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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 myself) 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.