The enduring image I had of Iruvar before actually seeing the full movie in 2003 was Aishwarya Rai’s bottle-green dress backed by Harini’s sonorous voice singing “Hello Mr. Ethirkatchi”. I found this image captivating, not because of Aishwarya Rai but because it was a song from a Mani Ratnam movie.
Like most of my wannabe-intellectual friends I became a Mani Ratnam fan long before I saw this gem of a movie. In fact most of us do not know why we became Mani Ratnam fans. Was it because his movies struck a chord with us? Was it because he chose to make movies that attempted to be more relatable and grounded? Or was it because he genuinely believed in the marriage of the commercial and the connoisseur aspects of cinema? It could have been any of these reasons, but if truth be told, we became Mani Ratnam fans because we wanted to project ourselves as intellectuals. I always had this notion that people believed that someone who loved Mani’s movies had to have a certain level of intelligence. This was the fodder for the fan in me, until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam’ and decided to revisit his movies. This myth of mine came unfounded and hence I decided to dig up my dormant blog to write about it. I could have written about Mouna Ragam’s poignant brilliance, Thiruda Thiruda’s extreme irreverence or Roja’s patriotic love but after watching Iruvar, there was no hesitation in my mind as to which movie to base this post upon.
Iruvar, in my humble opinion, is Mani Ratnam’s best work till date and not a single movie of his, save Kannathil Muthamittal to an extent, has even come close to the poetic flow that this movie has. Most of Mani’s other movies can be easily defined as a collection of brilliantly conceptualized scenes put together by masterful screenplay and strengthened by brilliant performances. Iruvar, on the other hand, consists of these sweeping sketches, each of which covers a phase of the protagonists’ life graph. The signature style of Mani ratnam – Shadow and lighting contrast – is limited in Iruvar. The film instead has a very different type of contrast. It has a highly detailed period setting as far as visuals are concerned and these visuals are contrasted by music that is stylized to give a modern feel to this setting. The song ‘Aayiratthil Naan Oruvan’ is a superb example of this. While Mohan Lal’s costume and the whole setting of the song are detailed in period, the music gives a periodic feel only with respect to lyrics and the voice. Otherwise the song is replete with electric guitar and pads. Another striking aspect of Iruvar is the manner in which Mani has written the two lead characters. Both the characters have a core and a periphery. A simplistic biopic could have easily imitated the periphery of these well-known stars – similar costumes, voice modulations, looks - thereby instantly invoking their memories in the audience mind. But Mani chose the more difficult route. He imitated the core. At the core of Anandan was a larger-than-life actor, a romantic and a charismatic do-gooder. The context was left to Mohan Lal and he came out with a performance that shouted out ‘MGR’s core while conceptualizing a periphery of his own. Similarly, at the core of Thamizhchelvan was a writer, a wizard with words and a fierce Dravidian. I don’t need to say anything further about Prakash Raj’s portrayal of this character.
After the protagonists and the ensemble cast, each of whom came up with such a stellar yet sedate performance, the backbone of the movie, I felt, were Vairamuthu’s poems. When Prakash Raj mouthed lines like “Unnoadu Naan Iruntha Ovvoru Mani Thuliyum Marana Padukkayilum Marakkaathu Kanmaniyae” or “Udal mannukku Uyir Thamizhukku Idhai urakka cholvom ulagukku” I was mesmerized by the beauty of my mother tongue and also surprised by how easily I was able to understand these lines. Vairamuthu’s poems actually added a commercial aspect to the film by taking the viewer back to the sixties – the era of cinematic influence.
Mani Ratnam does not necessarily acknowledge the intelligence of his audience. He simply refuses to assume their gullibility.