I reviewed this movie ages ago, and I am not an expert on Tamil history or society or even film. So in honor of Karunanidhi’s passing, this is the best I have to offer.
I was watching this movie so closely! So closely! I know the drill with Ratnam films, he just drops in these little bits and then moves on so you can’t look away for a second. And yet, I was still completely lost. But I don’t think it’s my fault! Or at least, not my fault because I wasn’t watching closely enough, but because I didn’t have the expected background.
A little over an hour in, Mohanlal is shot and it is specified over and over again that he was shot in the throat. Which is such an odd kind of wound! And also is when I suddenly went “Hey! Deja vu! I read about this in India After Gandhi!” So from then on I had the wikipedia pages on MGR and Karunanidhi and the DMK and AIADMK parties open the whole time for reference, and that made things a lot clearer.
(Never mind, this was the opening slide of the film, so I guess all of the similarities were just a random coincidence and it has nothing to do with MGR and the rise of the DMK)
I think that might be why it is called “Iruvar”? Which I keep seeing translated as “duo”. That the “duo” is not about our two heros (or not just about them), but about how film and politics work together in Tamil Nadu. And also in Andhra Pradesh with the Telugu industry, I have been told? That they are intertwined, sometimes helpfully and sometimes not. That maybe neither of them would become the powers they are today without the other. I think that’s why the repeated image of the film is Prakash raising Mohanlal’s hand to wave to the crowd, the politician acting as the movie stars puppet master, at the same time that the movie star lends his popularity to the politician.
That’s the big statement, I think, made by the film, both about the characters and about the entire political scene and the film industry in Tamil Nadu. That their coincidental meeting was the making of them both, Prakash Raj/Tamil politics getting the glamour and popularity of film, and the film industry/Mohanlal borrowing the rhetoric and passion from politics. But at the same time, the pure humble politician catches the desire for power and fame and love from the movie star, while the movie star catches the desire for respect and action from the politician. In the end, instead of being a symbiotic relationship, a melding of different skills and interests, it turns into a competition, as neither of them sees the need for the other any more.
But is that true? Even if the characters/social elements no longer see the need for each other, do we, the audience, see why they still need the other? I think so. I think that is what the end of the film shows, they need each other because they are the only ones who understand each other. After decades of film and politics in Tamil Nadu moving forward together on the same path, only a politician can really understand a film star and vice versa.
The “moving forward on the same track” part is what I find fascinating! Not so much about the politics, but about the film industry! What this movie is positing, I think, is that the strength of the Tamil industry is in its entanglement with Tamil politics. And that only after the film industry borrowed the power and passion of the local politics, the elements that made it distinctly Tamilian, did it become truly powerful.
Okay, I think I need to back-up here and take a moment to run through the significant moments of the characters’ journeys. And, I guess, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. Although, you could be just as spoiled by reading the MGR wikipedia page.
Mohanlal is a village boy who has devoted his life to studying traditional Tamil drama, including fighting techniques and acting. This goes hand in hand with his faithfulness to Gandhian politics, a belief in Indian values and rejection of everything Western. He is offered a starring role, thanks to his fighting skills. And the scriptwriter on the film is Prakash Raj, a fervent young Tamilian politician and writer. When he rattles off a triumphal challenge to traditional values on their first meeting, Mohanlal ignores the content of his speech and instead is thrilled by the skill of his language, sure that his touch of the film will make it a hit. Meanwhile, Prakash has no patience for any of the trappings of the film, seeing it only as a means to an end, a way to make money while focusing on his political work. But, is that the true vision of them both? Is Prakash just a believer who wants nothing for himself and is Mohanlal a simple starstruck boy? What drew them to each other in the first place? Is it that they saw in the other a hidden embarrassed part of themselves? I think that’s what the film is implying.
There are two scenes later where one challenges the other, changes their perceptions. First, after a political rally, Mohanlal asks Prakash what he would do if he ran the state. And he keeps pushing and challenging him until, finally, Prakash reveals his vision and his dreams. They are all hopeful and wonderful and naive dreams (wealth redistribution, education, etc.), but it is also an admission that Prakash does want power. Even if, right now, it is just power in order to right wrongs, it is still power that he wants. Not merely a humble service to the party.
