By Manik Sharma Sep. 07, 2021
Nayak tugs at middle-class righteousness which explains its cult following on Indian television. Like any good hypnotic trick it lets you believe that come the time of opportunity, it’s only the good in us that will surface. It’s a far-fetched dream, but one worth seeing over and over again.
In a scene from Nayak: The Real Hero, a middle-aged father tells his tv-obsessed wife “Tu Idiot box dekh dekh ke idiots jesi baaten karti hain”. It’s a closely veiled reference to the devastating turn Indian television had taken at the turn of the century – saas and bahus fighting on entertainment channels that news anchors would soon start competing with. Ironically, Nayak itself is an absurdist mix of hair-raising politics and yawn-inducing Bollywoodisms that were served with stunning regularity back then. As a young boy, I’d watched Nayak countless times and wouldn’t mind watching it again for it perfectly plays to the gallery of my middle-class inheritance – the tendency to seek restraint and heroism in the face of naked opportunity.
A remake of his own Tamil film, Nayak, directed by S. Shankar, stars Anil Kapoor as Shivaji Rao, a cameraman/reporter working for a news channel. After he captures the unravelling of a civil riot on camera, Rao is offered the opportunity to host his own chat show. His first guest is Chief Minister Balraj Chauhan, played with typical wide-eyed menace by the late Amrish Puri. Rao hunts Chauhan down in a chair and pushes him to the brink where the CM suggests Rao should try running the state for a day. Rao’s one-day gig as Chief Minister, alongside a snarky assistant in the terrific Paresh Rawal, yields not only superhuman feats of fair bureaucracy but near comic-book ability to transport through time and space. It’s again, an overoptimistic idea that given the right motivation things can move faster than they do.
Despite its big-screen aesthetic, its dedication to a pointless love story, the film’s political affirmations are easy to catch and easier still to appreciate considering the age it was made in.
The strength of Nayak is to not allow you to doubt the possibilities but instead submit to its world of fancy where one man’s righteousness will pull the whole house back into order. It’s an idea that can only be capsuled inside a film, because with age, everything, even godly instincts can be doubted. Nayak, therefore, is the middle-class’ sweet spot, a righteous white collar worker climbing the political ladder to sweep the system clean in a day. Of course the film ends in a cliff-hanger where Rao is tortured and defeated before he stretches his moral fibre to achieve what is necessary. Again, Rao’s humanity is as plain as his priorities seem indisputable.
There are a lot of things to like about Nayak, first and foremost its simplification of the country’s politics. Its depiction of a riot that escalates with the covert assumptions of a case without a victim, is poetic in the context of this country’s communal history; especially for expressing how quickly identity can become a product of anger and rage rather than the other way round. Despite its big-screen aesthetic, its dedication to a pointless love story, the film’s political affirmations are easy to catch and easier still to appreciate considering the age it was made in. The ridicule of tv entertainment, the in-corridor political banter and the slightest notion of a tv journalist asking a politician some tough questions is, all things considered, worth raving about even today, or maybe especially today. Of course Nayak is based on a ludicrous premise but so perhaps is the persistence of the middle-class moral belly that holds its breath in about wisdoms that are supposed, not to set you free, but set your boundaries.
It takes centuries to build the castle of love and brotherhood that no force can invade. And it takes a night to sow behind its walls the seed of jealousy and envy.
Growing up every middle class child is taught the value of an honest day’s work. If your parents, or even one of them has held a job, chances are you’ve been educated about some essential truisms in life. You don’t learn ‘honesty is the best policy’ at school as much as you are lectured about it at home. Given power, the middle class believes, everyone would think of the collective good. Given the opportunity, the middle class believes, no kings would be unkind to their people. Resolutely bound to the societal pyramid, the middle class believes, it is born to serve and not be taken care of. These are people too fearful of the moral navigation required to climb up, and the horrifying depths to which you can fall, simply, by not doing as asked by society. Nayak draws on this restrictive mentality to etch a hero who rises, with fair means mind you, not for himself, but for the ‘right thing’. It’s a dream the middle class makes a pillow of every night.
Nayak’s belated popularity on Indian television and its enduring charm is built upon typical middle-class righteousness, that at the time of asking, leans towards the general good. This is not to say that the middle-class cannot be corrupted, of course it can be and it is, but it helps them sleep better at night that if not for their circumstances they would usher in change that everyone fantasises about. Nayak is also, in simple terms, a manifest orgy of will and liberality. It hypnotises you easily by rescuing the grimness of everyday hurdles, and deceiving you into believing, that change can be as momentary as the instant disintegration of civil and social accords. Life, unfortunately doesn’t follow the dictum. It takes centuries to build the castle of love and brotherhood that no force can invade. And it takes a night to sow behind its walls the seed of jealousy and envy. That said, Nayak’s fantastical no-limits romp of righteous upheaval is as high and happy as you can still be on tv.