Wednesday, January 11, 2017

20 years of Iruvar: My journey with the movie

Adhigaaram…Aatchi…Padhavi-ngardhu oru Poruppu; Aayutham Illa,” says one youngster, his eyes filled with hope, his heart brimming with idealism.  His friend replies, “Varumai Ozhiyanum…Illaamai Ozhiyanum.”  A couple of decades later, the two of them head opposing political parties, with one party worker claiming that the level of corruption in one party is 10 times worse than that of the other.  A few years later, one of the two friends, in the last stages of his life, feels the need to sit next to the other at a wedding.  Seated next to each other, they don’t exchange words.  The outward silence is probably the result of a thousand voices in both their heads, as they encapsulate the five decades of their friendship into five minutes.  A friendship that, over time, lost its innocence as a result of the trappings of realpolitik, jealousy and insecurity.  In those few minutes, the friends that had lost sight of their wide eyed dreams, slip into a joint reverie.  The next day, one of them passes away peacefully in his sleep.  The other delivers a stirring soliloquy.  End of movie.

Seen one way, Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is the tale of a friendship that never lost its ‘core’ despite potent forces – some of them circumstantial, others character foibles - chipping away at every side of it.  In the world of thamizh cinema, where characters and relationships are invariably painted in terms of black and white, Ratnam weaves a magnificent tapestry, so vast in its expanse, yet so nuanced in its shades, and knits it with such loving attention to detail that it makes for a new, enriching experience for a viewer every time he or she sees it.  

As the saying goes, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  As the two friends – Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj, giving the performances of their illustrious careers – gain celebrity status and political mileage, it is touching to see them almost struggle to retain the essence of their being from their younger days.  This is especially true in the case of the Mohan Lal character.  He rose to fame and power from humble beginnings.  So, he is especially sensitive about hunger and people (irrespective of social status) being well-fed.  In a scene where Revathy (playing Prakash Raj’s first wife) introduces her shy family members as fans of his, he promptly asks, “Neenga elaam saaptaacha?”  Years later, when he (now, the Chief Minister) orders for his friend to be arrested, he first says to the police officer that it’s not really a “victory” since his old friend is now in jail.  And, he adds, “Saaptacha?”  This moment is acted and directed in a completely understated manner, which is exactly why it resonated so profoundly. 

With Iruvar, the thing that I have noticed is that as time passes by, the movie ‘speaks’ to me differently.  As I look at my own relationships with my loved ones over time, I see that familial priorities, longstanding friendships, professional ambitions, materialistic desires, a quest for inner peace, all vie for space in my mind and heart.  Cutting through everything, I sometimes pause to ask myself whether I still retain that ‘core’ of my being - that I mentioned earlier in the context of the leads of Iruvar - while growing up and trying to be, not act, mature.  It is an important question, at least for me.  And, it’s a testament to the invisibility (a term that I read in a write-up by Baradwaj Rangan) of Ratnam’s filmmaking that the movie has never appeared to shove anything down my throat; instead, it allows me to luxuriate in my own thoughts and questions that result from the movie-watching experience.  

For all its audiovisual splendor, be it AR Rahman’s mesmerizing music (this is one of Rahman's best background scores too), the glorious cinematography by Santhosh Sivan or the marvelous artwork by Sameer Chanda, Iruvar has very few moments where these aspects call attention to themselves.  (An exception in point is the “Unnodu Naanirundha” sequence.)  Instead, the movie mostly invites us to watch the lives of these characters unfold in ways that they themselves could have scarcely imagined.  This approach is a reason why Ratnam comes across as an extremely mature filmmaker here, one who is in complete sync with his collaborators, working to ensure that every element contributes strongly to the cinema verite feel.  This approach was, in fact, one of the issues that I used to have with Iruvar.  Earlier, I used to feel that, for the first time in his career, Ratnam’s approach to a film and its characters came across as a little - for the lack of a better word - cold.  Certain movies move me, certain movies make me laugh but I guess with Iruvar, over time, the  movie has made me do two things – one was to reconcile to the fact that imperfections in the lead characters will always make them less endearing to audiences.  The other was to have the willingness to move away from the the evocation of pronounced emotion, to evaluate the worthiness of a movie.  

Pronounced emotions were probably on the diametrically opposite end of the acting spectrum as Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj were, in this movie.  If not for anything else, just to watch these two performers interact with one another in their scenes together, is one of the joys to be had in Iruvar.  A case in point - there are two similar, yet contrasting scenes in the first and second halves of the movie.  In both scenes, Prakash Raj is in the middle of a speech when adoring crowds gravitate towards the Mohan Lal character (the camerawork is stupendous; the camera literally sways in the direction of the Mohan Lal character).  In the first scene, Prakash Raj affectionately invites him on stage.  But in the second scene, which happens years later, Lal enters the arena late on purpose to test the magnitude of his following.  In this scene, Prakash Raj has to conceal his anger and instead, sport a faint smile in front of the huge crowds!  Just the way in which the duo play these two scenes is a case study in understatement of performances.  Several other members of the cast turn in solid performances – most notably Aishwarya Rai, playing two strong, contrasting characters equally well; Tabu, acing the short but strong role of the second wife of the Prakash Raj character; Nasser, playing the mentor to the two leads.   But to me, Iruvar was, is and will always remain the story of the two friends. 

