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TAMIL cinema has existed for over eight decades, and each of these decades has thrown up stalwarts in several fields. So it may appear strange to single out a film of the nineties made by a technocrat of the eighties – Mani Rathnam’s Iruvar – as the work that defines Tamil cinema, as we’ve known it so far, as it is today, as it heads into the future.

Even if you agree that Rathnam is a sublime storyteller, a composer of poetry on celluloid, you could say he isn’t the most original in terms of content. Mouna Raagam (A Silent Symphony), the film that put him on the map, was essentially a reworking of Mahendran’s Nenjathai Killaathey, itself a silent symphony that emphasized mood over dialogue in telling the story of a woman (Suhasini, before she became Mrs. Mani Rathnam) who has to let go of a past love in order to come to terms with her present husband. With poems on celluloid that include Mullum Malarum, Metti, Poottaadha Poottukkal and, especially, Udhiri Pookkal, Mahendran proved himself a sublime storyteller almost a decade before Rathnam.

Even if you agree that Rathnam is a genius with form, you could say that he isn’t the first who made stylish flourishes a hallmark of his ventures. There was, for instance, C.V. Sridhar in the sixties who, right from his directorial debut with Kalyaana Parisu – the box-office bullseye that combined the eternal love triangle with the timeless comedy of Thangavelu – made a name for himself as a purveyor of classy, sophisticated products. A Then Nilavu or a Nenjil Or Aalayam or a Kaadhalikka Neramillai, Sridhar films all, in those days was considered the work of a genius with form.

Even if you agree that Rathnam has a gift for mining drama out of controversial, never-before-seen subjects, you could say there have been others with similar penchant for going into uncharted territories. S. Balachandar, in the fifties, made the first Tamil movie without songs or dances – Andha Naal, a Roshomon-like examination of truth that dared to portray Sivaji Ganesan as an anti-hero, as a traitor who sold his country’s secrets to the enemy.

Later, another similarly-named director, K. Balachander, broke rules and expectations – right from Neer Kumizhi (his debut, about the ephemeral nature of life) to Arangettram (about a Brahmin woman taking to prostitution to support her family), an Aboorva Raagangal (a love quadrangle involving two parents and their children) and Thanneer Thanneer (an indictment of the political scenario that couldn’t even bring water to a parched village in Tamil Nadu) to Vaaname Ellai (about a group of youngsters who make a suicide pact).

Yes, for all of Rathnam’s terrific talent with form and themes, he wasn’t exactly a pioneer in these areas. More precisely, there were others before him who, for their time, accomplished many of the feats we associate with Rathnam today.



Yet, I pick him as the representative of Tamil cinema simply because of what befell him – a stroke of serendipity that placed him at the right place at the right time. He happened to be there when the quality of most mainstream movie-making in Tamil was abysmal, when the time was ripe for someone to step in and herald a change. He happened to be around when fresh talents like cinematographer P.C. Sreeram – whose interest in the offbeat was evident in his participation in doomed ventures like Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kadhai, and who shot Rathnam’s Nayakan, Thirudaa Thirudaa and Alai Paayuthey, among others – were available for like-minded filmmakers to collaborate with. Most importantly, he happened to be there when India was opening up in terms of awareness through increased and improved communications, when good films from India were beginning to be appreciated throughout the country and abroad.

Saying that Rathnam was simply at the right place at the right time isn’t an effort to run down his genius; it’s simply recognizing that had he come on to the stage even a few years before he actually did, he would have probably ended up like a Mahendran or a Balu Mahendra, treasured by the Tamils but unknown elsewhere. None of the avant-garde efforts before Rathnam’s time – Rudraiah’s Aval Appadithaan, for instance – managed much awareness. Nor did any of the filmmakers from other regions – Karnataka’s Girish Kasaravalli or Kerala’s Adoor Gopalakrishnan – ever manage Rathnam’s level of popularity. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that were it not for Rathnam and his Roja, which spanned the proverbial Kashmir to Kanyakumari both in terms of its setting and its acceptance by audiences, we wouldn’t even be talking about Tamil cinema on an all-India level today.

