50 Tamil movies to watch before you die — 33 — Nayagan

Past few choices in this list have been popular ones, and this one will be the pinnacle of popular options. Not so surprisingly, there was a discussion on the main page of this list on whether I should add Nayagan or not to the list (since it had influences of The Godfather). But, how can I miss a landmark movie that is only one of the two Indian films to be listed on the Time magazine list 100 best movies of all-time. I think there are no Indian movie lists that will be complete without Nayagan. The choice was inevitable.

Nayagan (The Hero) (1987)

Nayagan is a story of how a child of an anti-government union leader becomes a do-gooder Don of the Dharavi slums in Bombay (now Mumbai). Sakthivel as a kid stabs a police inspector runs away to Mumbai and take refuge with Hussain.

When Hussain falls ill, Sakthivel takes over his smuggling business and demands more commission. The smuggling bosses use Police Inspector Kelkar to kill Hussain inside the lockup. This infuriates Sakthivel, and he murders the Inspector in a fit of rage. When a realtor tries to resettle the Dharavi slums, Sakthivel fights for them, and he slowly becomes the saviour of the community.

Meanwhile, he meets Neela in the red-light district of Mumbai and falls in love because of her innocence. They get married, but their happiness is short-lived as she is killed during an attack by Sakthivel’s smuggling rivals. He sends his children Surya and Charumathi to Chennai for safety while he continues his smuggling activities here. Gradually, his power grows in Mumbai and he is fondly called as Velu Naicker. He becomes so powerful that even police officers approach him for help. Surya (played by Nizhalgal Ravi) and Charumathi (Karthika) return to Bombay as adults. While Surya tries to take his father’s footsteps, Charu disapproves of her father’s ways. In one of the altercations, Surya is killed, and Charu blames her father for the loss.

She leaves her father and after few years, a new Asst. Commissioner (played by Nasser) tries to stop Velu Naicker’s activities. Velu finds that the police officer is married to his daughter. ACP tries to arrest Velu, but people in his area protect him to the extent that some even immolate themselves. Seeing the loss, Velu offers himself to the ACP through his daughter. In the end, the court acquits Velu but Ajith (Tinnu Anand), mentally deranged son of the police officer whom Velu killed years back, shoots him.

Why is the movie special?

  1. Nayagan is the epitome of a perfect combination of cinematic elements. The movie stands as educational material for directors, screenplay writers, actors, cinematographers, art directors and music composers.
  2. There are reams and reams of articles that have been written about Kamal Hassan’s acting in the movie. In short, he was phenomenal. But what makes Nayagan special is the brilliance of supporting actors. It was the debut of sixteen-year-old Saranya — the matured portrayal of innocence is unmatchable. The underplay by Delhi Ganesh as Iyer or the exuberance of Janagaraj or restraint Nizhagal Ravi is a treat to watch. Even the tiniest characters make a significant impact in the movie. Tinnu Anand as Ajit Kelkar (who eventually kills Velu Naicker to avenge his father’s death) and Karthika as Velu Naicker’s daughter Charumathi portrayed their characters with a panache. Nasser had his breakthrough role in the movie and became a go-to actor for character roles since then.
  3. Although the movie was inspired by “The Godfather” (more on it in the trivia section), Mani Ratnam localised the screenplay and was based on a real-life Varadaraja Mudaliar. The screenplay itself is a master class and shows how to blend melodrama and realism. The sharp stinging dialogues (Balakumaran), dark visuals (PC Shriram — there are articles/videos discussing his lowlight cinematography) and excellent editing (Lenin-VT Vijayan) make Nayagan special.
  4. One of least discussed aspects is the art direction for the movie. The majority of the film was shot in sets erected by Thotta Tharani as the producer didn’t have the budget to shoot in Mumbai. If you go back and watch the movie, you will be able to see the brilliance of Thotta Tharani.
  5. The music of the film is still an enigma. While the songs have the rusticity, the finesse in the background score will baffle you. The best example is the scene where Velu Naicker learns about his son’s demise. It stands as one of the best original scores ever made in Tamil cinema, if not world cinema.

Why is the movie on the list?

1. Nayagan is the movie that positioned Tamil cinema at the rightful place in World Cinema. It had the appeal that International audience and critics looked for. It entertained and engaged the audience in the best possible way. It ended up as one of the two movies in the Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 movies compiled by Richard Corliss.

2. Nayagan became the benchmark for the screenplay, cinematography, editing, art direction, music and acting. If Udhiripookal inspired a generation of movie makers, the next generation was inspired by Nayagan. It became virtually impossible to make a Don movie without having an inspiration from Nayagan

3. For making us yearn for Kamal-Mani Ratnam to come back together. Probably, they won’t because they have decided that they can’t match what they have created.


Some of the trivia is based on two articles written by Kamal Hassan and Muktha Srinivasan. The entire sequence is based on what they have claimed in the articles.

1. Nayagan was originally produced by Muktha Films — V Srinivasan and V Ramaswamy. They ran into financial issues before the release of the movie and Mani Ratnam’s brother G Venkateswaran released it under Sujatha Cine Arts4.

2. In 2012, Kamal Hassan wrote an article about the difficulties he and Mani had with the producer Muktha Srinivasan. Muktha Srinivasan responded with another article explaining his stance. The mudslinging was unwarranted and behind the scene stories of Nayakan was as complex as the movie itself.

3. The movie was dubbed in Telugu as Nayakudu and was released in Hindi as Velu Nayakan in 1994. The movie was remade in Hindi as Dayavan by Feroze Khan with Vinod Khanna in the lead. Kamal declined to reprise the role4.

