When you have an actor like
Nagesh with such a rich body of work, it is easy to forget their roles in films
that didn’t achieve commercial success or attain the status of a classic. Nammavar (1994) was a commercial
failure at the time of its release. Even
over the years, it has not attained the kind of cult status as some of Kamal
Hassan’s commercial failures have, like Raja Paarvai, Hey! Ram or
Anbe Sivam. If my assessment is
correct, the film has a small but loyal fan base. I think it is a fine film, with a plethora of
polished performances. In sharp contrast
to his other films of that period, Kamal, despite headlining the cast, took on
a subtly supporting role in many of the scenes, exhibiting just enough emotion
to serve as a counterpoint to the more demonstrative acting of others. This choice worked very well, given his
character in the film. That of a
well-meaning but curt professor, one whose brusque nature is more of a self-imposed
shield to guard himself from any sympathy or pity owing to his health
condition. The second most impactful
performance in this film was that of Gautami’s who essayed her charming role
with utmost conviction. But the actor
who, in the span of a few minutes, leaves a lasting impact is one who has been
an idol of Kamal all his acting life – Nagesh.
Until the film is past the
two-hour mark, there is hardly much of a trace of what is to come from
Nagesh. He plays professor Prabhakar
Rao, a pragmatic man, who has resigned to functioning, even if not thriving, in
the system that he finds himself in.
Unlike the Kamal character, he does not think that he can effect much of
a change and by-and-large, wants to stay out of trouble. This does not mean that he is morose or
world-weary. On the contrary, he enjoys
the little pleasures of life such as dancing with gay abandon with his
daughter. (The dance with his daughter has the most heartbreaking of payoffs in
the end.) He stands by the Kamal character in the latter’s pursuit of a healthy environment in the college. But the moment
his daughter warns Karan (by suggesting that she will beat him with her
slipper), he is slightly nervous and wary of the implications of her act. Of course, Nagesh, being the consummate actor
that he is, just drops hints, saving the true gamut of expressions and gestures
until the pre-climax.
The dance sequence with his daughter:
From the time he tentatively
enters Kamal’s house, worried about his daughter’s absence till the moment he
collapses in anguish at the cemetery, it is a 11-minute extended sequence that
is entirely focused on him. And what an
arresting performance he delivers.
When he first enters Kamal’s
house, he is apologetic to a fault, seeing Gautami. To the point that he offers to return later,
despite his daughter’s absence. It is a
psychologically acute observation. Because
when we are in despair, we often tend to exhibit that extra bit of
tentativeness towards everything. At the
police station though, he erupts when the inspector urges him and Kamal to check
whether the girl who was arrested on charges of prostitution is the girl they
are looking for. The force with which
Nagesh barks, “Inspector! You should
know whom you are talking to” is the first sign that such an accusation – even
if false – is an unforgivable affront to his and his family's dignity. When he sees his girl in the lockup, he
collapses to the chair. (In order to not
disrupt the emotional flow, the scene shifts straight to Kamal’s house, sparing
us the police formalities.)
There is a touching visual of
Kamal and Nagesh leaning against the gate.
This is again, from a psychological perspective, a delicate nuance. When we are in the throes of depression,
sometimes a quiet moment with a trusted one can offer the kind of solace that
words can’t. In this scene, Nagesh’s
voice modulation is masterful. Listen to
the way he says, “Thalai-la ezhuthu” after a pause.
The sequence that opens the next morning is what truly lifts Nagesh’s performance to a different plane altogether. This is unlike any grieving scene that we have witnessed in Tamil Cinema. I remember reading that Kamal’s advice to Nagesh was, “You should not cry but you must make the audience cry.” And how. Starting with how he grabs Senthil and asks in a commanding tone, “Nirmala-va da? Nirmala-va?” Nagesh has us in a trance. Once he enters the house, he does not let out a wail. Rather he is totally discombobulated. He does not bother reading her suicide note out loud, as is usually the case in such scenes. He just tosses it saying, “enna ezhavu da idhu.” If one of the most poignant visuals of this film is Nagesh lying down on Kamal’s lap, equally moving is how he asks Kamal, “ipo naan ena pannuven? (Kamal gracefully cedes the spotlight to his senior actor, exhibiting just the right amount of emotion. Note his response to Nagesh’s statement about death. It rings true, given that he is battling cancer.)
At the crematorium, the way Nagesh dances, as I noted earlier, is heartrending, given how much he had enjoyed dancing with his daughter. And after bottling up all the emotions, he completely lets go once he finishes his imaginary dance. This is the first time he sobs, in the entire sequence. And it is only the stonehearted that will not join him in his tears. We, in the audience, feel as emotionally drained as he is. And is that not the ultimate testament to a great actor?
In these 11 minutes, Nagesh gives
us a glimpse of what made him so special.
National Award for the best supporting actor was more than a fair reward for
his tour de force, for it is a performance that has retained its immortality
beyond the actor’s life.
Click on 'Play' to witness 11 minutes of Nagesh's sustained brilliance:
PS: It was Guru Somasundaram’s
comment on Nagesh in Nammavar, in his recent interview with Baradwaj
Rangan, that spurred me to write this article.