Exploring the music of Iruvar :: Introduction - IMGR, Karunanidhi, the plot
There are many Tamil film viewers who consider Iruvar to be among the best films they've ever seen. I'm one of those. Now, the film is far from being perfect, but as flawed efforts go, this one is a gem of the highest order. Film criticism has it that a good film has its whole greater than its parts, but Iruvar had several brilliant (and I use the adjective carefully) parts without being completely satisfactory. Clearly, the film was based on real people and events, and the very nature of that depiction was going to be highly controversial, mainly due to the levels of almost fanatical devotion these people have generated. To my mind, that seems to have affected the overall cohesion of the film.
Iruvar begins with a statement saying "this is not a true story" - a statement which is correct only in the extremely technical sense. For about 80% of the film is based on true people and events to such an extent that it serves as an almost accurate biographical account of the major milestones in the lives of Marathur Gopalamenon Ramachandran and Muthuvel Karunanidhi. In several films, Mani Ratnam has made coy references to real people and incidents, but never more overtly as in this film, which is why the opening disclaimer is either a case of chickening-out or a concession to those who'd have bones to pick. Unfortunately, I could not follow the local press in 1997 and since it was just before the WWW era where every aspect could be recorded in intense detail on a webpage, I couldn't find any notings on the controversies that dogged the film. That political opinions were raised I do remember, but not much else. I have often wondered whether the voice of the film was muzzled at points - there are some scenes where the dialogue is masked by background music, and the denouements of the Jayalalitha analogue and the ending as a whole seemed rushed and unsatisfying. Hence, my opinion of the film as being flawed.
Now, this film is unlikely to have the same kind of impact for those who do not know much about Tamil filmdom and the history of the politics in the state. They will miss the nuances, the multiple visual and audio references, the characters in the sidelights - a great pity for it is such a wonderful film. Hence I thought I'd make a quick gist of the context of the film without which any discussion of the music will be difficult.
Politics and films have been bed-fellows in many parts of India, but no coupling has been more passionate, potent, tempestuous or animated as in the case of Tamil Nadu. The almost seamless union between the two domains reached its apogee during the 40-odd years of the two men who ended up as the poles of their respective parties. "Parties" not "Movements", for the axioms of the *DMKs were fundamentally the same - the parties became (and still remain) personality-driven, which is perhaps due to the memes of filmstar egos. The Iruvar (or "The Duo") were MGR and Karunanidhi.
Now, most today remember MGR as the emblematic CM of Tamil Nadu who started life as an actor, became a superstar, and provoked a rash of inexplicable suicides during the most critical phase of his illness and after his death. So it's interesting to know that MGR was an outsider to Tamil Nadu, with his Malayali origins (note the "Menon" in his name) and his Lankan Tamil geographical roots (he was born in Kandy). Compelled to join a theatre company due to poverty, it wasn't until his early thirties and many setbacks later that he became a successful actor. The film that made his name was Rajakumari which was penned by a vigorous young script-writer and political activist named M. Karunanidhi.
M. Karunanidhi followed his mentor and leader C.N.Annadurai's model of brilliantly fusing political ideology in his plays, essays and later films. It was a natural progression for these litterateurs who realised the potency of such an amalgamation. Movies like 'Sivaji' Ganesan's acting debut "Parasakthi" fuelled the DMK's rationalistic, anti-Brahminism, lower caste empowerment movements. Karunanidhi would also cause a national flutter by leading the protests against imposition of Hindi in the state. Soon, he was the number two of the party after 'Arignar' Anna (who became the state's first non-Congress Chief Minister) and succeeded him after his death. MGR was pulled into the party, who benefited from the immense popularity of this actor, while MGR in turn also gained further stardom as the movies that these combinations provided were huge hits. MGR also acted in several of the non-political commercial romantic and fantasy hits and though his main rival was 'Sivaji' Ganesan, they would make the separation between the 'actor-star' and the 'star-actor' a paradigm that Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth would later pick up the mantles for.
Soon enough, the personalities and egos would lead to a parting of the two swords from the same scabbard, resulting in the formation of the AIADMK and sowing the seeds for a bitter political rivalry that only seems to worsen every five years. The women in the lives of these men also played a major role - Karunanidhi's two living wives, MGR's marriage (in all, he'd had three marriages - the first two died of natural causes at a young age) to a not-so successful actress and later CM, Janaki, and the much more public companionship of Jayalalitha Jayaram.
There were several more nuances to this relationship and even the cameo players such as various mothers, sidekicks, enmities and political strategies would make their story a very compelling one. One can see why a filmmaker like Mani Ratnam would be so seduced by the plot. That he made a superb film out of it is partly to do with the source material, and the perceived blemishes are probably due to the complexities of the times.
Iruvar was initially titled Anandam in reference to the MGR analogue played by Mohanlal. This would also have been an apt title, as the film's story splits roughly 70:30 in favour of 'Anandam' rather than 'Tamizhchelvan' (played by Prakash Raj). The sympathies are arranged in favour of Anandam as a result, and it is through him that we progress in the film. The film spans from Anandam as the struggling actor through his dizzying ascent to stardom, first box-office wise and later political, and upto his death. The intersecting story of Tamizhchelvan as the firebrand poet, writer and politician who befriends Anandam, ascends to the highest chair in the land and has to suffer defeat at the hands of the same person he considered his political protégé forms the remainder of the double-helix of the story.
(Now that Iruvar isn't a true story is a laughable claim because of the exceedingly careful detailing in many of the performances, setpieces, references to names, body language and events. We shall discover many of these looking at just the songs which as I said were a wonderful dedication to an entire generation of Tamil film music.)