4. Muktha Srinivasan has revealed that originally he wanted to remake The Godfather with Sivaji Ganesan reprising Marlon Brando’s role while Kamal Hassan playing Al Pacino’s role2.

5. Kamal claimed in his article that there was no budget for makeup, Kamal sought the help of his guru Michael Westmore who worked with him in Oru Kaidhiyin Diary. Most of the special makeup was handled by Kamal Hassan himself. The costumes were handled by Sarika1.

6. The film was shot in sequence in order to allow Kamal to pluck his hair to become bald for the final sequences. They made sure it didn’t look anything like what he did before1.

7. Kamal also stated that the scene that looked exactly like the murder scenes from the Godfather was because there was limited budget and the original scene was used in Devar Magan1.

8. It seems both Mani Ratnam and Kamal didn’t like the original climax. So, when they met the Varadaraja Mudhaliar, Mani asked him about how he foresees his death. The current climax was based on his idea1.

9. Muktha Srinivasan has stated that Kamal Hassan didn’t help in getting a no-objection certificate from Varadaraja Mudhaliar to release the movie. The CBFC board in Chennai didn’t allow the film to be released as it was based on a living person. Muktha got the certificate from Mudhaliar through a writer, Mathioli Shanmugam and the Bombay CBFC allowed the movie to be released with an A certificate2.

10. Muktha Srinivasan credits low-light cinematography to the introduction of high-speed negative film in 1985–1986. He also claimed that the Narayanan of Gemini Labs increased the brightness while printing of the final copy2.

11. He has also stated that he should be credited for the introduction of Saranya’s character as the original screenplay was darker2.

12. After all this, Nayagan did win a bunch of national awards. Kamal bagged his second National Award for the Best Actor while PC Sriram and Thotta Tharani won national awards for Cinematography and Art Direction4.

13. Nayagan was screened at the International Film Festival of India and it was the official entry for Oscars from India that year4 .

14. Ananda Vikatan review board gave the movie a whopping 60 marks in their review. It also mentioned that Ilaiyaraaja’s music is non-existent.

15. Kamal convinced Janakaraj and Delhi Ganesh to cut their hair and grow it slowly in order to get old along with Velu Nayakan’s character3.

16. The tune of Nila Adhu Vanathu Mele was initially composed for “Thenpandi Seemaiyile”. As Mani Ratnam felt that it could become a peppy number, Ilaiyaraaja composed another tune for “Thenpandi Seemaiyile” (see video below). If you carefully listen to the Ilaiyaraaja version of “Thenpandi Seemaiyile”, he sings “yaar adicharo” (rustic) while Kamal pronounces it as “yaar aditharo”(refined). The level of detailing is beyond imagination.

17. In order to give a period feel to “Naan Sirithal Deepavali”, two yesteryear singers were brought back by Ilaiyaraaja — Jamuna Rani and MS Rajeshwari.

18. The location for “Naan Sirithal Deepavali” and Kamal’s house was situated on Mount Road. It was an old dilapidated building owned by The Indian Express group and was called “The Indian Express Building”. It was used to shoot fight sequences but Thotta Tharani converted it to what you see in the movie. And, can you guess which building is currently situated at the same place? — The Taj Mount Road3.

19. The sequence in which Kamal uses salt sacks to smuggle drugs was copied from Once Upon a time in America

20. The entire Dharavi that you see except for some chase sequences was built by Thotta Tharani in Venus Studios. These are some of the original drawings for the set 3

21. Nayagan and Agni Natchathiram was started at the same time. Agni Natchathiram was stopped in between and started again after the release of Nayagan. As the songs are composed right at the start, Ilaiyaraaja recorded Nayagan in the morning and Agni Natchathiram in the afternoon. The songs were diametrically opposite to each other and this should have been an exhilarating experience for all those involved.

22. Mani Ratnam casts unknown child artists for significant roles. I and another friend went in search of certain child artists he cast. One of them was Aditya Modi who utters the most popular dialogue ever — “Neenga Nallavara Kettavara”. Aditya Modi is now a sound engineer and works with AR Rahman. It became a quiz question in one of my quizzes. Although we knew most of the Anjali Kids, we tried to track the sister but the effort was futile.

23. According to Kamal Hassan, Raja Krishnamoorthy was the one who introduced him to Mani Ratnam. He was working as a manager in Chola Sheraton and so he was fondly called as “Chola Krishnamoorthy”. He has been credited as Associated Director and we know him as “Kitty” — the same actor who made his mark as villain in movies like Sathya, Soorasamharam etc., He also directed Dasarathan — with Sarathkumar, Sivakumar and Heera in the lead under Aalayam Productions — Mani Ratnam’s production house.

24. Varadarajan Mudaliar was a don who was as powerful as Haji Mastan and Karim Lala in Mumbai during 70s and 80s. He was born in Thoothukudi, went to Bombay (now Mumbai), worked as a porter in VT Station and joined forces with Haji Mastan in smuggling dock cargo. He was indeed popular with the masses because of his philanthropy and died due to illness in 19886.

Nayagan is a landmark movie, and the credit shouldn’t lie with one person. Every technician and actor involved in the film deserve the credit for this masterpiece.


  1. “Of course Velu Nayakan doesn’t dance” — Article by Kamal Hasaan — The Hindu dated 18.01.2013
  2. Living in the past glory — Article by Muktha Srinivasan — The Hindu dated 18.04.2013
  3. Conversations with Mani Ratnam — Baradwaj Rangan
  4. The Best of Tamil Cinema — Part 2 by G.Dhananjayan
  5. Cover Image credit — The Hindu Businessline — The Man who made Nayakan
  6. When Tamil dons ruled Bombay — The Times of India

YouTube link for the movie