Iruvar (1997)

Iruvar

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is essentially a story about friendship but it manages to encompass cinema, politics and plenty of associated drama along the way.  From their first meeting in the film industry, through their membership in the same political party until Anandan and Tamilchelvam end up as rivals for the position of chief minister, the friendship between the two endures the many challenges they face.   Despite the disclaimer at the start that the film is a work of fiction, even a cursory glance at the biography of Tamil film legend M. G. Ramachandran shows many parallels between his life and that of the character Anandan (Mohanlal).  It’s also apparent that MGR’s real life political rival, M. Karunanidhi is the character Tamilchelvam, portrayed by Prakash Raj, while other counterparts from the same era are also featured in the film. Although I don’t know enough about the lives of M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi to comment on how accurately the two characters do resemble their real life counterparts, not knowing the true events isn’t a hindrance to enjoying the film.  It’s an exceptionally well told story and features not only brilliant performances from the two leads Mohanlal and Prakash Raj but also features an excellent début from Aishwarya Rai.

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The film opens with the young Anandan (Mohanlal) looking for acting work and finally achieving his dream of becoming a film hero assisted by his friend Tamilchelvam (Prakash Raj).  The initial meeting of the two men typifies their characters.  Anandan doesn’t always seem to understand or agree with everything the poet Tamilchelvam says, but he is impressed by the man’s obvious sincerity and self-belief, and asks Tamilchelvam to write his dialogues for him.  Anandan is a simplistic man who just wants a good paying job so that he can look after his mother, while Tamilchelvam is more idealistic and wants to use his words to change the world.

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As Anandan’s star is rising in the film industry, Tamilchelvam continues to work as a screenwriter although he also becomes active in a Dravidian social party led by Velu Annachi (Nasser).  At the same time the two friends get married although Anandan is tricked by his mother into tying the knot with a local girl Pushpa (Aishwarya Rai) while Tamilchelvam marries Maragatham (Revathy), a girl approved for him by his political leader.  Despite their inauspicious beginnings, Anandan rapidly falls in love with Pushpa’s lively innocence and charm, although he leaves her with his mother when he goes back to work.  Tamilchelvam on the other hand spouts speeches about equality in marriage on his wedding night while Maragatham is more traditional and superstitious which doesn’t bode well for their future together.

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This song intersperses a romantic film song featuring Madhoo in a guest appearance with scenes from Anandan’s marriage presumably suggesting that the real-life relationship was as idyllic as the fairy-tale filmi romance.

As their careers progress, Anandan becomes a star, able to draw crowds although he doesn’t appreciate his popularity until it is forcibly shown to him by Tamilchelvam.  This is demonstrated in an excellent scene where Tamilchelvam takes Anandan up onto the roof to show him the hundreds of people waiting for a chance to catch a glimpse of the film star.  Anandan’s slow recognition of his fame is perfectly played by Mohanlal, but once he has recognised the fact, he knows how to work his popularity and make the most of it.  Anandan also joins Tamilchelvam’s political party, although he is looked on with suspicion by the other party members who feel that Anandan is using the party to further his film career, while Anandan feels that his film fame is being exploited by the party to pull in more voters.

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The contrasts between the two men are expertly illustrated in their interactions with each other and with the other characters.  The more idealistic and driven Tamilchelvam prints pamphlets and makes long inspiring speeches at political rallies while Anandan just declares that he wants everyone to be happy.  After Anandan’s first wife dies he marries his co-star Ramani (Gautami) almost by chance.  Ramani turns up on Anandan’s doorstep in distress, fleeing from her abusive uncle manager (Ravi) and since Anandan doesn’t seem to have much else happening that week he decides to marry Ramani to keep her out of her uncle’s clutches.  In contrast, Tamilchelvam sees Senthamarai (Tabu) at a political demonstration and arranges for her to come to Chennai to be his mistress.  Tamilchelvam is proactive and driven, and plans his life to realise his ambitions while Anandan is more reactive and laid-back, seeming to fall into his success by chance, although helped by his natural charm and talent.

