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20 years of Nayak: Does the political drama still hold up?

Political observers dismiss the film as a work of fantasy that fulfils the wishes of the middle class.

Keyur Seta

Political dramas are generally about two characters from warring factions who are trying to win an election in order to seize power. There are also some films where a righteous protagonist tries to expose a corrupt politician and teach him or her a lesson.

But S Shankar’s political drama Nayak: The Real Hero (2001) revolves around a concerned and honest journalist, Shivaji Rao Gaikwad (Anil Kapoor), who steps into the shoes of an evil chief minister Balraj Chauhan (Amrish Puri) for a single day after the latter challenges him to better his record.

After doing a stellar job, Shivaji Rao returns to his daily life. But the common citizens of India urge him to enter politics full time for the welfare of the country. Eventually, he does that and becomes a leader who ushers in ‘achhe din’ [good days] for the masses.

The film was a remake of S Shankar’s own Tamil film Mudhalvan (1999), which was a blockbuster. But Nayak failed to make a dent at the box office.

Amrish Puri in Nayak

However, as it happens with some films, it started gaining appreciation and a following after being telecast repeatedly. The film also gained resonance in light of the changing political scenario in the country a decade ago, with more and more youngsters, who earlier hated the word 'politics' taking a keen interest in the subject.

It was the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement that sought the passing of the Jan Lokpal Bill that got youngsters hooked on politics. The movie became more relevant when a complete novice in politics, Arvind Kejriwal — a former member of the IAC core committee — and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) gained prominence in the Delhi legislative assembly elections in 2013, which it would go on to sweep two years later.

This was also the time when memes and videos of Nayak started doing the rounds of social media since the film championed the notion of a competent common man cleansing the system from within.

Pravin Mishra

However, unlike Kapoor's character in the film, Kejriwal, the incumbent chief minister of Delhi, is no longer widely seen as the messiah India has been holding its breath for. 

 As Nayak completed 20 years today, Cinestaan spoke with political experts about its relevance.

Pravin Mishra, dean, school of design, Vijaybhoomi University, dismissed the film outright as a wild fantasy of the Indian middle class and a masterclass of sorts in the power of propaganda for our netas. “The fantasy that existed two decades ago still exists. It is an elusive dream and as long as the fantasy remains, such plots will remain relevant. The film is almost a propaganda tutorial for a lot of present-day politicians: the rags to riches story, the insignificant vs the powerful, the idealist vs the corrupt. The insignificant ultimately becomes the Messiah. Unfortunately, that is just in the imagination.” 

Manisha Rege

Manisha Rege, special correspondent for Press Trust of India (PTI), also didn't mince words. “It is unreal and a fantasy. It’s a film where a common man would feel that this should happen. Just like those Amitabh Bachchan movies of the 1970s which people used to watch as they were angry with the system. It’s not even close to reality. See it, enjoy it and forget about it. Taking actions like putting people in jail, suspending people, beating up someone; all this doesn’t work.” 

She believes that the film has gained cult status because it is merely an enjoyable watch. The journalist is of the opinion that Chandrakant Kulkarni’s Marathi drama Aajcha Divas Majha (2013) better reflects the reality of a chief minister. “I think Marathi cinema has made more realistic political dramas. Jabbar Patel’s Singhasan (1979) is the best of the lot. There is also Samna (1975) by the same director,” she said.

One of the highlights of Nayak was when Shivaji Rao Gaikwad interviews Chauhan and brings to the fore his wrongdoings. The scene has always been in circulation on social media and WhatsApp. 

Mishra believes that even this scene is too fantastical. “It was not possible in real life even then [to conduct such an interview]. Things have gone from bad to worse. Today it is normal for politicians to have PR agencies and fixed interviews. They do not want to risk an interview with a genuine journalist,” he said. 

Rege questions the very nature of the fictional interview. “The media is not the court. That CM might be a filthy man. But he is occupying the CM’s post. There is a way of talking. A journalist shouldn’t have an agenda. You don’t interview him as a criminal and ask him questions as if you are a policeman. Your job is to make him talk. You ask him in such a way that he opens up and blurts out whatever mistake he has made,” she said. 

Rege pointed out interviews of the then-chief minister of Maharashtra Prithviraj Chavan and Uddhav Thackeray, who was in the opposition, that were conducted by two reporters of the same news channel. She recalls that the person interviewing Thackeray managed to get things out of him. “That interview went on for an hour. But the reporter interviewing Chavan had an attitude of knowing everything and [seemed to think] that the interviewee is a criminal. That interview went on for only 10 minutes,” she said.

Kapoor’s Nayak character institutes a transparent complaint box where people can highlight their grievances. By the end of the film, the box is empty as every problem of the common citizen gets solved. Obviously, Rege considers this to be a fantasy. “It is impossible for people to not have problems in real life. If you solve one problem, then the next issues come up. There was the slogan ‘Garibi hatao [remove poverty]' in the 1970s but there are still poor people around,” she said. 

Nayak’s underlying message is that it is the common man who needs to enter politics. Twenty years later, the present system doesn’t seem hopeful, said Mishra. 

“The common man always had this ethereal dream to have some share of power,” he said. “Aligning themselves with an ideology or identity gives them some sense of power. People with such hope will remain forever. But unfortunately, the present system does not allow common people to even stand for elections as that would require a tremendous amount of money and muscle."