Considering that Manirathnam has made movies against the backdrop of terrorism(Roja), communal riots(Bombay) and the situation in Sri Lanka(Kannathil Muthamittaal), it might seem a little strange to call a simple double biography, his bravest effort. But considering the subjects whose lives he has chosen to capture on celluloid, terming Iruvar his most courageous film would not be that much of a stretch. A thinly-veiled look at the lives of MGR, Karunanidhi and those around them, it offers a fascinating look at TamilNadu politics during the last few decades by shining the spotlight on the two personalities who dominated - maybe even defined - it during that time period.
MGR's reel equivalent is Anandan(Mohanlal), an actor who, after a long struggle, gets the right break and turns hero. His best friend is Thamizhchelvan(Prakashraj), Karunanidhi's big screen alter-ego, who is instrumental in Anandan's rise to stardom, having written the scripts for his movies. Thamizhchelvan is part of the Dravidian social movement and also becomes an important functionary when the party is formed. Anandan joins the party soon after though his move is viewed with suspicion as a move intended solely to further his filmi ambitions. As their ambitions and aspirations clash, they move apart in public life but remain good friends and their mutual respect and admiration for each other never erodes.
Mohanlal and Prakashraj are a study in contrasts here. While Prakashraj is idealistic and intense, Mohanlal is portrayed as a more simple man. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than during their meeting right after the party has been launched, where the former talks in concrete terms about power, poverty and reservations while all Mohanlal wants is a simplistic, all-encompassing "everybody should be happy". Prakashraj is a man with clear dreams and ambitions and well-laid plans for how to achieve them. Mohanlal, on the other hand, is someone who takes things as they come. His ambitions are short-term and he simply resets them once he gets what he wants. But the most obvious contrast is in the way they they handle what life throws at them. Going by the old adage, one could say that Prakashraj achieves greatness while Mohanlal has greatness thrust upon him. This is encapsulated in the fantastic scene where Prakashraj takes Mohanlal to the roof of his house to see the people who have come to see him. Its Prakashraj who first lifts Mohanlal's hand to wave to them but once the actor understands his own power, he gains a sudden confidence, develops a swagger and begins to play to the gallery effortlessly. This difference - the way Mohanlal is reactive while Prakashraj is proactive - seeps into their personal lives too. Like, for instance, the way they end up with their respective second wives. While Prakashraj seeks out Tabu and asks her to come to him, Mohanlal weds Gauthami when she shows up at his house after running away from her abusive uncle. For the most part, these contrasts are portrayed subtly but there are a few scenes(like their respective first marriages) where they are expressed more forcefully.
The relationship between these two contrasting protagonists is so unique, so complicated that it defies conventional definition. Poles apart with respect to ideologies, they go beyond that to work together professionally and also become close friends. They view each other with suspicion even when they are partners and then became overt enemies in politics. But throughout their lives, they never lose admiration and respect for each other. The film captures all the dimensions of this complex relationship beautifully. From their first meeting in the studio, where they are young and filled with dreams and ambitions, to their last, where they are old and tired, the movie depicts all the nuances of their relationship vividly.
While Mohanlal and Prakashraj are treated as equals, there does seem to be a slightly negative edge to Mohanlal's character(maybe Manirathnam was guided by which of his protagonists was alive and which one was dead when the movie was made?). When Mohanlal asks Prakashraj to write scripts, it is to cheat the viewers to make them accept him as a hero; when he joins Nasser's party, it is to further his movie career; when he deliberately goes late to a meeting, it is to demonstrate his power. These are small things but they do add up. And during all these times, Prakashraj is the more dignified one, standing up for what he believes in, observing Mohanlal silently. As for Aishwarya, there seems to a deliberate effort to make her character seem unreal and divorced from Jayalalitha. Her costumes don't really fit the era, she seems a bit too brash and disrespectful for a budding actress, her political ambitions are barely touched upon(barring one scene where she helps the survivors of an accident) and she gets an abrupt, off-screen end.
