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aka Hero 1987 155’ col Tamil d/s Mani Rathnam pc Sujatha Films, Mukta Films dial Balakumaran co-lyr Pulamai Pithan c P.C. Sriram co-lyr/m Ilaiyaraja lp Kamalahasan, Saranya, M.V. Vasudeva Rao, Janakaraj, Delhi Ganesh, Karthika, Nizhalgal Ravi, Tinnu Anand, Nasser, Vijayan

Rathnam’s controversial breakthrough film is a version of The Godfather (1972), based on the life of the Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar, played by Kamalahasan (at times explicitly imitating Brando). Seeing his father, a trade union activist, brutally murdered by the police in Tuticorin, the son runs away to Bombay and becomes Velu Naicker, the ruthless Godfather with a Robin Hood streak in the Dharavi slums, assisted by Ganesh in the Robert Duval role. Velu becomes Bombay’s minority Tamil population’s ‘Nayakan’ (hero/ star/leader) and saviour. His daughter Charu (Karthika) walks out and marries the assistant chief of police. Velu is eventually shot by a mentally retarded youth (Anand) he had taken into his care. Although Kamalahasan’s performance was widely lauded, critics like K. Hariharan noted that the degree to which the star monopolises the film made ‘other characters seem either underdeveloped or perfunctory’. The cinematography takes its cue from Gordon Willis while Thotha Tharani’s art direction follows the conventions of Hollywood gangster films and concentrates on cars and decors. However, the film is more than a Hollywood pastiche: it draws on 30 years of Tamil Nadu’s star/politician images (including the spotless, all-white uniform of the Tamil politician, chewing betel-leaf) and directly plays to Tamil people’s anti-Hindi feelings when Velu, beaten up, gives the hugely popular reply in Tamil to a Hindispeaking Bombay cop: ‘If I ever hit you, you will die.’ The latter half of the film virtually abandons Bombay as a location in favour of studio interiors and goes to Madras for the climax. The success of the film was crucial to Mani Rathnam’s career, establishing him as the leading Tamil director of his time.