And on the other hand, Mohanlal, that happy actor, has his own bitter quest for respect and social change. After he loses his first big chance when filming is canceled with the film unfinished, he goes to Prakash, who is riding high on an election win for his party. Prakash implies that the film is meaningless, in the face of what the party has accomplished today. And Mohanlal, for the first time, drops the happy facade. He reveals his bitterness, that he has worked and saved and sacrificed his whole life for his vision of Tamil theater, that Prakash has no idea what it is like to really struggle, that he filled his head with dreams and now he has nothing. It is an admission that Mohanlal doesn’t just want to be loved, to be famous, he also wants respect. And it is his political awakening, as he sees that the policies Prakash espouses can be used not just to punch up a film script, but to solve the problems of society in a more effective way than the national Gandhian philosophies he used to believe in.
It’s only after their mutual realizations, after they have worked on each other and changed each other, that they find success. When Mohanlal is called for his second film, he refuses to audition without Prakash Raj there to punch up his dialogue. Prakash Raj leaves his own child’s birth to come to the set with him. And together, they turn a simple story about a prince and a princess into a massive pro-Tamil statement with huge crowd appeal and power. Prakash gives depth to Mohanlal’s art, and in turn he gives glamour to Prakash’s politics, officially joining his party and appearing at public rallies in support. And in a bigger statement, this is why Tamil film/politics is so different from the national politics/Hindi film industry. Mohanlal started out valuing the training and history of Tamil performing. But it was only when he tied that with the modern aggressive Tamil political identity that he had a hit. And it was through the Tamil politics embracing of film stardom that the party was able to come to power in the state.
(No subtitles on this video, but trust me, it is all about “land arise! defend your honor! defeat your enemies!”)
But of course this partnership can’t last. They have become too similar now. At the first big political rally Mohanlal attended, he arrived late, creating a stir in the crowd that distracted from Prakash’s speech. Prakash happily capitalized on that, calling him up to the microphone to give a few remarks. And Mohanlal was content to merely defer to Prakash. Now, years later, Prakash wants what Mohanlal has. Significantly, when they first met, Mohanlal was dancing around with a sword, pretending to be a hero while Prakash turned film dialogue into political speeches. Now, Prakash is given a ceremonial sword signifying he is head of the party, while Mohanlal starts giving the speeches.
Oh, and somewhere in there Mohanlal is shot. There was really almost no reason for including that, except that they wanted to be really really sure the audience got that this was supposed to be MGR. It does almost nothing to progress the journey of the characters.
Really, there is no one moment that changes things for the characters. Except, maybe, for those two moments early on that I already mentioned, when Mohanlal forces Prakash to dream of having power for himself, and Prakash challenges Mohanlal to reveal his own desires for change and improvement in society. Otherwise, it is all internal, or off screen. There is a great shot when the camera pans across the empty legislative chamber while snippets of speeches and radio announcements roll out over the soundtrack, describing Mohanlal’s splitting of the party and seizing of power for himself.
And their “reconciliation” is just as lowkey. A public event that requires attendance by them both sees their eyes meet, an exchange of glances, and then Prakash offering a hand when Mohanlal stumbles, and a shared laugh as Mohanlal quotes a dialogue Prakash wrote him. And then Mohanlal leaves, to dies soon afterward. And then there is a very blunt ending sequence where Prakash is turned away from the funeral, and instead mourns Mohanlal alone, reciting their old dialogues at the monument where they used to meet. Blah blah, while in public they may have grown apart, in private they had the same shared beliefs, and so on and so on. But I like the quiet moment better, just smiling and laughing because, at heart, they never really had anything to fight about. I would have preferred it if Ratnam had ended with that, Mohanlal walking away, obviously frail, and then a little text box showing up saying he died the next day or something. But, Ratnam went with the bigger more popular ending, letting Prakash shout at the sky in a very cinematic heritage building.
Ratnam did a lot of things in this movie to make it more popular. For once, not the songs. Ratnam, of course, haaaaates doing song sequences. Which is hilarious, because he is so good at them! But in this case, I think they actually served his purpose. Because he wanted to show how the film industry developed in Tamil Nadu between the late 40s and the late 60s. And song sequences were the simplest and easiest ways to show that. Especially since he also wanted to show the influence of politics, and songs have always been the best place to slip in your political message. I mean, of course Rahman knows this! He stuck an explicit vision of Indian army violence and oppression into “Dil Se Re”!
