It was a classic case of the right people coming together at the right time and making a project that was right in every aspect. My first introduction to ‘Iruvar’ (The Duo) happened when I was a 10-year old. I remember being so enamored by it that I was eagerly waiting for whatever the director was making next. It had the ambition and scale of Hollywood classics like ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘The Godfather’ films and belongs in the same league as them. (Now, the reason I mentioned ‘Citizen Kane’ is that I noticed a similarity between the two films. More on this later.) You see, back then, I didn’t know much about directors but I knew who Mani Ratnam was. I didn’t even know Tamil! But I had a strong fascination with the stories about powerful men. Since then (and now that I understand Tamil), I have seen this film more than twice.
Being a Malayali kid who was used to watching only Malayalam cinema, ‘Iruvar’ came along a fresh breeze and completely changed my perspective on Indian cinema. It was an invigorating experience for me despite not knowing fully what was actually going on in the film. Here was a movie that didn’t even slightly resemble anything that Malayalis were making at that time. Ratnam made something that was meant to give a workout for both your heart and your intellect. Even though Ratnam begins the film with a disclaimer that declares it as a work of pure fiction, audiences instantly recognized it as a tale that was inspired by the life of M.G Ramachandran and Karunanidhi, two giants of Tamil cinema who later dabbled in politics. The two main characters in the film, Anandan and Tamil Selvam, were based on M.G.R and Karunanidhi respectively. The entire film hinges on – and seeks the answer to – one question that Tamil Selvam (Prakash Raj) asks Anandan (Mohanlal) when they first meet: “Is this hero a dear friend or an esteemed foe?”
Their friendship is forged in the same manner as Orson Welles’ and Joseph Cotton’s in ‘Citizen Kane’. But this friendship is one that will be put to the test many years (and life-altering events) later. Anandan’s life, in particular, plays out like a classic rags-to-riches story. Ratnam’s screenplay doesn’t waste any time and traces his life from his earlier days – as a young actor dreaming of making it big in the Tamil film industry to a powerful politician decades later. Tamil Selvam is a firebrand screenwriter and also a political activist who occasionally invites controversy. Selvam shuns religion, superstitious beliefs, capitalism and all the absurd traditional customs that were prevalent at the time (and still are). The two come to understand that they would make a fine duo. Anandan becomes a heartthrob in no time, aided by Tamil Selvam’s writing. One man’s charisma and the other man’s pen – it’s a dynamite combination. ‘Iruvar’ is as much a story about Selvam as it is about Anandan and Ratnam depicts some of the major events in their lives as occurring concurrently. Anandan is married off to a young girl called Pushpavalli (Aishwarya Rai) and Selvam to Marathagam (Revathi). It doesn’t take very long for both of them to try their luck in politics. This is when their friendship starts to move in an unexpected direction. Selvam, being the most ambitious of the two, begins to suspect that Anandan might overtake him. He is opposed to the idea of a film actor joining politics.
A lot happen in between which I don’t want to spoil. Both characters witness their share of unfavorable and heart-breaking events – which are quite similar, especially when it comes to their relationships with women. Both men have romantic liaisons with several women – played by Tabu, Gautami and Aishwarya once again in a double role (supposedly based on Tamil Nadu’s current Chief Minister Jayalalitha). Like Charles Forster Kane, Anandan seeks the love that was once denied to him in other women. Selvam falls in love with another woman who fits his image of the ideal woman. To be frank, despite not being much into politics or knowing about the lives of M.G.R or Karunanidhi (I would later seek out material that would give me more information on the two), I found the film to be a riveting experience, right from the first frame to the last. And even though I don’t like the idea of seeing songs or dances in films, I made an exception here because they are fresh and energizing. The music composed by A.R Rahman, who was at his peak at that time, is out of this world. It does a nice job of filling in the small time gaps and also “muting” few portions of certain dialogues which were deemed too controversial. Out of the songs, my favorites are the instantly hummable “Aayirathil Naan Oruvan” and “Kannai Kattikolathey”. The picturization in some of these songs brings to mind the old films of M.G.R. They also serve as showcases for Aishwarya’s excellent dancing skills.
If I were to introduce someone to Mohanlal films for the first time, ‘Iruvar’ would be at the very top of the list (along with ‘Company’, ‘Vanaprastham’ and numerous other classics from Malayalam). His transformation from a cocky and overzealous young man to a reserved, world-weary and influential political leader is truly a masterclass of acting. There is a particular scene where he conveys his feelings with just his subtle facial expressions and this evokes Marlon Brando from ‘The Godfather’.He is supported by an aptly complementing and magnetic performance by Prakash Raj. As the unpredictable, arrogant and wildly ambitious Selvam, he is an intimidating presence. His character makes you wonder if, deep down, he really cares about his friendship with Anandan despite their mutual differences. You wonder the same about Anandan as well and you get a much better picture of everything in the final scenes. A casual viewer should be willing to overlook the political aspects and see it as a triumph of filmmaking. Ratnam was able to assemble some of the biggest names from the Indian film industry for the project. ‘Iruvar’ saw Ratnam collaborating once again with master cinematographer Santosh Sivan. No one in India shoots actors and large open spaces like he does. And beautiful looking skies, especially during twilight. I know it isn’t fair to compare his work with that of another cinematographer but I always saw him as the Indian version of Emmanuel Lubezki. There is one notable sequence where the camera revolves around Mohanlal multiple times while he is delivering a speech.
‘Iruvar’ is, undoubtedly, Ratnam’s greatest work. Although the film now enjoys something of a cult status, it was not a major box office success upon initial release unlike some of his earlier films. The reasons were several. Mohanlal, despite being a superstar in Kerala, hadn’t done that many films in Tamil Nadu. And Prakash Raj was an up-and-comer. (The two had acted together the previous year in a Malayalam gangster film called ‘The Prince’ in which Mohanlal played the son of an underworld don, played by Girish Karnard, and Prakash Raj his mortal foe.) And the film was deemed too intelligent for mainstream audiences. It required one to stay silent and pay proper attention to what was being said on the screen. Things that would otherwise please the male audience, like over-the-top action scenes and titillating content, were absent. Also, politics is a touchy subject in Tamil Nadu. Now you can find the film in the collection of almost every serious cinephile.