NAYAGAN (Mani Ratnam, 1987)

“Are you a good man or a bad man?” the little boy asks his imprisoned grandfather, an underworld Indian don. The old man, who has spent a lifetime helping others and righting social wrongs, and also killing, answers, “I don’t know.”
     Nor do I, in a film that has given me a wrenching moral workout, and one of the most brilliant gangster films I have seen, Mani Ratnam’s 1987 Nayagan, which recently made Time‘s list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
     It is often compared to The Godfather, I suppose because it’s a gangster chronicle covering many years and because its leading figure, based on an actual person, dearly loves his family—his wife, his son, his daughter, his closest associates. But Nayagan is a good film. Its frames aren’t studied, like those of Coppola’s film; violence in Ratnam’s film is horrific, not titillating, coldly manipulative of our enjoyment of mayhem, as is the case with Coppola’s. Whereas The Godfather is a commercial advertisement for the Mob, Nayagan is a humane piece of work.
     It is also lushly gorgeous, lyrically lovely in many passages, and spiritedly punctuated by songs and street dances. It’s a people’s film, at times an outright musical, that writer-director Ratnam brings in inexorably to a solemn finish.
     It is absorbing for all of its 2½ hours and sometimes riveting, but be forewarned: there is a Dickensian contrivance/surprise revelation that will please some and mess with others.

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