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25 Years of Iruvar: Despite Criticism, Mani Ratnam's Film Remains Relevant

What makes Iruvar special is Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR.

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When chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) passed away suddenly in December 1987, one of the first people to rush to his Ramavaram Gardens residence was ‘Kalaignar’ M Karunanidhi. Their friendship went back four decades, before competitive politics turned them into bitter rivals.

Perhaps director Mani Ratnam’s urge to make a film on the duo (Iruvar-1997) was inspired by tales of their comradeship as roommates in Singanallur before going on to successfully collaborate on movies and venturing into politics. It is also Mani Ratnam’s ode to Dravidian politics and Tamil cinema itself, which intertwined closely in the state’s march to freedom and assertion of the backward classes.

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As Iruvar celebrated its 25th anniversary on 14 January, the film continues to remain fresh and relevant, despite criticism that it was not an accurate depiction of what transpired in the politically tumultuous decades.

At no point did Mani Ratnam claim to be making a biopic, as it was his version of certain marquee events in Tamil politics and cinema. But the director does capture many poignant moments and manage to bring out the human facets of MGR, apart from presenting his counterpart Karunanidhi as the brilliant poet and orator.

What makes Iruvar special is Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR.

Prakash Raj & Mohanlal in Iruvar.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

What makes Iruvar special is also Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR, in what should be counted among his best screen appearances. As the Malayali who conquered Tamilakam, Mohanlal fit MGR’s role and did complete justice to the part, in what was only his full-fledged debut in Tamil Cinema. Prakash Raj, then a newbie who was virtually a non-entity in films, evenly matched Mohanlal portraying Karunanidhi with the flair of a veteran. Most of the female characters in the film also stood out for their distinct identities, whether it was Aishwarya Rai, Gouthami, Tabu or Revathi. The film marked Aishwarya Rai’s debut in cinema, in a double role no less, long before she made a mark in Bollywood with Taal. Although Rai’s part (of Jayalalithaa) is heavily fictionalised, it was a memorable debut nonetheless for the beauty pageant winner-turned-actress.

What makes Iruvar special is Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR.

A still from Iruvar.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

One element of Iruvar that stands out if you were to re-watch it today would be the dialogues by Suhasini, noted actor and wife of Mani Ratnam. Back in the late 1930s and ‘40s, MGR could not really make it big as a hero since actors sang their parts carrying forward the tradition from theatre, and so, he would work on martial arts skills to do parts of mythological characters and action sequences well. A change to this was heralded with the collaboration of MGR and Karunanidhi in Rajakumari (1947), which stood out for its sharp script. MGR and Karunanidhi went on to collaborate in Manthiri Kumari (1950) and Malaikallan (1954) among other films, and the latter would also script Sivaji Ganesan’s Parashakti (1952), spawning an era of dialogue-heavy films, many of which would also go on to propagate the ideology of Dravidian politics.

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What makes Iruvar special is Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR.

Iruvar completed 25 years recently.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

There are too many songs in Iruvar for it to be a taut political thriller or an emotional rollercoaster; but then, it could be justified on account of the subject – the film that had to cover MGR’s oeuvre as a performer. Although the film is fictionalised to some extent, there are many instances inspired by real-life events. For instance, the character of Anandan (MGR) is tricked into his first marriage – albeit a short-lived one – by his mother initially, which was exactly what transpired in real. The character of Ramani portraying VN Janaki essayed by Gautami and the circumstances of their marriage, the gunshot accident that fatally wounded MGR, Karunanidhi being put behind bars towards the end – are all inspired by real incidents.

Even the political bits are fairly accurate, despite some vital omissions and improvisations for dramatic effect.

MGR orchestrating the elevation of Karunanidhi as chief minister after CN Annadurai (essayed by Nassar)’s death in 1969 over natural claimant VR Nedunchezhiyan (essayed by Rajesh) and the falling out of MGR and Karunanidhi over the former’s political ambition have been depicted authentically; as also MGR’s demand that the Health portfolio be given to him after the 1971 assembly election and Karunanidhi’s counter that the matinee idol give up acting in that case – corroborated in various biographies of the principal characters.

Of course, there are as many scenes and twists which do not have anything to do with reality, including the convenient ruse for Aishwarya Rai to essay a double role. Nassar’s character of Ayya Veluthambi is confusing to the extent that it was Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy (EVR) or Periyar who used to be addressed with the moniker of ‘Ayya’ by the Kazhagam workers while CN Annadurai was always ‘Anna’.

It is in exploring the theme of friendship and comradeship, as with the director’s 1991 film Thalapathi starring Rajnikanth and Mammootty, that the film really tugs the heartstrings of the viewers.

Just before the end credits roll in Iruvar after Anandan’s death, Karunanidhi’s Thamizhselvan breaks into a monologue. When MGR was battling for his life in Apollo hospital in late 1984, the self-professed rationalist Karunanidhi penned a tender missive titled ‘I Too Am Praying’ in his mouthpiece Murasoli, which went, “My sweet friend! May the prayers for you be answered! Oh, affectionate comrade of my earlier years! Please come back, donning your old smile! ‘Prayer’ does not mean ‘worship’ alone; it can also mean ‘request’. In that sense let me too pray.”

MGR’s death and the subsequent politics of Tamil Nadu with Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa as opposite poles saw political etiquette being given the short shrift and a never-before degeneration of values. For all the raucousness of the MGR-Kalaignar era, their mutual respect and old comradeship came in the way of politics getting reduced to the pettiness of the latter period.

What makes Iruvar special is Mohanlal’s splendid performance as MGR.

Mohanlal in Iruvar.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

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Iruvar’s magic lies in that it is moving enough for young and impressionable minds watching it today to kindle curiosity in Dravidian politics. Iruvar would also hold some clues as to why a movie star like MGR could make the transition from an actor to a successful three-term chief minister – something people outside Tamil Nadu find difficult to comprehend. MGR was a political animal who associated with the party for more than two decades before taking the plunge into full-time politics and, if latter-day superstars haven’t similarly found success at the hustings, it is only natural.

Mani Ratnam once rated Iruvar as his best work. He and Suhasini aside, the music of AR Rahman and cinematography of Santosh Sivan were also vital to the film’s production value. But it is the perfect casting and performance of principal actors that make Iruvar an eminently watchable film even today.

(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post).

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Topics:  Mani Ratnam   Aishwarya Rai   Mohanlal 

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