Nila Adhu Vaanathumele, which Ilaiyaraaja wrote.
  • Muktha Srinivasan thought that without Velu Nayakan's wife, the film would have involved more violence and wouldn't be suitable for a family audience, and suggested that Mani Ratnam write a role for her.
  • Despite appearing in Vijay's Puli, Prabhas' Saaho and Dulquer Salmaan's Sita Ramam, Bollywood actor Tinu Anand's most well-known Tamil film remains Nayakan.

(Nayakan streams on Amazon Prime Video)