Wikipedia, the new-age information mine, details it as a movie that suffered a backlash from a section of viewers as it supposedly portrayed its protagonists as womanizers. Its director claims that it was the best movie he made till date. Unfortunately for Tamil cinema, its lead cast never teamed up again. One of its leading ladies had, prior to starring in the movie, won an international beauty pageant. Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie stating that incidents in the movie are mere figments of imagination, it was in fact, quite the opposite, thereby proving to be a waste of a disclaimer. Its soundtrack featured songs that lifted words from the titles of films that the real-life equivalent of one of its protagonists had starred in. Cutting all suspense short, Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (The duo) is a movie, a biography and a documentary, all rolled into one about two politicians who have impacted Tamil Nadu as no other – Marudhur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, or MGR, and Muthuvel Karunanidhi.
Call it a travesty of sorts, but I suspect the director would have inserted the disclaimer that neither divulges nor hide anything only to avoid trouble from activists of two of the largest political parties in Tamil Nadu – the DMK and the AIADMK. Although docu-dramas aren’t new to Ratnam (his movie Guru was anything but a mere coincidence or a passing resemblance to the life of one of India’s celebrated industrialists, Dhirubai Ambani), making a realistic or a not-so-flattering portrayal about a politician remains akin to shooting one’s foot, however great its cinematic value may be.
First the facts: Iruvar traces the lives of two friends - Tamizhselvan and Anandan, who struggle in the early stages of their careers. One has the gift of gab, is a poet and has his political affiliations; the other is a stage actor, struggling to make it big in the movies, or motion pictures as it was then popularly referred to. Somehow, the two get drawn together due to their ambitions and ideals. One almost loses his life while championing for his movements; the other gets driven to penury and is offered either minor or insignificant roles in movies. Almost simultaneously, both experience a gradual upswing in their careers after they get noticed for their struggles. As the rolling stones of their careers and their love lives gather momentum, it becomes apparent that only one of them can continue in the public realm. How the circumstantially friend-turned-adversaries react to the stimuli posed to them forms the remainder of the movie.
Unintentional as it may (or may not) seem, the casting of Mohanlal as the equivalent of MGR (who, incidentally, had his roots in Kerala) and Prakash Raj as the equivalent of Karunanidhi (who hails from a region that he and his partymen would love to loathe) will pose intrigue to the analyst. The matrimonial lives of the two persons and the other women in their lives have been portrayed such that there could be little doubt over whom their characters have been modelled upon. Veteran actor Nasser, as the founding father of a political party, which eventually splits into two factions, too has an interesting role to play (why not, when you are portraying the politician Annadurai on screen).
Sequences in any Mani Ratnam movie will invariably be set in one or more of the following conditions: the rain, inside a train, or at least at a railway station, and twilight or dawn. It may not sound exaggerative if these conditions can be identified as characters in his movies that have failed to receive acknowledgement in its title credits (how can one forget the hoot of a steam locomotive in Thalapathy that is synonymous with its OST or the climax of Mouna Raagam that takes place inside a first-class compartment?). Ratnam stays true to tradition by opening Iruvar with a fleeting shot of a boy (presumably Anandan) leaning against the window of a moving train and looking out in hope.
Iruvar holds charm to various classes of movie goers – to those uninitiated to the tumultuous brand of Tamil Nadu’s politics, to the party supporter who would get into a vociferous argument while discussing the policies and schemes adopted by the two governments over the years in just the battle of an eyelid, or to die-hard fans of any of its lead actors. The gripping pace of narration, which builds up just as the Rajdhani Express would after leaving a stoppage, coupled with A R Rahman’s soundtrack (somehow, his compositions for Ratnam’s films have always been a notch above than those in his other movies), makes for a heady cinematic cocktail, giving the viewer a high that even an overdose of methamphetamine would not.
So authentic are the settings of the then Tamil Nadu and the circumstances that surrounded them – the steam engines, the cars used by the movie directors of yore, including the one who resembles the American director Ellis Dungan, the gramophone recording-like pause in the middle of the song Poongkodiyin Punnagai – create a visual appeal so powerful that viewers may be forgiven if they assume that this was how the good old days of their previous generation was (I would not be exaggerating if i mentioned Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram too falls in this league). The plot can be likened to preparing the traditional south Indian dish, the dosa. Just as a cook would constantly flip over the dosa to ensure that its both sides are cooked, Ratnam contrasts the fluctuating fortunes of Anandan and Tamizhchelvan, so that the end products – the tiffin and the climax – can be relished.
Aishwarya Rai, who stars in a dual role – as the demure, homely Pushpa and as the bold, outspoken, free-going Kalpana – pulls of a wonderful job with elan. Critics may have panned her for her wooden expressions in her later movies, but there is little evidence (or footage) in Iruvar to suggest that she was a newcomer. The scene where Kalpana falls from a jeep into an abyss and gets helped back to her feet by Anandan, with merely her eyes seducing him all along, can serve as learning material for acting school freshers. Move over Greta Garbo, we have a successor here.
Is Iruvar that perfect that it can be deemed divine? No, and here’s why in my opinion. Actors like Tabu, Revati, Gautami, Delhi Ganesh and Rajesh who can shoulder an entire movie, have limited screen time, and are reduced to props, although it must be contended that the real-life of the two titan politicians offers little leeway to additional cast. The second and the most incriminating reason is the blanking out of vital dialogues in the movie. Surely we expected more than the background music in the scene where Anandan calls for accountability within the party while addressing a gathering after the demise of its founder and the scene where Tamizhchelvan’s second wife (Tabu) dryly remarks to her husband that politics has engulfed him, leading to an outpouring of emotion from him.
True, the censor board may have done this to ensure peaceful screenings and not theatre attacks, but isn't it ironical that a movie on our nation's politicians was gagged due to the lack of freedom of expression?