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. The 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.