Exploring the music of Iruvar :: Introduction - IITamil cinema music
In the early days of the talkies, Tamil films were similar to their Northern counterparts. Cinema plots revolved around mythologicals, devotionals and social dramas, and actors had to be competent singers as playback was as yet unemployed. As a result, leading actors like M.K.Thyagaraja Bagavathar (K.L.Saigal is probably the best Hindi equivalent) sang their classical and semi-classical songs under the baton of composers like Papanasam Sivan and G.Ramanathan. Later, the classical streak would continue with legends like K.V.Mahadevan (who had a long and successful career, and was incidentally (the first recipient of the National Award for Best Music Direction). (Tamil movies also had a surfeit of action movies, usually historicals, where swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks-types would wield swords and shields in often well-choreographed sequences. MGR was one of the leading performers of this genre) However, it was the emergence of the duo of M.S.Viswanathan and T.K.Ramamurthy that caused a paradigm shift in TFM. (So much so that TFM is often broadly divided into three parts, one for each era of Viswananathan-Ramamurthy (V-R), Ilaiyaraja and A.R.Rahman. Naturally, this is unfair on several other gifted music composers through the years, but these phases capture succintly the prevailing mood over time as their impact has been tremendous).
V-R's immense success was because they ushered in an era of "light music" that was a lot more accessible to listeners than the more ponderous classical influence that was in vogue. They used "western" instruments such as the piano and drums, created simple, hummable and dulcet melodies, and contributed greatly to the success of films that starred all the major actors and actresses of that period. (Ilaiyaraja would do something similar with traditional folk influences and then programming, while Rahman's eclectic inspirations and sound engineering would revolutionise the state of film music in their times.) The impression that V-R wielded cannot be underestimated - film and light music had become genuine branches of music that could be critiqued differently. Singers like P.B.Srinivas, A.M.Raja and wife Jikki, T.M.Soundarrajan, P.Susheela, S.Janaki, and others would become household names with their distinctive voices.
It was also at this time that political thought began to be woven into film stories, dialogues and lyrics. Annadurai and Karunanidhi had been doing so with their plays (a rich theatrical tradition usually formed the background of many who were now working in films - actors, singers, lyrics, musicians, writers usually had a significant body of experience before moving to this more glittering medium) and were now starting to do the same with their silver screen outputs. The DMK had the fortune of being the party that many of the film stalwarts gravitated to. They, and not the party in power i.e. the Congress, were making things happen in the state (the Congress had become identified with Brahminical status quo-ists) and a new change was in the air. Lyricists like Kannadasan and Vaali had political views of their own. Since almost everyone involved had a political affiliation and as in most cases, these were of the same orientation, the political content of their collaborations became very significant. This is not to say that all movies were politically flavoured. They still made movies with fantasies, social melodramas, comedies etc., but the political agendas were not too far away. (Contrast this with the Hindi film industry, which in those days did have lyricists like Kaifi Azmi and Sahir who were politically active, but this never quite spilled over to the mainstream like in Tamil Nadu.)
In later years, after splits and machinations, things would come to such a pass that it was common for people to join or leave cast and crew after falling in or out with the likes of MGR and Karunanidhi.
Useful web references:
1. A very informative thread about MGR songs, the people involved, and their political content: 1, 2
2. A TFM forum thread on M.S.Viswanathan songs
3. Notes on K.V.Mahadevan: 1, 2
4. An Outlook article on Tamil film music (link via Sambhar Mafia)
(unfortunately, on the Web, there seems to be a lack of credible and summarised information on the history and influences of TFM, especially on specific individuals)
Iruvar's cast and technicians
Several members of the cast and crew of Iruvar put in performances of a lifetime. The film was a commercial disappointment, but many of those involved came out with their reputations enhanced.
Mani Ratnam: Iruvar, is IMHO, his best work till date. It had
everything you associate (and enjoy) with a Mani Ratnam film. Flaws apart, it showed
why in several departments and in sheer conceptualisation, he is head-and-shoulders
above many of his contemporaries. He also showed a keen sense of history, both
cinematic and political, and just for being a documenter of tribute, he needs to be
commended. The failure must have hurt (Dil Se(1998) would follow soon), and he went back to his other speciality
of the small, intimate middle-class genre with "Alai Payuthey" for some much needed
Incidentally, wife Suhasini wrote the dialogues for Iruvar.
A.R.Rahman: By then, Rahman was the biggest composer not just at home with commercial hits for Rajnikanth (Muthu (1995)) and Prabhu Deva (Love Birds (1996) and Mr. Romeo (1996)), but also in the country after the success of Rangeela (1994-95), Indian/Hindustani (1996-97) and Minsaara Kanavu/Sapnay (1996-97) (for which he won the National Award for the second time). But this was perhaps his first serious "period" score and showed that he could produce the requisite (and exquisite) diversity for a complex script of this nature.
Vairamuthu: Vairamuthu is in the Karunanidhi mould in that he writes poetry outside of films, writes extensively for films, and is politically inclined. In this film, he also had to provide pieces of poetry and blank verse for the Karunanidhi character. It was an admirable piece of work from the lyricist as we shall see in later posts.
Prakash Raj: Prakash Raj is not a native Tamil speaker (IIRC, he is Kannadiga), so it must have been daunting to play the Karunanidhi role as he did. He turned in a stupendous performance, all fire and brimstone, won himself a National Award for Best Supporting Actor and announced himself on the cinema stage. It would fuel his rise as a much vaunted "intense" actor.
Aishwarya Rai: This was her first film, a couple of years after the whole beauty pageant jamboree, and it created a buzz. Rai actually acts fairly well in the movie, first as the demure and shy housewife and then as the outgoing girl-actress. The movie showcased her dancing abilities as well and well, it didn't at all foretell the downward spiral of her histrionic evolution. Mani Ratnam has often surprised all with his ability to elicit quality performances from his actors, and Rai would be hoping a return to the stable with Guru will provide a glimpse of the promise of Iruvar.
Santosh Sivan: India's best cinematographer (who also made his pathbreaking "Terrorist" that year) teamed up with Mani Ratnam again to create an work of pure genius. The tracking, the Steadicam, the crane shots in this film are mindblowing. His contribution was felt even in the songs, and would win him a National Award for his efforts.
Sameer Chanda: Mani Ratnam has always worked with great art directors and Sameer Chanda did not disappoint. The sets and the props were meticulous, especially if you realise they had to create sets for sets of older films.
The cameos: We had Revathy and Tabu as the Tamizhchelvan wives, Gauthami in the Janaki slot, Nasser with his distinctive dubbing as Annadurai and many more stalwarts in small roles (even had Kalpana Iyer as Anandan's mother!). (The characters of the wives were never quite fully developed - one of the flaws)
Mohanlal: And finally for Mohanlal. Iruvar would never have been what it is without this brilliant actor. I have seen many of his acting gems, which is why it is with great care I say that this was easily his best performance ever. That he did not win any major awards for that performance is no reflection on it (ironically, the National Award that year went to two of his fellow Malayali actors). As the young actor trying hard to impress with his histrionics and sword-play, in his moments of despair, as the reticent entrant to politics who realises his star-power, as the aging and now wily politician, and finally as the man playing MGR, you will not see a more first-rate show in a movie.
Useful web references:
1. The Wikipedia page on Iruvar
2. (update) Baradwaj Rangan's succint summary of the influences of the film (which covers many of the points I noticed and plan to write about) (link via S. Karthik)
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