Tuesday, April 28, 2009


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.


At 3:34 AM, Blogger D.E.V said...

This Maniratnam film looked more like a documentary than film, Not familiar with indian politics, so the movie kinda bored me...remembered it was released along "minsara kanavu" saw the both the movies and disliked it.

At 5:50 AM, Blogger Sriram said...

great review. this is one of my fav movies. as u rightly said, considering the subjects mani ratnam has taken, he has done an incredible job in portraying key moments & events very subtly. only mani can do it!

mohanlal was amazing. it's another reason I am eagerly waiting for kamal's next movie.

i think 'unnodu naan' song/poem deserves mentioning.



At 6:41 AM, Blogger Balaji Sivaraman said...

Great review! I was wondering when you were going to get around to it because this is one of my all time favorites.

Although, I did not live in the time period these two gentlemen but I do know quite a bit about their life and fall both from my father who is a keen political follower and by reading about them from a wide variety of sources.

I though this movie captured nearly every small detail about them, both politically and also personally, perfectly. I agree with Sriram that only Mani could have created such a piece on celluloid.

But I did think that Prakashraj was the better actor (something which did get him his National Award) but Mohanlal was also very good. The actresses though, as you said, were wasted in small roles.

As a side note, I would like to see more of these old movie reviews from your side. :)

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous yasodha said...

Extremely Well written post.
I was reading your old posts. It is so obvious that the words flow from your fingers more freely than ever before

At 11:09 AM, Blogger suresh said...

Excellent review Balaji 'sir'.
Most noticialble is the fact that you choose this movie to review. It is definetly one of my favorite Manirathnam's film. Its a shame that we have such corrupt system in tamil cinema that restrict directors to take alternate routes to tell a story. However super review.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Sreekrishnan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Sreekrishnan said...

Though i almost agreed with what you pointed out about the movie, i clearly do not agree with the last lines. It is a general opinion [ after seeing and talking to many people] about the movie that its one of Maniratnam's finest movies ever made.

Going back in your review, I cant believe you missed to talk about Unnodu Naan and Pookodiyin Punnagai [its Edhirkatchi - and i am serious abt it :) ]

I think the finer aspects of the movie are yet not clear in your review even if you understood it.

The way in which every transition of phases is handled in each persons life is a stunner and the way the drama pulls together the life history is like a Bhagvad Gita for making a political drama...There are few finer aspects of transition which you missed mentioning.

Also, the dialogues [ Suhasini ] has a major role to play in summing up the char of a Character and no mention of Vairamuthus poems?

I was expecting a more passionate and into the movie review.. but i just see a simple write up.

Dont ask me if i could have done it better - i am not able to write the finer aspects of this movie into a blogger post-size, but atleast for a prof. reviewr like you i think you should be able to write a better insight into this Masterpiece !

Skanda: Do a simple Wikipedia search on MGR Karunandhi and Iruvar. You'll see the brilliance !

At 2:03 PM, Anonymous ram said...

bb, excellent review...I really liked the way you contrasted the characters, terming one as proactive and the other, reactive. I was a little surprised at your take on the movie's cinematography. I thought Santhosh Sivan was brilliant throughout. esp. in the scenes with the huge crowds, his cinematography really added value to the whole drama, esp. during mohanlal's speech at nasser's funeral...

anyways, here's my review of the movie: http://www.geocities.com/ram_aishoo/iruvar.htm It was written a few years back...ipo padika konjam amateurish-a irukum but nevertheless it captures my enthusiasm for the movie, I think...padichu paarunge...karuthu sollunge!

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Prin said...

Absolute classic, how many stars?

At 9:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iruvar will always remain in tamil film history as the one great film that bombed at the box office.

It will be added to accompany numerous classics like Hey Ram, Mahanadhi etc. which all got much acclaim but very little moolah.

At best movies like Iruvar will be celebrated only in forums like this.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Babs said...

Nice review Balaji, like Ram pointed out the contrasting characters were well spotted, though I should agree partly with SreeKrishna here as you fail to pick some amazing work by Vairamuthu and other subtleties.

But I guess reviewing a 1997 film in 2009 will have that affect :-). When I watched this movie in a preview theater (Sridevi) almost 12 years back all I said when I came out was "This is will be a benchmark in Tamil Cinema"..IMHO till date I have not seen one which wud even come in par with it....

If you get a chance you should read my cousin Swarnavel's (Documentary Filmmaker) write up which got published in "Cinema of India edited by Lalita Gopalan"

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Babs said...