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Aishwarya Rai has a double role and appears again as Kalpana, a new actress who works with Anandan despite his initial reservations, due to her resemblance to his first wife.  It’s an impressive performance from Aishwarya who is feisty and assured in complete contrast to her role as Pushpa.  She also looks gorgeous and the songs featuring her and Mohanlal are some of the highpoints in the film.  Kalpana is apparently based on Jayalitha, although seemingly only on her acting career,since the character doesn’t have any political aspirations in the film, and has an early and off-screen exit.

Iruvar seems to deal lightly with Anandan, using Tamilchelvan more as a contrast with the actor, although both men are treated fairly without any particular bias for one side over the other.  It’s a very human look at politics and the realities of power as these men, with their great ideals and desires to change the fate of the common man, still end up with similar policies to the previous party. Despite their eventual opposition in the political arena, Anandan and Tamilchelvan seem to be able to maintain their respect for each other, even as they battle to keep power.  Their relationship is complex and often threatened by the actions and opinions of others but both characters keep true to their basic personality, which ensures the friendship appears realistic. Mohanlal is superb as Anandan using his facial expressions to wring every possible emotion out of every scene.  He is often understated and conveys his emotions very simply but with great effect.  Prakash Raj is just as good as Tamilchelvam and his evolution from passionate young activist to elder statesman is perfectly portrayed.  The two combine together to make every moment they are on screen absolute gold. Santosh Sivan’s excellent cinematography also helps the film stand out with good use of camera angles to capture the large party rally’s contrasted with the more intimate scenes.

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I read that there was opposition to the film’s release (as might be expected given the reputations of both MGR and Karunanidhi) and certainly Iruvar has suffered at the hands of the censors.  A number of apparently stirring political speeches are muted partway through by loud music, and judging by the sudden jumps in the screenplay, a few seem to have been cut altogether.  But the relationship between the two men still comes across clearly and Mani Ratnam has drawn every possible nuance of their association in exquisite detail.  The censorship is interesting given that at one point Anandan makes a film which apparently portrays Tamilchelvam’s party in a negative light.  Tamilchelvam’s response is one that I’m sure all film-makers and reasoning adults would like to hear from more governments, particularly considering the recent issues surrounding Vishwaroopam.

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The music and songs by A.R. Rahman are of a high quality and vary in style to illustrate the different cinematic eras encompassed by the film, although the time frame is never explicitly stated.  These range from the jazzy and more upbeat songs pictured on Kalpana to the more traditional and classically driven song Narumugayie.  Farah Khan was the choreographer which is probably another reason why the songs all work so well with all the dancers in sync.  This is probably one of my favourites as Aishwarya sparkles on the screen while Anandan and Ramani watch in the cinema. Anandan’s face as he realises Kalpana’s resemblance to his dead wife is a study in shock, horror and sheer disbelief while his wife is totally oblivious to his reaction.

Iruvar is a fascinating story about two very influential men, made even more absorbing by its basis on real people.  Although the censorship cuts do make some of the underlying details more difficult to follow, especially for those (like mysef) who don’t know the true story, that doesn’t detract from the compelling nature of the relationship between these two giants of Tamil film and political history. Entertainment and education all in one – perfect! 4 ½ stars.

 

Vanaprastham (1999)

Vanaprastham

When I asked for recommendations for Mohanlal films some time ago, Vanaprastham was mentioned a number of times, and now I understand why so many people suggested it.  I think this is the best performance by Mohanlal I’ve seen, and it has whetted my appetite for more of his films.  Although Vanaprastham is a simple story about a Kathakali performer set in the middle of the last century, Mohanlal’s performance brings depth and intensity to the role and he is mesmerising.  Presumably due to the fifties era, there is plenty of repressed emotion and the reliance of the Kathakali performer on facial movement transfers directly as Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) doesn’t say much but rather lets his expressions and in particular his eyes,  speak for him.  It’s a sad film, but it’s beautifully shot with gorgeous costumes and, as ever in Malayalam cinema, stunning cinematography.  Like the previous Shaji Karun directed film I watched (Kutty Srank), there is much about the story that is untold and left to the imagination, although the drama does proceed more linearly here.  Just in case anyone needs any more motivation to watch, Vanaprastham (aka The Last dance or Pilgrimage) screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival when it was released in 1999, and won accolades at other international festivals as well as a number of National awards.