The masses of Tamil Nadu may not always line up for Rathnam’s fare – it’s always the action-cum-sentiment packed masala entertainers that make the big bucks – but his is the name synonymous with Tamil cinema outside of Tamil Nadu, outside of India, and his underrated, underperforming Iruvar is a mirror of the many things Tamil cinema has been about, is about, and probably will be about.



Iruvar is the story of aspiring actor Anandan (Mohanlal) and writer Tamizhchelvan (Prakash Raj) who become friends and then fall apart. The aspiring actor, the writer and the key female character (played by Aishwarya Rai) are based, respectively, on M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa – so the film is, first and foremost, a marriage of cinema and politics, much like Tamil cinema, much like Tamil Nadu itself.



Tamil movies have always had strong ties to politics – the thirties Thyagabhoomi which wove real-life footage of Mahatma Gandhi into its story of a Brahmin priest espousing Gandhian ideals like the eradication of untouchability, the fifties Parasakthi that brimmed with Karunanidhi’s fiery anti-Brahmin and pro-Dravidian rhetoric, Yezhavathu Manidhan (that used Bharatiyaar poetry to under-score its political themes) and Kann Sivandhaal Mann Sivakkum, even the routine masala fare today that frequently features politicians as corrupt villains. The state too began its affair with films when K.B. Sundarambal became the first star to be nominated to the Madras Legislative Council, and the government has, at different times, been headed by screenwriters (C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi) and actors (MGR, J. Jayalalithaa, V.N. Janaki).

Iruvar means duo – The Duo is what it was called in film festivals – and the story is dominated by two people, the MGR figure and the Karunanidhi figure. Tamil cinema itself has, for the longest time, embraced the concept of pairs. In the movie, Tamizhchelvan, with his interest in poetry, comes across as the more classy person, while Anandan’s appeal is more directly to the masses, and this demarcation was shared by MGR in real life with Sivaji Ganesan, the other hero that constituted the duo that ruled Tamil filmdom for decades.

The latter, who began his career with Parasakthi, rose to become the sort of classy actor who could (and would) play anything from historical (Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Kappalottiya Tamizhan) mythological (Thiruvilayaadal, Saraswathy Sabadham) social melodramas (Motor Sundaram Pillai, Uyarndha Manidhan, Vietnaam Veedu) to just about everything else. MGR, on the other hand, went after the masses, carefully preserving his on-screen image of the good samaritan who defended those who couldn’t defend themselves – the Robin Hood re-dos like Malaikallan, quasi-historicals like Naadodi Mannan, or later films tellingly named Thozhilaali (worker) and Rickshawkaaran (rickshaw-puller). After the MGR-Sivaji duo, of course, came the rule of another twosome, the classy Kamal Haasan and the massy Rajnikanth, whose roles often project an MGR-like saviour of society and whose MGR-like rumblings about politics have become increasingly loud.



Iruvar details a slice of Tamil Nadu politics that’s clear only to a people who have been weaned on the MGR-Karunanidhi-Jayalalithaa interplay in real life, and hence harks back to a time when Tamil cinema was regional to the core. The film does not translate well across cultures, unlike director A. Bhimsingh’s hugely successful ‘Pa’ series of family dramas – Paavamannippu, Paalum Pazhamum, Padiththaal Mattum Podhuma, Paarthaal Pasi Theerum – which were Tamilian in flavour but lent themselves to translation and interpretation into other languages and cultures.

Many of the early landmarks of Tamil cinema – Poompuhar (based on Silappadhikaaram, the ancient gem of Tamil literature by Ilango Adigal), S.S. Vaasan’s Mangamma Sabadham and Avvaiyaar, Sivaji Ganesan’s historicals and mythologicals – were, like Iruvar, unique to the region, as are later works like Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (which was set in an all-too-generic North Indian village in its remake Viraasat) or what his up-coming Virumaandi promises to be.



