Gopala Ratnam Subramaniam Iyer perhaps knew somewhere at the back of his mind that the political saga he was about to embark on after the hugely successful BOMBAY, could be doomed for failure. What he perhaps never imagined was that he was about to create a cinematic masterpiece so brilliant and haunting, neither government, nor box-office could prevent it from engraving itself in the hearts and minds of Indian cinephiles. IRUVAR was bold, not just for it’s fictionalized exploration of the epic M.G. RamachandranM. Karunanidhi relationship, but for the cinematic trends Mani Ratnam chose to break, or as some may argue, return to.

The 90s were the age of A.R. Rahman’s Muqabla and Humma Humma. Shankar had stormed into the scene with a string of commercial spectacles. Audiences preferred action and gimmickry to the more simplistic, script and character-oriented family dramas that dominated the earlier years. Technology had taken over the Kodambakkam film industry and filmmaking became an excuse to play with these new toys. Audiences didn’t seem to mind either, for to be awed and nothing less, they went to the movies. Star or not, every producer was making money.

And then there was Mani sir. Neither Kollywood’s newly acquired toys, nor Rahman’s rhythms fascinated him anymore. At a time when theatres boasted of their gargantuan cinemascope screens, Ratnam stuck his middle finger up and shot his film in a classical 4:3 aspect ratio, unthinkable in an industry that has refused to even consider anything lesser than scope for decades. While other filmmakers flew to exotic, colourful, foreign locations to shoot their songs, Mani sir chose to stay home and shoot them in Black & White. Rahman’s synthesized sounds and loops were replaced with veenas and violins, thavils and timpanis, brasses and bass.

In what was perhaps the riskiest of casting decisions, Ratnam cast a living legend to play a past one. Such is the brilliance of Mohanlal’s layered performance that minutes into the film, you forget the thespian’s persona and are sold on Anandan being MGR. Equal to the task was the relative rookie Prakash Raj as Tamizhchelvan (M. Karunanidhi) who would go on to win the National Award for Best Supporting Actor for his career-defining performance. Prakash Raj was selected after talks with the initial choice, Nana Patekar failed, following rejection of the role by several thespians such as Mammootty, Kamal Haasan and Mithun Chakraborty. A magical ensemble surrounded this duo, each leaving behind a memorable presence regardless of screen time. Be it Revathy as Tamizhchelvan’s demure wife or Gauthami as the abused heroine seeking refuge at Anandan’s home, the detailing in their acts is impeccable. Lest we forget the mesmerising Tabu in her cameo as Tamizhchelvan’s lover, or Nasser commanding his scenes as Aiyya, the Anna Durai character. And yes, there was Aishwarya Rai too, making her feature film debut, impressive, yes, impressive, in a spunky double role.

Ratnam plays out the political saga linearly, starting from Anandan’s days as a struggling actor to his chance meeting with Tamizhchelvan in a studio set that sets the foundation for a friendship that would change the very nature of politics in Tamil Nadu. Prakash Raj’s role may have been slotted in a Supporting Actor category, but let it not disguise the fact that IRUVAR narrates a parallel story of two men, not just a sole protagonist. Ratnam chronicles Anandan and Tamizhchelvan’s rise in cinema and politics respectively through the first act, laying the seeds for a meeting of political ideology and influence. Tamizhchelvan writes politically and nationalistically charged lines which Anandan heroically performs on screen, sending Tamil Nadu’s cinema-mad public into frenzy. Anandan is the face of the fervor, his fans willing to dance to his every tune, yet he doesn’t know it. Tamizhchelvan spots a man capable of defining history and in what is perhaps one of the film’s most exhilarating scenes, strips Anandan off all his innocence, giving him his first raw taste of power.

Anandan tastes power for the first time.

Yet, Tamizhchelvan fears for the corruption of politics by cinema, opposing the party’s decision to recruit Anandan as a member. The stage is set for a brewing ideological clash between two best friends, held together by one man, Aiyya (Anna Durai). In one of the most telling scenes of the film, Ramani reminds Anandan that he is late for a political rally, only to realize he already knows it. Anandan takes Kalpana (based on Jayalalithaa) along for the ride, strategically making his entrance at the rally in the middle of Tamizhchelvan’s speech, just to test his power. When Tamizhchelvan denies him a ministry position, Anandan knows he has what he needs to fly solo.

Testing his power.

The epic battle scales heights Anandan and Tamizhchelvan perhaps never imagined it would. In the midst of it all, Ratnam fashions a scene of stupendous poignancy where the friends who have turned foes come face to face. The mastery of Mohanlal’s and Prakash Raj’s performance speaks volumes without any words about the war which has become bigger than them, escalated to a point of no return.