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Kunhikuttan is introduced by a series of brief images interspersed between the opening credits which suggest that he is a lazy man who drinks, is looked after by his mother, disliked by his wife and adored by his daughter who is desperately trying to get his attention. And while that does sum him up on a purely superficial level, there is much more to Kunhikuttan.  A flashback shows his acceptance into dance classes as a child in the thirties, and reveals that he has never had any contact with his nobleman father.  This is a loss which he feels throughout his life and it appears to at least partly explain some of his reactions to subsequent events.  There is a lovely connection here between the scenes of the dance school with Kunhikuttan as a child and then again as an adult, where the same background of the temple elephants being dressed in their finery is unchanged despite the changes in Kunhikuttan. I also love the young Kunhikuttan’s expressions as he dances, particularly compared to the more rigid faces of the other boys.

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Kunhikuttan has an unhappy arranged marriage and his wife Savithri (Kukku Parameswaran) seems to despise him and his performance career.  Her antipathy towards her husband is one of the ’things that are never explained’, and there didn’t appear to be any obvious reason behind her animosity. Kunhikuttan’s daughter on the other hand adores him, and she is the one bright spot in his life outside of his stage performances.

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At the start of the film, Kunhikuttan has just reached the point in his career where he is able to play male roles, and he takes on the part of Arjuna in a performance which is seen by the niece of the Diwan, Subhadra (Suhasini).  Her character is at first only glimpsed as a hand at the window of the women’s viewing area, and this seems to be a foretelling that she is a private and somewhat hidden persona. Although one with excellent taste in jewellery.

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Subhadra is always alone and lives in a large house with only two elderly servants for company. She is mainly depicted as always writing, sometimes even during the performances, and she seems a rather pitiable character who is lost in her own dreams and fills her days with illusions.  She falls in love with Kunhikuttan but it is immediately apparent that she is obsessed with Arjuna the character rather than Kunhikuttan the man.  All her writing is put to good effect though as she writes a version of the Arjuna/ Subhadra story which she persuades Kunhikuttan to perform.

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Subhadra’s obsession is clear in the scene after the two have made love.  Subhadra seems to revel in the smears of make-up on her face and looks ecstatic, while Kunhikuttan sneaks out of the room, guiltily carrying his costume and immediately goes to bathe.

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Subhadra has no time for Kunhikuttan the man and when she has his child she allows him to meet his son briefly and then explains that she will have nothing more to do with him.  Kunhikuttan yearns to be with his son, particularly since he never knew his own father, but he is denied the opportunity to be a part of his son’s life. This is just one more pain for Kunhikuttan to deal with, along with his continual poverty, his unhappy home life and the looming illness of his friend.

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Mohanlal expresses his emotions perfectly, showing restraint and sincerity throughout.  His easy camaraderie with his fellow performers, his obsession with his son and the deteriorating relationship with his wife are all brought clearly to life.  Suhasini is also excellent as Subhadra and is particularly good in her scenes with Mohanlal when she is obsessing about Arjuna.  At times the film does get a little confusing, and the occasionally obtuse nature of the subtitles in my DVD copy didn’t help.  Kunhikuttan’s friend who is one of the singers is called Namboothiri, but I think that Kunhikuttan also uses this term (which I believe means Lord) to refer to his father.  Kunhikuttan goes to Kasi to perform rituals which I thought were for his friend, but later seemed to be for his father.  The ageing effect is also not terribly obvious, and it is only because Kunhikuttan’s daughter grows up that I was able to work out a significant amount of time had passed.

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The cinematography by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta is simply stunning.  The natural world is cleverly contrasted with the artificial world of performing and every image is full of detail.  The art-form of Kathakali is showcased with beautiful images of the performances as well as glimpses into backstage life.  It’s a visual feast and at times I needed to rewind to fully grasp the action as I was distracted from reading the subtitles by the quality of the imagery.

