Kaala, Nayagan, Baasha, Nayagan, Thuppakki and Mankatha: Tracing Tamil cinema's love for Mumbai as a setting

Surendhar MK

Jun,04 2018 09:06:09 IST

While the culturally-significant Temple Town Madurai has been the go-to destination for Tamil filmmakers, who helm small and medium budget films, the mega-metropolis Mumbai has been the favourite port of call for directors who are looking to set the backdrop of their stories outside Tamil Nadu and can afford a sizeable budget for their production.

Tamil movies, starring big heroes and with Mumbai as the story backdrop, have traditionally raked in the moolah at the box-office more often than not. Mumbai-set films such as Rajinikanth's Baasha, Kamal Haasan's Nayakan in the late '80s and early '90s and Ajith's Mankatha, Vijay's Thuppakki released in 2011, and 2012 garnered incredible milestones at the ticket windows for respective producers. 1995 is a notable year for Tamil films in Mumbai since Rajinikanth's Baasha and Mani Ratnam's highly acclaimed and controversial social drama Bombay released in a span of three months in January and March respectively.

Rajinikanth in Basha (left); Kamal Haasan in Nayakan (right). Facebook

Rajinikanth in Basha (left); Kamal Haasan in Nayagan (right). Facebook

While Baasha is considered an all-time classic of Rajinikanth, Nayakan remains as one of Kamal Haasan's most celebrated films. If Ajith waltzed through the badass role of Vinayak Mahadev in Mankatha with consummate ease and an uber-cool attitude, Vijay's Thuppakki set the cash registers ringing by becoming the first film of the actor to enter the Rs 100 crore club. Another noteworthy Tamil film which captured the middle-class lifestyle of Bombay was the acclaimed 2000 drama Rhythm directed by Vasanth. Probably, it's one of the very few light-weight Tamil movies set in the backdrop of the cosmopolitan metropolis of Bombay.

There are also a handful of films with Mumbai backdrop which didn't perform well at the box-office. Vijay's Thalaivaa in 2013, which was mired in a political controversy during release, Suriya's Anjaan and Jiiva's Yaan ended in box-office defeat. If Mani Ratnam's Nayakan was the trailblazer for Mumbai-centric Tamil films, it was him who again broke the jinx in 2015 with his super-hit romance drama O Kadhal Kanmani after the industry witnessed a series of flops with Mumbai backdrop. Prabhu Deva's Devi released in 2016 also performed well at the box office.

Film historian Prakash Raman says Nayakan could be construed as a trendsetter for Kollywood with Mumbai as the story backdrop. "It's truly a pioneer. Mani Ratnam recreated the entire Dharavi slum in Chennai's Venus Studios in Alwarpet. The scenes featuring Kamal Haasan and the slum-dwellers of Dharavi were exclusively shot in the set erected in Chennai. So, Nayakan could be construed as the first Tamil film to set foot in Bombay with the plot and emerge as a huge blockbuster. Never in the past, had any Tamil movie showcased Bombay with that level of authenticity. The presentation lifted Mani Ratnam's stature as a filmmaker," said Prakash.

Come 7 June, Rajinikanth's Kaala, which is set against the backdrop of Dharavi slum in Mumbai is all set to hit the theatres worldwide in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi. The film revolves around the titular role of Kaala Karikaalan played by Rajinikanth, a man from Tirunelveli who transforms into a powerful yet righteous gangster in Dharavi and fights for the cause of migrant Tamils.

Kaala would be the second film for Rajinikanth with Mumbai as the story backdrop. "If Nayakan was a trendsetter, Rajinikanth's Baasha took it to the next level. It was again a trendsetter on a different footing; it explored the theme of Bombay underworld differently. The dialogues elevating Rajinikanth's star-value dominated the film, and it increased the craze for Bombay backdrop stories. However, no Tamil filmmaker could come up with authentic or thematic plots like Nayakan or Baasha immediately after that. And the increase in the cost of production was also one of the reasons why we didn't get to see more Bombay based movies," noted Prakash.

Rajinikanth's Kaala poster. Facebook

Rajinikanth's Kaala poster. Facebook

At the audio launch of Kaala, Rajinikanth revealed that it was him who suggested director Pa Ranjith explore a story with Dharavi's migrant Tamil population as the backdrop. Ask Prakash if going back to Mumbai with Kaala could be a conscious choice of the superstar, "There is some relevance. Now that he has made his political entry, he might have thought this could be a platform to use. Championing the cause of migrant Tamils settled in Mumbai with slight political overtones in the screenplay could have attracted him too," observed Prakash.

Prakash also drew parallels with how the late Tami Nadu Chief Minister MGR utilized his platform in cinema to test the waters in the formative days of his political career.

"There's a film called Nam Naadu, a remake of NT Rama Rao's Telugu film Kathanayakudu. The original was a decent film sans any strong political overtones. However, the Tamil remake had a lot of politically-charged dialogues because that was the time when MGR was about to launch his party. The story was about an honest government clerk who goes on to contest in municipal elections for the counsellor post and would later make his political entry. It was the first film of the then hitherto swashbuckling romantic-drama hero which involved political lines. MGR and film's producer Nagi Reddy watched the film in Mekala theatre in Purasawakkam to gauge the response of audiences, who actually went to the projector room and demanded a replay of certain scenes. MGR was very happy that he received the acceptance of audiences as an on-screen politician. It gave him the much-needed confidence to launch his party," recalls Prakash.

In Kaala, Rajinikanth fights for the suppressed Tamils in Dharavi. "Taking up their cause could certainly pave way for a bunch of anti-establishment dialogues in the film. And, the story is very relevant to the contemporary political situation. So, it could be his way of testing the waters before diving into full-fledged politics," said Prakash on a concluding note.

Also read: Rajinikanth's Kaala trailer: Dharavi-set story seems as much about Tamil Nadu in wake of Sterlite protests

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 09:06 AM