I'm sure you wud have read this, but just in case :-)

Your favorite film critic's write up

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Balaji said...

skanda, not for me. even if not an expert on TN politics, I knew what had happened. so I was totally engrossed in the film :)

sriram, thanx! both 'unnodu naan' and 'udal mannukku' were awesome pieces of poetry by vairamuthu. something i missed mentioning (every review has atleast a few of these) :)

balaji, I was in the same boat - most of my knowledge of the iruvar came from my dad and from reading about them. the movie did a marvelous job of giving us what we knew and then expanding on it to give us a fuller picture of them :)

yasodha, thanx! thats good to know :)

suresh, thanx! yes, when we see the muted dialogs and cuts, we can only imagine what the film would've been if mani's vision had been realized :)

sree, that last line was just my opinion. i'd definitely rate 'nayagan' over 'iruvar'.

u've pointed out everything that i missed writing about. and i do agree that those were a big part of the movie. i think i was carried away by the characterization and so that ended up being the focus of my review too :)

ram, thanx! oh i thot SS was brilliant too. was just contrasting it with other mani movies where the cinematography draws attention to itself with some special touches. here it was more sedate, thats all.

have read ur review a long time ago. will chk it out again :)

prin, a definite 4 :)

anon, yes, it belongs to an unfortunately long list :)

babs, yeah I know. the movie excelled in pretty much all aspects. i guess my focus was on the characterization and the docudrama part of it :)

yes, I have read it a while back :)

At 6:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

extremely boring movie. mohanlal was horrible.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger mitr_bayarea said...


Great review, as always. Iruvar, though shot at a documentary level gave me my first glimpse into the history of TN politics. Watched it when I was in high school.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous san said...

scenes involving mohanlal and aishwarya were irritating, especially the one where he bites her mole..yakkk

At 11:08 PM, Anonymous yaadayaada said...

It is a great movie. It was in the theatres for a couple of days or so due to the protests. I remember that the theatre in which we saw was partially closed. We(4 girls) still went ahead and watched this movie and loved it! Who can forget "Unnoda naan irundha" by ArvindSamy ;-).

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Funtabulous said...

when are you going to watch Pattalam?????

At 3:15 AM, Anonymous vijay said...

Iruvar edges out Nayagan(more of a Kamal film)for me, with Ash being the only sore point.Mani's obsession with her has sadly not ended even after 12 yrs. Apart from Kannathil Muththamittal to a certain extent, Mani has not quite captured the Magic of Iruvar in any subsequent effort

At 3:17 AM, Anonymous vj said...

"The censors have been merciless, resulting many sequences with muted dialogs and abrupt jumps indicating scenes that were cut. "

Balaji, are you talking about the theater version, recalledfrom memory? I saw it on DVD sometime back and didnt notice any of this?

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Funtabulous said...

Somehow I havent since this movie yet and now I know what I am gona pick upnxt time at the dvd store.

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

every thing was great except that it introduced Aish to movie world(which it shouldn't have.. that was the unwanted sideeffect of this). besides it didnt make money..


At 5:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry off topic.

I take back my words. Mariyadhai is not a feel good movie for those who are in 200lbs but 300lbs. Add another 100 lbs under Gaptun's chin.

This movie sucks!

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Balaji said...

anon, to each his own :)

mitr, thanx! its definitely a very good history lesson :)

san, I thot they were very sweet though there wasn't enuf time for rathnam's usual stamp :)

yaadayaada, I watched it in the US and so didn't know protests and such. but I can guess :)

funtabulous, hopefully this week.
and 'iruvar' has got its detractors but for me its a must-see :)

vijay, I think quite a few share ur opinion :)

vj, I saw it on the official DVD. A couple of scenes where dialogs were muted are rooftop conversation betn Lal and Prakashraj and the meeting where Lal talks about the accounts. and the 2nd half felt like it had a lot of cuts :)

nathan, not a big fan of her though I wouldn't go that far :)

anon, haven't seen it yet. but that's been the general opinion :)

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous ram said...

BB, your fine essay made me rewatch the movie (just 1 hour after I finished my final exam!). Your review was spot on in your analysis of the characterizations. But as you kinda hinted in your responses to comments, you gave short shrift to some technical aspects. I am still surprised that you thought Santosh Sivan's cinematography was "sedate." To me, it was vibrant and there were indeed a number of visual touches - the scene where Nasser and Rajesh walk to see an injured Prakashraj (notice how the camera rapidly moves along with them, the jerkiness adding to the urgency of the situation), the shot from behind Prakashraj's CM chair, the camera literally dancing around the pillars as Mohanlal and Prakashraj go on a trip down memory lane (in the wedding scene) were all places were I thought that Sivan's "flourishes" (I feel Sivan's camera in general is very focused on "moving" images, a sharp contrast to PC Sriram's style) were present...

At 8:50 AM, Anonymous rnair said...

This is a truly rewarding read, especially for those of us who hold the film to high regard. Iruvar to me is the finest commercial Indian film ever made, even if it defies many conventions of what defines commercial cinema in this country. In my view, even the less impressive aspects - the abrupt cuts and the muted dialogues - were dealt with artfully...Ratnam in those moments showed great skill when backed into a politicized corner. Thanks again for this wonderful piece.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

ram, yeah I see what you mean. when i talked about flourishes, i was talking about those cinematography styles that overwhelm the scene itself. i didn't feel that happened here :)

rnair, thank you! you are right about the muted dialogs for sure. the use of background scores and the gradual lessening of the volume made it quite natural in most cases :)

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Abimanyu said...

Great review and you have justified the review for a great movie ....

Actually a special mention should be given for the poem's and it's poet Vairamuthu ... Udal mannukku great piece ...

"everybody should be happy" Mohanlal's innocent way of deliverance of the dialogues are amazing ....


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