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I was impressed by Mohanlal’s dancing, particularly since he isn’t a classically trained dancer and yet as far as I could tell, he held his own against the professional dancers in the cast.  I found it surprising that the dancers were all living in poverty despite the apparent recognition of their skills and I wonder if this is still the case to-day.  The costumes certainly all look expensive and they must go through truckloads of make up for each performance too!

Vanaprastham is full of symbolism, from the title referring to the stage of life where spiritual concerns take over from the day-to-day responsibilities, to the parallels between the story of Arjuna and Kunhikuttan’s life and I’m sure that there are many more details I missed. The performances are excellent, the background music by Zakir Hussain blends with the traditional songs and the story which seems so simple initially has plenty of complexity and depth.  It’s an absolute must watch and I thoroughly recommend it! A full 5 stars.

Manichitrathazhu

I love this film! It was probably the very first SI film I ever bought back in the days before I had any idea about the industry. I watched Bhool Bhulaiyaa in the cinema and then read that the dancing was better in the original movie, so immediately hunted down a copy. And really, it’s not only the dancing that is better! Manichitrathazhu was released in 1993 and has since been remade in a number of different versions but of the three I have seen, the original is definitely the best.

In contrast to the more comedy orientated Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Manichitrathazhu actually works well as a ghost story with some genuinely eerie scenes and unexplained happenings to set up the story. Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) and his wife Ganga(Shobana) move in to his ancestral home, Madampilli house to live for a few months while Nakulan works in the area.

The house is reputedly haunted by the vengeful ghost of a Tamil dancer Nagavalli and that of her murderer, the rich nobleman Sankaran Thampi. Their spirits are said to be held in a room of the mansion and the door is locked shut with the ‘ornate lock’ of the title. Ganga and Nakulan both disbelieve totally in such fanciful ideas, but Ganga is fascinated by the story of the doomed dancer and with the help of Nakulan’s cousin Alli (Rudra) she contrives to open the room. To my disappointment, and possibly hers as well, no vengeful spirits rush out, and she only finds the dust of ages and a box of Nagavalli’s jewellery.

Once the door is opened however there are a number of strange happenings around the mansion. Various articles catch fire and the sound of ghungroos and music are heard at night.  The head of the family Thampi (Nedumudi Venu) and his bumbling brother Unnithan (Innocent) move their families into the house to try to protect the couple as well as attempt to confine the spirits back to their room.

This part of the film is captivating with the juxtaposition between science and superstition and the various ways the family deals with the apparent ghostly manifestations. On the one hand Thampi and his family tie charms to ward off evil spirits, employ priests to hold ceremonies and engage a tantric expert to pacify the spirits, while Nakulan steadfastly refuses to believe in any supernatural entity and calls in his friend and renowned psychiatrist Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal). Although from Dr Joseph’s introduction it’s hard to know which of the two methods is the better choice.

Nakulan suspects his ex-fiancée, Thampi’s eldest daughter Sreedevi, of causing all the incidents around the house. Sreedevi is a quiet and withdrawn girl who apparently has an unfortunate horoscope and who also seems to turn up at the wrong place every time something strange happens. With the arrival of Dr Joseph the story shifts from the supernatural into more of a psychological thriller as the psychiatrist does not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity either and decides that there is a mentally disturbed human agency behind the disruptions. Dr Joseph goes about tracking down the culprit with his unique methods, and then has to deal with the consequences of his discovery.

The only thing I don’t like about this film is the character of Dr Joseph despite Mohanlal’s best efforts and terrible shirts. I find that the over-the-top comedy aspect detracts from the more serious side of the story when it starts to delve into the issues of mental illness, and a lot of the antics Dr Joseph engages in are just irritating. However it’s not supposed to be an exploration of mental illness and I don’t find the attitudes of the other characters annoying in the same way. The patronising and condescending manner of Dr Joseph in his ‘comedy moments’ is horrible though and I don’t like way his character sleazily tries to woo Sreedevi at the same time as’ accusing’ her of mental illness. And yet, when the action takes over and the jokes stop, Dr Joseph is much more likeable and I wish that Mohanlal had played him as a straighter character for the whole film.

