Exactly 25 years ago, the groundbreaking Nayakan was released. It has since been voted one of Time magazine’s top 100 films, but all that the people working on it then wanted was ‘to be different’.

Whether it’s the story of Caesar or Gandhi or the Rotary Club, it starts off as something very small, without the respect it deserves. Nayakan was no exception. We never thought it would be selected as one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest films of all time, or that people will remember it after 25 years. We just wanted to be different.

Perhaps due to my insecurity about dropping out of school, I’ve always surrounded myself with writers and thinkers, and one such person I met was Subramaniam, whom friends called Subbu and who eventually became Mani Ratnam. He was introduced to me by Kitty (Raja Krishnamurthy). Kitty was the manager at Chola Sheraton. We used to call him “Chola” Krishnamurthy. Mani, then as now, was a quiet man, and Kitty used to explain Mani’s ideas. Slowly I started liking the silent man more— not that I liked Kitty less, but I thought this guy was deep. Only after he signed up for Nayakan did I realise that he was the son of ‘Venus’ Ratnam Iyer, with a deep-rooted connection to Tamil cinema. I knew he was GV’s (the financier G. Venkateswaran) brother, but the Venus connection never struck me and he never threw this fact at my face.

This was the time I was writing Raajapaarvai, which came out in 1980. Mani wanted to know about the nuances of screenwriting. He used to love a Joseph Hayes novel called The Long Dark Night. He said he wanted to write something like that. We kept discussing various stories. We were all fans of Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather. We kept saying how long could Tamil cinema keep showing the underworld as people with checked shirts and a kerchief knotted around the neck and laughing like the old villain P.S. Veerappa.

Then Mani said he was doing his first film in Kannada, Pallavi Anupallavi. I was busy with Raajapaarvai, and I was also getting into Hindi films, so I couldn’t do this film. But we kept meeting and talking. After making Vikram, in 1986, I realised I should have asked Mani to direct it. It was his cup of tea. He asked me what had happened, because the story was so different from what I’d told him. I told him that this was bound to happen. I said, “The intelligence of (the writer) Sujatha and Kamal Haasan was bound to be diluted by Kodambakkam. It will happen to you too.”

A little later, the producer-director Muktha Srinivasan, with whom I’d made films like Simla Special, said he wanted to make another film with me. I suggested Mani Ratnam’s name. He was amused because the hero usually suggests the name of the heroine in the film, and here I was recommending a director.

Mani told me two stories. One was a gangster story. He said it was based in Bombay. I said that was the way to go, because the film, then, would have a national reach. Muktha Films had a reputation for being tight-fisted. When Mr. Srinivasan heard that we wanted to shoot in Bombay, he wasn’t happy. He just wanted us to make a film — any film — that would net him a profit of Rs. 5 lakh. That is how he was used to working. Films were a business. He wasn’t interested in films as art.

But we said we’d shoot only part of the film in Bombay, and he half-heartedly agreed. Then, we wanted an international look for the action scenes. Unlike Tamil films of the time, Mani had marked out a separate budget for the action, around Rs. 12 lakh. We flew down Jim Allen, the action director and cinematographer, from England. He’d worked out the stunts for films like Sholay. But Mr. Srinivasan packed him off after three days, saying he couldn’t afford him. “We can’t keep spending like this,” he told me. “I think Hindi films have spoilt you.”

But in the three days he was here, he gave Mani and P.C. Sreeram (the cinematographer) many ideas. As he spoke, they actually took down notes about how to topple a car and how to show a bullet leaving a head and how you can shift focus and make a stunt look more effective. When Jim left, I was totally down. Mani doesn’t show his emotions. But I decided to use the props I’d got for other films, like polystyrene bottles that I could bring down and break on Inspector Kelkar’s head. We had gone into such details.

There was no budget for makeup, so I spoke to my guru, Michael Westmore. I’ve trained under him, and we worked together for the first time on Oru Kaidhiyin Diary. I learnt how to apply old-age makeup myself in front of a magnifying mirror, with just an assistant standing by with a fan to dry layer after layer of wrinkled-latex on my face. There was no budget for the costumes, so Sarika moved in.

At some point, I decided that to get into the character, I need ittar (floral perfume). I think I may have been getting ahead of myself. Sarika couldn’t find ittar, and I was getting angry because I was multitasking on this movie — doing makeup for myself, for others, getting props, even cutting the hair of the extras — and I was upset that she couldn’t find something as simple as ittar. Finally, she concocted something and made me believe it was ittar. I was very satisfied. I felt like the character and I knew I could perform well.

Mani had seen me play an old man in Kadal Meengal, Sagara Sangamam and Swathi Muthyam. He said he didn’t want me to look like that, with a wig. I said that, in that case, we’d have to shoot the film in sequence, and I’d have to pluck out my hair towards the end. Simply shaving off the hair wasn’t enough, as the shadow would show. It wouldn’t look like a real bald spot. We decided to make the character prognathic, so I brought in the dentist who’d fashioned my teeth for my role in Kalyanaraman. He made a piece to make my jaw bigger.

All of this was happening without fanfare. We could sense that we were hot on the trail of something good. We — Mani, myself, Sreeram, Thotta Tharrani (the art director whom I’d introduced in Raajapaarvai) — were all collaborating as a team. This wasn’t about showing up only as per the call sheet. As we weren’t allowed to shoot to the extent we wanted in Bombay, Tharrani built the Dharavi set in Madras. When we went to Bombay finally, we shot a few scenes in the real Dharavi — cutaways like me chasing the inspector.

