“Neenga nallavaraa kettavaraa?” “Theriyaliye pa…” These are perhaps the best two lines to summarise a role that cannot be boxed into either black or white. You could say that the ‘anti-hero’ idea emerged in the early 80s with Amitabh Bachchan playing the angry young man with emotional baggage (mother sentiment, sister sentiment, father sentiment)…
Rajnikanth followed suit here by playing heroes who would avenge the family and whose journey towards meeting his long-lost family member would be replete with romance, songs and fights. Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan, however, changed that. It had an antihero with a heavy past, a loaded present and a daunting future, whose deeds make him responsible for himself and others. When he is asked this ‘nallavara-kettavara’ judgement day question by his grandson, he is speechless for a second, but he answers as truthfully as he can: “I don’t know”.
If a hero were to be defined by the MGR era, then Velu Nayakan was only half a hero because while he does good, he also commits crimes. Is he a villain? That depends on which side you see him from. We are many things to many people in real life. Generic qualities aside, we all have attributes which make us a hero for some and a villain for others. This Mani Ratnam film was a forerunner in having a character play these polar opposite qualities to perfection. It was the 80s and writing anti-heroes was seen as a successful trend and Kamal Haasan did such films in his format, while Rajinikanth stuck to his own. As for women, they were left to play stereotypical lovers, avenging angels or pure victims.
Incidentally, the extremes of showing women as either feminist ‘devis’ or docile damsels is giving way to more real characters. The recent example of such a film where both the protagonist and the antagonist, as you may have it, was a woman, is the Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah film, Jalsa (playing on Amazon Prime). The story calls for two stellar actors who are, on the outside, perfect women, with Vidya’s Maya Menon and Shefali’s Rukhsana being, in fact, superwomen who do perfect interviews (Maya is a TV anchor) and food (Rukhsana is her cook)! They handle their familial responsibilities, deal with their personal and professional circles with smartness, and score over the men around them quite easily. Yet, when one fatal accident happens, their characters change gears and their moral code shifts.
They get caught between being the good, perfect woman, and the vengeful, selfish human being whose first priority is survival. Suresh Triveni who gave us the endearing Tumhari Sulu with Vidya earlier, has chosen to oscillate our minds and hearts between what is wrong and right and between who is principled and who is at fault. Moral dilemma is a key cinematic trope, one which has immense depth for portrayal of human frailty and the rise from darkness.
Men and women become engaging characters (Nayanthara in Kolamaavu Kokila in a fun context or Trisha in 96, in a soulful context) when there are shades in their personality which get unravelled as they go on their path towards a specific goal.
It’s an interesting time to write characters (both men and women) who cross lines and whose life situations demand that they become heroes even if without a moral high ground (I mean the word heroes as a gender-neutral term). It is in facing our deepest fears that we emerge victorious. Our black and white lies in