Shobana on the other hand is amazing as Ganga. She plays the character so well and thoroughly deserved the awards she won for her performance. Vinaya Prasad as Sreedevi doesn’t get as much screen time but she plays the quiet and unassuming character with the appropriate dignity and reserve. The two uncles Thampi and Unnithan together form a ‘comedy-light’ track and it’s generally well done and fits into the story without detracting from the main action. However the comedy track involving the tantric expert Brahmadattan Nampoothirippadu (Thilakan) is a little too slapstick for my taste and just isn’t very funny. Suresh Gopi is fine as the rather utilitarian husband dealing with the unexplained happenings in his ancestral home, but he is frequently overshadowed by Shobana and Mohanlal. The other minor characters are all good in their roles and I really like the actress who plays Unnithan’s wife. She had some great comedy moments and was very natural in her role.

I haven’t said much about the dancing which was the whole point of watching this film initially, but the highlight is the final climax song. It does give away the identity of Nagavalli though so skip it if you don’t want to know. Otherwise click here for the best depiction of Nagavalli I’ve seen.  The whole sound track by M. G. Radhakrishnan is lovely too and this is another beautiful and moving song from the film.

As seems to be the case with most Malayalam films, no matter what the subject matter, the film looks beautiful. The house used for the shoot appears to be a labyrinth and the various characters often have to run up and down stairs, along corridors and through innumerable doors to get to the scene of the action. Nothing ever seems to be shot against a blank wall, but instead is filmed against doorways, windows or beautiful shots of the country side. While no actual ghost is seen, there are shadows and suggestions all made more chilling by the use of claustrophobic corridors and shapes glimpsed through far doorways. The décor of the house is also well thought out with the couple’s room having the feel of one where the occupants are only there for a short time. And of course I also noticed the clocks.

I love the music and the whole feel of the film. It’s a great story by Madhu Muttam and Fazil has done an excellent job with his direction to bring it to life. My only complaint is with Mohanlal’s overly jocular psychiatrist and I can manage to live with that since the rest of the film is so well presented. No matter how many times I watch it I still get totally involved in the story again and eagerly wait for that wonderful dance. 4 ½ stars

Temple says:

I really like ghost stories, and Indian cinema has some good examples of spooky, understated and haunting (ha!) films. I like a lot about Manichitrathazhu, and totally agree with Heather on the beauty of the house and location that add so much to the atmosphere, and the excellent dancing in the denouement. Shobana is a compelling and beautiful heroine, and gives Ganga a great deal of emotional depth and energy. There is much more to Ganga than the dutiful wife who mutely follows her husband’s lead, and Shobana brings her to life. But Mohanlal really spoils it for me. I disliked his characteriation of Sunny Joseph on first sight and thought he failed miserably to balance the unconventional prankster with the more serious practitioner and friend. Watching it again, and knowing how it ends, there is no suspense left to distract from the shortcomings of how things happen. This may be considered sacrilege but if I could play mix’n’match, I would replace Mohanlal with Rajnikanth (in the Tamil version, Chandramukhi) who at least has enough charisma to overcome a fairly silly character. And I would probably want Vidya Balan (Bhool Bulaiyaa) or Anushka Shetty (Nagavalli, the Telugu sequel to Chandramukhi) in the supporting cast with Vinaya Prasad as long as they left the dancing to Shobana! I initially watched the film on the strength of one dance sequence and that is still the most memorable element for me. The songs from the Tamil and Hindi versions are also worth a look even if you don’t fancy the whole film, especially the final classical styled songs that feature Vineeth.

Manichitrathazhu is a pretty looking film, has some excellent atmospheric scenes (although it never caused me the slightest goosebump), and the soundtrack is pleasant. I recommend watching it, but unlike Heather I don’t think it stands repeat viewings unless you have a serious interior design fetish, a very poor memory or a very high tolerance for Dr Sunny.  3 1/2 stars.