The film was shaping up very well and I was very happy. I was bragging to everyone about what a good film we were making. One day, I was ready to play the scene where Velu Nayakan reacts to his son’s death. We rehearsed the scene. I told Mani I wanted some build up. I thought the junior artists should react to the death first, which would help the funeral pallor to set in. And by the time I came to the corpse, the grief would have seeped into me. I would be in gear to play the scene.

But when the time came, Mani was standing there glumly, and Sreeram was sitting with his head in his hands. I thought there was a technical glitch. I said, “What is the problem? I’m ready. Let’s go.” He showed me a small note from the producer saying that the day’s quota of film stock had been used up, and they had to wait till he sanctioned new stock. This was the producer’s way of making sure we shot responsibly, without going overboard with takes. I was livid. I called my office and asked them to bring the film stock they had in 20 minutes, and in those 20 minutes I was ready to cry. I really felt like my child was dying that day. So the producer probably helped my performance in the film.

He was also indirectly responsible for the scene where the man is garrotted in the car, which is just like The Godfather. I was helping out with the action scenes, and I had written this scenario that I later used in my Thevar Magan, where a truck, with a cargo of steel rods jutting out, reverses and rams into this car and kills him. But Mr. Srinivasan wouldn’t allow a car to be demolished; so we were forced to use the scene from The Godfather. He wasn’t a bad man. He was just from an older school. And he did help at times. I must give him his due. The scene where Velu’s future wife studies for her exams in the brothel was suggested by him.

Mani was not happy with the climax. I was not happy with it. By the time, I was tired. I wanted to get this film done. When we were in Bombay, we spoke to Varada Bhai (Varadaraja Mudaliar on whose life the film is based), and Mani had the audacity to ask him, “How do you foresee your death?” He said he would either die peacefully in a hospital (which is what happened) but left to the police, who couldn’t prove anything against him, they would bring him out of court and someone would slap him. This would cause a riot and they would then shoot him. This sparked the climax in Mani’s head.

The way Kelkar’s death was filmed (and later, the death of Velu Nayakan’s son), I knew Mani was making a really good movie. And also the kind of movie that we all dreamt of making. During the Holi sequence, I told Mani that Velu Nayakan should not dance. And Mani agreed. No director at that time would have agreed to this. Earlier in my career, I told Bharathiraja that the psychopathic killer in Sigappu Rojakkal should not be singing and dancing. But he deflected my objections saying that the song (Ninaivo oru paravai) was a dream song, shot from the heroine’s point of view. At least that made sense. But other times, people simply wouldn’t listen to me, and here Mani simply said, “Of course Velu Nayakan doesn’t dance.”

We stumbled a lot while making this film. But Mani just got up and dusted himself off and went on to the next thing. He kept his cool. He was tethered throughout the shoot. He withstood storms. And he was not afraid to surround himself with strong contributors like the writer Balakumaran, whose ease with the local syntax and dialect helped to compensate for Mani’s urbanity. There were no egos on the set. Mani would shoot down ideas. He would also accept ideas. When Velu is taken to a brothel in a song sequence, I expressed my exasperation by rolling my eyes. Mani told me that this was a very Western thing, and asked if I could give a more Indian expression. That was a very happy day for me. Suddenly I had someone who noticed these small things that make up a performance.

Nayakan was one of the films — along with the films I’ve done with Balu Mahendra, K. Vishwanath and, of course, my guru K. Balachander — that made me decide that I should not be doing short-lived masala movies anymore. Except nostalgia, they added nothing to my career. I was fed up. I was nearing middle-age. I thought, “If I don’t do this now, then when will I do it?” After wrapping the film, I was so happy that I took Sarika and went for a walk around the empty set. I remember just sitting there with a satisfied sigh.

There was a screening of the film at Savera hotel. One of the viewers was so moved that he fell at the producer’s feet. I urged Mani to go and talk to people but he just walked away saying that there was no glory in this. He was right. I told the producer that he was going to get awards. He said he hadn’t made the film to get awards, merely to make profits. And he was nervous about the film’s dark lighting and so on. He complained that I had spoilt his chances of making a profit, which is when I offered to buy the film from him. Later, GV bought the film. And after the film came out, what the producer feared became a fashion. Every Tamil film began to have under lit sequences. And the heroes began to gel their hair.

When it was time for the film’s silver-jubilee celebrations, Mr. Srinivasan’s brother passed away.We cancelled our celebration after all had gathered at the venue. The entire crew took garlands and went to his home and paid homage to the departed soul. So there was no rancour with Mr. Srinivasan. We were all like family. There was just frustration.

Had the producer been more cooperative and had he had more vision, Mani would have ensured that the film came out better. He would have also been a healthier man. His heart attack might have happened at a later stage. Mani was worn out by all the extracurricular activities, which are not part of filmmaking. I am always asked when Mani and I will work together again. I don’t know if we can summon up that same feeling of doing a film for the pleasure. Now there’s too much pressure. And I don’t blame Mani. He’s been so tormented by producers that now he wants to make films exactly the way he wants. And if I would be an impediment, he would be right in removing me.

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