While IRUVAR is a fictionalized account of the MGR-Karunanidhi tale, Ratnam doesn’t shy away from anecdotal references. Like MGR, Anandan is shown to have Keralite roots, he is accidentally shot by a reigning villain during a movie shoot, MGR’s move to provide every unemployed man with a cycle-rickshaw to earn a living is referenced in a song, even the oft-heard rumour of Jayalalithaa bearing an uncanny resemblance to MGR’s first wife is blatantly played out with the casting of Aishwarya Rai in a double role. And this very quality of the film was perhaps its undoing, for Ratnam failed to fictionalize his script enough to escape the wrath of political parties. The film was initially denied a censor certificate by a cowardly board that seemed more vested in the interests of references to politicians still in the game. IRUVAR was eventually cleared by a special revision committee, with severe dialogue cuts, which Ratnam would mask with Rahman’s scintillating score, edited for dramatic impact. Despite the clearance, politicians threatened legal and physical action if “objectionable” portions on the Dravidian movement weren’t removed. Mani Ratnam did not relent, but eventually, exhibitors did. Was it political vendetta that forced them to do so, or a dumbed down audience more interested in the kind of political film where a man becomes Chief Minister for a day, jumps on buses and beats the living daylights out of goons, we may never know.

What we do know is that IRUVAR, for its craft and Mani Ratnam’s fearlessness, is a landmark in Tamil cinema. Santosh Sivan’s majestic frames are studied by cinephiles all over India even today. Who needs cinemascope for a film to look epic? Ratnam and Sivan reinforced that the classical ratio still stood firm as the frame to capture the most expressive compositions. Sivan deservedly won the National Award for Best Cinematography for his work. Be it the previously cited scene of Anandan realizing his power or the one where he speaks on stage with the camera circling around during the speech, Sivan’s work blended the classical style of the early days with movements better known to the post-modern era. Yet, it is his use of natural light in static interior compositions and spectacular deep-focus photography, rarely ever seen in Indian films such as in the scenes below that exemplify his mastery.

Composition and Use of Natural Light in Interiors

Spectacular Deep-Focus Cinematography

The scene Santosh Sivan fanboys swear by. Score takes over dialogues that censors killed.

Equally significant is Suresh Urs’ editing which never allows a dull moment in a film clocking in at 2 hours and 38 minutes. The juxtaposition of shots is as meticulous as the shots themselves, allowing performances to play out, milking each for emotion to the maximum. The concept of “less is more” has never been exemplified better in Indian cinema editing, as Urs is never insecure about staying on shots without cutting away, as long as the shot itself is enhancing and diversifying the value of the scene. It remains a pity Urs’ edit was marred by censor cuts. The recently deceased Art Director Samir Chanda often goes unmentioned in discussions on IRUVAR and inexplicably so. The detailing of the time period is dexterous and impeccable. From the movie sets that Anandan shoots in to the detailing of the exteriors, Chanda’s work is exemplary.

IRUVAR sees Mani Ratnam speak a cinematic language that is perhaps still alien to a majority of the Tamil mainstream audience. Yet, he maintains a mainstream format of filmmaking, replete with lip-sync song interludes, which he uses craftily as part of his narrative. One of the most eye-popping of them is the politically charged “Udal mannukku, uyir thamizhukku” interlude, voiced by actor Arvind Swamy, shot in stunning Black & White, in angles and compositions reminiscent of a Kurosawa battle scene, which finishes with a rousing ovation at a local movie theatre.

A.R. Rahman brings back the style of the 50’s and 60’s in much of the songs with nasally sung melodies, heavy use of the accordion and harmonica, and even a superlative exploration of jazz and the blues in Hello Mr. Ethirkatchi and Vennila Vennila respectively, the latter sung to utmost perfection by the amazing Asha Bhosle. It is often argued that at times the songs hamper IRUVAR’s flow, at one point, two of them literally popping up back to back. But the music and picturization are so wonderful, Ratnam makes it difficult for viewers to keep up their complaints.

Fifteen years after IRUVAR’s release, or close to forty years since its setting, the film remains topical even today. The DMK-AIADMK rivalry in Tamil Nadu still prevails, the inseparable relationship between politics and cinema still plagues creativity, Tamil filmmakers still fear to tackle mature, political subjects, while the audience has moved towards patronizing a brand of cinema that couldn’t be farther away from what Ratnam attempted with this film. Yet, IRUVAR will live on, not just as Mani Ratnam’s greatest and boldest film till date, but also the only, albeit unofficial cinematic account of Tamil Nadu’s political history.

As I conclude this recollection of my favourite Tamil film of all time, I’d like to showcase the excerpt below that exemplifies every aspect of IRUVAR’s craft, and ends with the film’s single-most memorable line.

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