Iruvar appears influenced by other sources just as Tamil cinema has frequently been. Aishwarya Rai first plays the short-lived wife of Anandan, then portrays a starlet who floors him because she looks exactly like the wife, and Anandan’s obsessive attachment to her seems very much like James Stewart’s obsession for the second Kim Novak (who looks exactly like the first Kim Novak character) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This sort of appropriation isn’t particularly Tamilian – it’s Indian – but the remakes sometimes redeem themselves with other virtues, like how Chase a Crooked Shadow became the stylish musical bonanza Pudhiya Paravai.

The title of Iruvar is itself reminiscent of AVM’s Naam Iruvar – a patriotic, if not exactly political, film of the forties whose success did much to veer Tamil cinema away from the mythologicals and the historicals into social themes. Before Naam Iruvar, save the odd Sevasadanam or Thyagabhoomi, most movies – Keechaka Vadham (the first Tamil silent film), Meenakshi Kalyaanam, Gajendra Moksham, Kalidas (the first Tamil talkie) – were based on epics and myths. Only later did the movies – from C.N. Annadurai’s Velaikkaari to Durai’s Pasi (shot amidst the slums of Madras) to Balu Mahendra’s Veedu – begin reflecting the world around. This transition can be glimpsed in Iruvar, in the segments that show the shooting of Anandan’s films which progress from raja-rani milieus to contemporary society.

Iruvar has a breathtaking style that brings to mind Tamil cinema, both old and new. The film is a passage through time, and an early song sequence showing Anandan – this name is itself that of a small-time hero of the fifties and the sixties who starred in the likes of Vijayapuri Veeran and Veerathirumagan – romancing his lady is shot in black and white, with the elaborately ornamental wipes found in films of the Ambikapathi period. Vairamuthu’s lyrics here incorporate suitably chaste Tamil words, A.R. Rahman’s heavily Carnatic style music appropriates the characteristics of early composers like G. Ramanathan and S.V. Venkataraman, and this song is sung by Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayashree. (While the former’s sweetly melodious voice isn’t exactly a fit with the robust male timbres of the time, say, that of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the latter suitably approximates the heavy voice of a P. Leela or an M.L. Vasanthakumari.)



The setting of Iruvar then changes to the sixties and we see studio sets, a heroine imitating Saroja Devi’s curvaceous dance moves, a tune befitting the Viswanathan-Ramamurthy era, and a soprano voice like that of P. Sushila. The vocal characteristics of T.M. Soundararajan, the star male playback singer of this period, are imbibed for the number aayirathil naan oruvan – a nod to Aayirathil Oruvan, an MGR hit – and the lyrics here go ini ezhugnaayiru ezhuga indha irul koottangal ozhiga, a reference to the Rising Sun (the DMK party’s symbol to this day) dispelling the surrounding darkness.

We then move to the modern period, expecting a song in the style of Ilayaraja, but what we get is a jazz-era piece that would fit right into The Cotton Club, and this incongruousness is also something that’s a part of Tamil cinema, where set pieces are simply about entertainment, without much regard to period detail. What’s important, however, is that each of these time periods and the corresponding sequences are stunningly shot and beautifully designed. This is very much true of today’s Tamil cinema – even the most routine potboiler is technically top-notch, and technicians from the industry are much in demand all over India.



Iruvar is unforgettable for the bigness of its canvas – from desert ranges to waterfalls, from elaborate sets that recreate a period to huge contemporary buildings that serve as the backdrop for political action. Tamil, and indeed Indian, cinema has always been larger than life, but bigness – not just in terms of remuneration, like the unheard-of one lakh rupees that was paid to get theatre star K.B. Sundarambal to do Nandanar, but in terms of scale – has also been a part of the industry right from the films of S.S. Vaasan, the Cecil B. De Mille of India.