Ofcourse, there's no denying that Iruvar's biggest attraction is the fact that it is based on real characters and true events. And the more one is familiar with TamilNadu politics, the better one can savor it. It is fun seeing events we remember reading about or hearing and guessing as to how much of what is onscreen is true. And it is definitely illuminating to watch the lives of the people who ruled TamilNadu politics, see what drove them, view the actual people behind the larger-than-life figures we read about. And the opening message - that proclaims that this is not a true story - notwithstanding, Manirathnam leaves us in no doubt about who his characters are based upon. There's Mohanlal's Malayali accent, which becomes more overt in a private moment with his DGP, when he actually converses in Malayalam; there's Prakashraj's atheist outlook and Dravidian leanings; there's the duo's split over the party's accounts; and there's the shooting that leads to Mohanlal winning the elections. Ofcourse filming the life stories of two revered icons comes with its own pitfalls. The censors have been merciless, resulting many sequences with muted dialogs and abrupt jumps indicating scenes that were cut. Then again, in our society where politicians and actors are deified and any slur on them could result in riots or worse, I guess we should be thankful that atleast what was left made it to the screens.
Tamil cinema has not been kind to politicians. While the treatment might well be deserved, there's no question that the way they are portayed is one-dimensional. The politicians are a corrupt bunch who are present to accept bribes and throw their weight around to exert illegal pressure on cops. There have been a few good ones but they end up at the other end of the spectrum and are saints in a politician's garb. But Iruvar has politicians who are flesh and blood. Scenes we see in any political satire are present here too. We see corruption, politicians switching allegiances at the drop of a hat and loud fights in the assembly. But we also see other sides of the same politicians - sides where they are idealistic, well-meaning and genuinely wish to do good for the people. So, even is one is not familiar with the real-life politicians the characters are based on, the film still works as a realistic political drama.
Mohanlal has a difficult role as he plays a man still revered by millions. Considering that his character arc makes it clear who he is playing, he doesn't have to overstress it and employs MGR's well-known, frequently-imitated movements - the lift of the hand, the distinctive skipping run, the shake of the head - only in the song sequences. The rest of the time, he delivers a lesson on how much can be conveyed with downplayed 'acting'. Whether as the frustrated actor or as the star loved by the people or the politician battling his best friend, he combines his eyes, expressions and body language to play the complicated personality in pitch-perfect fashion. Prakashraj's character doesn't have quite as many nuances but he fits the role perfectly, from the firebrand young politician to the world-weary, more mellow statesman. Aishwarya, in her debut, overdoes the coy, timid bit in her first role(just as she did a few years later in Jeans). She is more at home as the bold, self-assured actress though. Revathi(as Prakashraj's first wife), Tabu(as Prakashraj's second wife) and Gauthami (as Mohanlal's second wife) are underused. Nasser is good as usual in the role of Annadurai while Rajesh has a meaty part as Madhivannan, Nasser's second-in-command who is initially opposed to Mohanlal joining the party but ironically, ends up in his party.
Just as the movie doesn't call itself a true story, the time periods aren't explicitly announced either. But the sets, the props and the costumes recreate the different eras quite flawlessly as film scenes and song sequences are used to mark the transition from historicals to social dramas. Narumugaiye... is a beauty and its Carnatic touch fits the time period it is used in, perfectly. Aayirathil Naan Oruvan..., with its oldish tune and crowd-pleasing lyrics, is probably the song that most touts the fact that Mohanlal's character is based on MGR as he runs and skips and hugs children in quite the same way MGR did in Anbe Vaa's Pudhiya Vaanam.... Kannai Kattikkollaadhe... is one of those energetic, preachy songs loaded with double entendres about the singer's real-life. The jazzy Hello Mr. Edhikatchi... and the simple Vennila Vennila... are instantly catchy. Iruvar would probably count as one of Rahman's best efforts on background score too. The pieces that accompany the key moments in the movie are wonderful and perfectly suit the moods and emotions conveyed onscreen. Santosh Sivan also avoids those visual flourishes that are usually a part of Manirathnam's movies. Barring a few sequences, like the revolving camera over Prakashaj and Tabu, the cinematography is sedate and unobtrusive as befits a docudrama.
Iruvar - atleast the form that made it to screens - may not be perfect or even Manirathnam's finest film. But as a chronicle of one of the most important and influential periods in TamilNadu politics, its place in Tamil cinema history is assured.