(Ignore the romance and the beautiful music. Focus on the visuals. This is just plain anti-national propaganda!)
The songs are also used to show the innocence and romance of early film, and how it changed over time, through Mohanlal’s three romances. His first, his arranged village bride when he is a new star, is lyrical and magical, in lovely black and white. We see how even the everyday with her felt magic.
His second, the marriage of convenience and pity to his costar, is still lovely, but less magical and more human. We see how even the magical moments of film are just everyday. One of my favorite little bits is seeing her practice her steps with the choreographer for a moment before doing them all romantical and perfect with Mohanlal.
And then there is the final romance, with Aishwarya, the young actress who reminds him of his first wife (also played by Aishwarya). Only, instead of being a shy village bride like Aishwarya1 or an enduring and abused woman like his second wife (played by Revathi), she is a confident educated woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants. And this time the songs have a certain level of aggression and flirtation, she is dancing for him and around him while he watches.
Film has gone from an innocent magic, to a way to save a woman from abuse, to a way for a woman to exert her own power in a relationship. It has become powerful and respectable and it isn’t afraid to use its power. Which is why Aish is part of the final political film song, the one that sweeps Mohanlal’s party to power. It is a level of calculation and confidence that the earlier film industry, as shown through the earlier and more innocent love interests, would not have been capable of.
While Mohanlal’s love stories are shown through film songs, Prakash’s are shown through words. His carefully phrased wedding vows, his verbal challenges to his wife on their wedding night, not to be afraid to say what she wants, to demand passion and happiness, and his devoted vows to his mistress (second wife?) Tabu that every moment with her is the best moment of his life. Ultimately, Prakash’s words are no more meaningful that Mohanlal’s songs. Or, to put it another way, Prakash’s political vows are no more meaningful than Mohanlal’s movie magic. They both betray the women who love them.
Prakash promised his wife faithfulness and happiness, and he falls in love with another woman. We see only glimpses of how he balances the two relationships, but we do see a few moments where his first wife looks hurt and conflicted over her awareness that he has another woman. Meanwhile, Mohanlal promised love to Aishwarya2, promised to marry her, with many great romantic gestures, and backed out when his political ambitions got in the way. And Aishwarya2 makes it clear that she is hurt by this and knows that he betrayed her just because of his ambitions, not because of any concern for his wife, or for morality.
Let’s see, overall meaning, songs, relationships, what’s left? Oh! Performances! The casting in this was PERFECT. Mohanlal, a huge star with a massive faithful following and decades of experience, plays a huge star with a massive following and decades of experience. I mean, he’s also a good actor who does a great job in the role, transitioning from playing an innocent young actor with stars in his eyes to a tired old man who has lost all his illusions, but it wouldn’t have worked half as well if they hadn’t used an actual major star to play the major star.
Prakash Raj is predictably excellent. But more importantly, he is NOT a star. You need someone who is charismatic onscreen, who can act, who can deliver dialogue, but is also believable as someone who is more of a politician than an actor, who can’t combat the star power of a movie star, who can’t get the crowds to love him like that.
The two forgotten wives, Revathi and Gautami, are excellent, and also not real “stars”. I mean, yes, they are well-known actresses and all that. But they have a quieter onscreen energy, they are less shockingly beautiful, they are a good contrast to Tabu and Aishwarya. Gautami, because she has a quieter shyer way about her that doesn’t really spark with Prakash’s aggressive performance, it is clear why Prakash would want Tabu’s fire and strength. And Revathi because she is graceful and sweet, but without the shocking beauty of both Aishwarya1 and Aishwarya2.
Aishwarya is of course the real story here. This was her first movie and it is a fabulous showpiece for her. She appears to show great range, playing the shy village bride and then coming back an hour later as the feisty and sexual actress. And her dances are amazing. And the camera loves her. Of course, now it is 20 years later, and the camera still loves her, and the dances are still amazing, but the acting range appears to be a bit of an illusion. Especially considering that we now know what it is like when she isn’t dubbed and has to deliver her own dialogue. But in this movie, she was great! If this was all I ever saw of her, I would think she was an amazing talent.
Oh, and one fun fact which also makes me very fund of this movie, Aish’s above song is an homage to the greatest American film on the early days of film, Singin’ in the Rain. Which is also my favorite American film, period.