In a Whatsapp group that I am a part of, there were recently a slew of comments on actor Nasser, with some that knew him well extolling his virtues as a person and others familiar with his rich body of work picking their favorite performances. I resisted from commenting because I felt that I would struggle to capture the extent of my awe and respect for him as an actor, in a few comments on Whatsapp. (I do not know him personally so I will stick to talking about his performances.) In an illustrious career that has spanned 32 years since his debut feature “Kalyana AgathigaL” (directed by the late K Balachander), he has essayed a variety of roles, many significant, others not so memorable. But as I reflect on the range of his performances – not just the roles themselves – it does make my jaw drop. That is because of how he has invariably played his roles at a pitch that is absolutely right for the tone of the movie and the style of filmmaking. And what adds luster to his performances is how he invariably manages to bring even stereotypical characters come to life with little touches, adding shades and nuances, but rarely calling out undue attention to the process of his performance. Instead, as the cliché goes, he dissolves into the character. For an actor that is seen so often on screen, that is no mean task.
Let me take three examples to illustrate this –Thevar Magan, Bombay and Jeans. In Thevar Magan, he played the pugnacious antagonist whose hatred for Sivaji Ganesan’s family runs so deep that you could be swimming down vertically all day and still not reach rock bottom! Starting from his first scene, where he is forcefully dragging a hound by its leash, there is something raw and bestial about his character. Even the “thoongura mirugam...” lines seem superfluous, that’s how well he plays the role. The panchayat scene where he insults Sivaji is one where his body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous. Forget the vitriolic lines, just the way he says, “thaamadham aayrichu…” without apologizing for being tardy sets up the confrontation superbly. Of course, due credit has to be given to the writing (Kamal Hassan) and direction (Bharathan). In Jeans, he played the role of Siamese twins that are identical only in looks. The climax where he turns around and stares hard at his brother for duping him (the brother’s reaction is even more priceless) was so superbly done that you could be forgiven for thinking that Nasser has a secret twin brother that the world doesn’t know about!
Watch his expressions starting at 2:37 -
But to me, one of his greatest performances has to be that of Aravind Swamy’s father in Bombay. I have always felt that his character arc conveyed the essence of Bombay even more than the travails of Aravind Swamy’s family and the final religious union scene. He plays a staunch, religious, ritualistic Hindu who even taunts his Muslim rival (Kitty) by asking for bricks with the name “Ram” inscribed on it! Mani Ratnam’s detailing of this character is exquisite. He even manages to infuse gentle, unforced humor into scenes such as the one where Nasser dresses up his grandkids in traditional Hindu outfits, (with three streaks of holy ash on their foreheads, no less!) as he welcomes Kitty to Bombay! I love the moment where Kitty exclaims, “Yah Allah” and Nasser promptly replies, “Siva siva!” But by the end of the movie, not only has he accepted his daughter-in-law but also realizes the error of his ways and the futility of religious fanaticism when Kitty rescues him outside the temple. The final scene of this character – he retrieves the Holy Quoran even as he is fighting for his life amidst the riots – is one that showcases the power of cinema and its ability to evoke a lump in one’s throat.
Thanks to Kamal Hassan, we have also seen some great comic performances from Nasser. Be it in Magalir Mattum, Avvai Shanmugi or Mumbai Express, his comic turns have been a great pleasure to watch because he can run the gamut from being poker faced and deliver funny lines (Mumbai Express) or go completely zany as in the case of the other two movies. There is a scene in Magalir Mattum where he attempts to gift a saree to his subordinate Revathi only to be excoriated by her. Unable to bear the insult, he goes in front of the AC vent in his office to let the cool air blow on his face. His expressions –having lost his face – are a joy to behold. And this scene has an even crazier finish (scripted by “Crazy” Mohan) as he is caught red handed by his wife as he is hitting on the maid servant (played wonderfully by Rohini). A far cry indeed from Maya Thevan of Thevar Magan!
See his expressions at the 30:30 min point:
As a director, he has made some genuinely interesting films such as Avatharam and Dhevadhai. But the commercial failure of his lesser efforts like Pop Carn has made him move away from direction. In the context of his directorial capabilities, I feel like I have seen only glimpses of his potential, instead of an entire 2 ½ hour stretch of sustained excellence. The court scene in Avatharam, the picturization of the “Oru NaaL…” song in Dhevadhai and Mohan Lal’s confrontations with Simran in Pop Carn have all been rare strokes of brilliance on canvases that were envisioned with thought, painted with care and yet something felt missing in the overall picture. But on the flip side, the lack of commercial pressure (owing to some of his past failed productions) have freed him up to be relatively choosy as an actor and to make a strong impact in roles such as the lovable patriarch of Saivam.
In his fourth decade as an actor, he deserves to be treated with much respect by directors who must resist from casting him in clichéd roles to get their sometimes ill-conceived ventures a patina of respectability. Instead, as the next generation of writers and filmmakers such as Karthik Subburaj and Narein Karthik weave fresh tales, they must look to knit more tailor-made roles deserving of Nasser’s stature. And by doing that, they can ensure that we, in our Whatsapp groups, can stop revisiting the past to pick his best performances!