As a huge admirer of Ratnam’s work, I sometimes experience a sense of wistfulness when I go back in my mind to the January of 1997 when Iruvar opened to a disastrous commercial response.  Of course, Ratnam moved on to explore other genres and constantly reinvent himself with various degrees of success.  But I do genuinely feel sad that, save a richly deserved National Award for Prakash Raj, the movie garnered true critical acclaim only over the years, to become a sort of cult favorite among critics and cineastes.  Beyond a point, it ceases to matter to me.  Because, every genuine movie lover makes a movie his own, irrespective of what others say or feel.  To me, Iruvar is a movie that I will continue to cherish, for the simple reason that the movie – as immutable as the outputs of this medium are – has metamorphosed over time to mean something different, something deeper.  That, I suppose, is sometimes more than enough!  Thank you, Team Iruvar.


The following is a cartoon sketched by Ravishanker (aka Zola) - I think it's brilliantly done!  Thank you, Ravishanker!


I don’t think this was the official trailer of the movie as the title of the video suggests.  But the video is cut very well indeed:


Nandini said...

I can't believe that so much thinking goes into your movie watching experience, Ram. Very beautifully weaved essay. :)

Anusha said...

I revisited Iruvar recently after our CM passed away. Not sure if that's a normal response.

Unknown said...

Brilliant writing Ram .. Still remember our initial conversations after watching this movie in the 90s & complaining that it was such a drag .. Revisited late last year and thoroughly enjoyed the movie.. As you rightly said how tastes evolve -

Unknown said...

Very well written. The Art direction too was class. Period props etc etc. Whether it is a cult classic today can be discussed and debated but it is true that the theatrical response was bad. Maybe one should analyse the dangers of using real life characters to inspire a fictitious version of actual happenings. When everyone knows a version of what transpired, when the main characters are revered by a large set of people there is a danger in fictionalised truth.

Unknown said...

Very well written. The Art direction too was class. Period props etc etc. Whether it is a cult classic today can be discussed and debated but it is true that the theatrical response was bad. Maybe one should analyse the dangers of using real life characters to inspire a fictitious version of actual happenings. When everyone knows a version of what transpired, when the main characters are revered by a large set of people there is a danger in fictionalised truth.

Ram Murali said...

Nandu - thanks! Going deeper is something that almost feels 'necessary' when viewing the works of a few filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, Vasanth, Mahendran, et al.

Anusha - that is a perfectly valid response, for a film buff like me! Recently, director K Subaash (Chathriyan) passed away and I went on a youtube binge to watch snippets from some of his films. So, I find it completely natural :)

Arun - thank you for posting your first comment on the blog. I am honored, thalaivare! Yes, I remember watching Iruvar with all of you in Woodlands :)

Mohan Raman Sir - thank you for the comment. Yes, absolutely - Sameer Chanda's work was splendid; great attention to detail, yet not overshadowing the drama. I see your point about fictionalizing people that have a massive following. I just feel like creators should have that freedom, especially when they're not using real names (be it characters or party names).

Anu Warrier said...

Ram, will read your essay afterwards. Just thought I would acknowledge the posting. :)

Zola said...

Ram : Thoroughly enjoyed your reminiscence - Im using this word in keeping with the spirit of the movie rather than review.

It was visually lush and a textbook on period piece filmmaking. The only discordant note was your "Thank you team Iruvar". I think Mani Ratnam should say " Thank you team Thinkinggotloud" mainly because like the film s brilliant execution your review glossed over the fact that the second half was heavily flawed and had glaring gaps between bat and pad. The batting was extremely pedestrian and well executed shots went straight to the fielders.

Im waiting for 'Luca Brasi' Anu Warrior to check in and do the honours read "tearing to bits".

All said and done after reading your piece I get the urge to see the movie.

Thats the bottomline - Great job Ram !

Zola said...

Ram : I was wondering whether this trope could be a game changer. If Ratnam had used your review as a title crawl probably the movie might have done better at the turnstiles. The emphasis you put on the term 'saaptaachchaa' is devastating.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thank you for your thoughtful comments. As my friend Arun mentioned in his comment, the love for Iruvar came about only as I grew up and became a serious movie goer. So, the observations like "saaptacha" and even finding a lot to like in the second half came about much later. Talking of the second half, here's what I would say - I enjoyed the first half because it's always fun to see the rise of stars captured on screen. In the second half, what interested me was watching what these people go through *as a result of* the rise that they experienced earlier. Power struggles, adultery, ego clashes - it was all there in the second half. And, I was fascinated by that.
As far as whether this is a "game changer" I think I am too late...20 years too late :) But thank you, anyway, for the warm compliment.

Ram Murali said...

Anu - I am waiting for your review (if you choose to do it) with bated breath. I am not alone - see Ravishanker's comment :)

Zola said...

Absolutely ! But lets give her some time will ya :)

By the way Ram. There s a book called The Godfather Legacy which is more absorbing than Godfather the book AND the movie. That reminds me about your write up on iruvar

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thanks! I quickly did a google search and I see an 88-min video titled, "The Godfather Legacy." Will check it out soon. Sounds very interesting!

Zola said...

Ram : I dont know about the video but do read the book during your next vacation break............and get one copy for me on your next trip to thainaadu my existing copy is coming apart at the seams ") (jus kidding)

Ram Murali said...

Note to Readers:

I have edited the post to include a cartoon by my friend Ravishanker. I think it's superbly done. Take a look!

Zola said...

Thanks so much Ram !

Really appreciate your posting this on Thinkinggotloud.

More important - Muchas Gracias for giving me an excuse to do Aishwarya Rai once more :)