Vaasan’s Gemini Studios – the one with the famous logo of the twins blowing bugles – churned out massive-scale entertainments like Balanaagamma, Aboorva Sagotharargal, Vanjikottai Vaaliban, and especially Chandralekha, with its climactic drum dance featuring hundreds of extras. The sixties saw the slew of gargantuan mythologicals and historicals with technicolour that sometimes hurt the eye, the eighties saw the films of T. Rajendar, a multi-tasking maverick whose grandiose sets were often major attractions, and today, a Shankar is known for his large-scale successes filled with special effects.

Iruvar stars Tabu and Aishwarya Rai, both actresses of fair complexion who do not know a word of Tamil. (The two would co-star again in Rajeev Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain.) This occasionally happened earlier, when Radha Saluja appeared in a series of hits opposite MGR or when Bharatiraja tried to palm off the pucca-Punjabi-looking Rati Agnihotri as a Tamil Nadu villager in Pudhiya Vaarppugal, but it’s after Khushboo stormed Chennai and blazed a trail of success that northern heroines (Simran, Jyothika, Kiran) have become a must in Tamil films.

The heroes of Iruvar, interestingly, aren’t stars but actors, which is again something occasionally found in Tamil cinema. The male stars, the top heroes, are usually worshipped like Gods, but there has always been a place for unconventional leads, like Vijayan in the seventies, who appeared in Udhiri Pookkal and Niram Maaraadha Pookkal.



Iruvar reflects realism – the Malayali flavour of Mohanlal’s Tamil underscored the fact that MGR himself was a Malayali – and this is something Tamil cinema has increasingly embraced, more so since the entry of Bharatiraja. The latter, with his debut in 16 Vayadhinile, moved films out of the studios and into villages to bring rustic sights and sounds like never before. He also tackled several real issues – Vedham Pudhidhu dealt with the caste system, Pudhumai Penn was about the position of women in society – and earlier creators like Jayakanthan have explored real (as opposed to melodramatic) relationships in films like Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal.

Another aspect of the realism in Iruvar is found in the absence of a separate comedy track, and today even the odd commercial effort like Kaakha Kaakha or Pithamagan has done away with the intended-for-laughs insertions that have been integral to Tamil cinema from the days of N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Madhuram. Most mainstream movies, of course, still have comedy tracks, but even there you have funny men, like the socially responsible Vivek, who try to infuse some semblance of reality into their wisecracks.

Iruvar was a good film that met with a pathetic response at the box office, a phenomenon all too true of Tamil cinema. Anything that’s too different is usually rejected by the masses, as Kamal Haasan recently discovered with Anbe Sivam and Mani Rathnam himself found with his last release Kannathil Muthamittaal.



However, Iruvar won other wars, with invitations to film festivals around the world – like the 51st Locarno International Film Festival 1998 – much like Nayakan was screened at Toronto. Quality Tamil cinema that doesn’t work locally today often finds fame elsewhere — Hey Ram, for instance, became part of a course on Indian cinema at the University of Iowa.

Iruvar, finally, represents something positive – the ambition of current Tamil cinema. Tamil films have always been ambitious, but mostly in terms of scope and scale. Today, the ambition is more about themes, about risks. A director like Bala is not only able to get away with his utterly morbid scenarios in Sethu, Nandha and Pithamagan, he also lands top heroes like Vikram and Surya to participate in them. Mani Rathnam himself, after all-out commercial fare like Agni Natchatiram and Thirudaa Thirudaa, has become more artistically ambitious with the much-lauded likes of Bombay and Kannathil Muthamittaal.

Tamil cinema will always remain slave to the box office, but even in the midst of mere masala, there is enough scope for art and craft, which is what is exemplified by Mani Rathnam and his Iruvar.