Released in 1997, Mani Ratnam's "Iruvar" was a box office disaster. With Mohanlal in the lead, speaking a Malayalam accented Tamil, this film set in Tamil Nadu's intriguing and dramatic political past failed to draw audiences to the theatre. At that time, the heavy subject, an unfamiliar hero, the Tamil poetry, the black and white segments and the lack of populist elements worked to the film's disadvantage. Some also say that the film was deliberately sabotaged - from being denied a censor certificate initially to politicians making legal and physical threats, "Iruvar" had a difficult birth.
Towards the end of 2016, nearly twenty years since its release, however, the film remains one of the few attempts to capture the heady days of Dravidian politics and the rise of three chief ministers of the state with some degree of authenticity.
The parallels between the reel characters and the real life ones are obvious. Mohanlal who plays Anandan, an aspiring actor, is moulded on MG Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu's charismatic actor who went on to become the CM of the state.
Thamizhselvan (Prakash Raj), his dear friend and the one who inducts him into the Dravidian party to use his fame for winning votes, is based on Muthuvel Karunanidhi. And the much younger, the beautiful Aishwarya Rai who plays the innocent Pushpa and later the glamorous actor Kalpana is meant to be Jayalalithaa - although the film kills her character off after giving us a hint that Anandan would like to bring her under his guidance into the party.
Even though the film broadly tackles a vast period of time in Tamil Nadu politics, at its core is the duel between the two friends Anandan and Thamizhselvan, their dreams and aspirations - which explains the title. The duo who start off by being inseparable, one struck by poverty and the other by poetry, bounce off their grand plans and ideas on each other. We're shown how their life progresses in alternating cuts in many sequences.
In the beginning, Thamizhselvan appoints himself as a mentor to the relatively naive Anandan who is awed by the former's intellect. But soon, the crafty politician in Thamizhselvan sees the potential in Anandan's stardom, achieved through a hard journey of disappointments, and brings him into his political party.
It's clear that Thamizhselvan, at this point, does not resent Anandan's popularity. That terrific scene when Thamizhselvan takes Anandan to the house terrace to show him the crowds gathered below, waiting to see their beloved star, is an excellent example of Mani Ratnam's effective use of showing rather than telling.
Anandan walks towards the edge of the terrace, unsure about what to expect. When he sees the people, he does not know how to react although his instinct is to wave his hand. It is Thamizhselvan who decisively grabs it, raises it and makes Anandan complete the wave. And by the end of the scene, we see a confident Anandan who "performs" like the star that he is, posing with one knee bent and throwing his scarf to the people.
But as it happened in real life, Anandan and Thamizhselvan have a fall-out. There's space only for one giant in the party and it cannot be both of them at once. Mani Ratnam courageously plots the battle of ego between the two men, their idealism slowly eaten up by corruption and vested interests and their gradual decline into becoming part of a system that they had vowed to shatter.
Along the way stand exposed their human flaws and weaknesses, especially when it comes to how they treat the women in their lives. Thamizhselvan, especially, who astounds his wife (Revathi) with a lecture on gender equality on their first night, has no qualms about leaving for a political meeting when she's writhing in labour pain.
Thamizhselvan later falls in love with Senthamarai (Tabu) and marries her, while still being married to his first wife. Anandan's callous treatment of Kalpana and his wife Ramani (Gauthami), too, is evidence of how easy it is to separate political idealism from personal life. It explains why a state dominated by a brand of politics that was born in the rationalist and socialist movement continues to be heavily patriarchal.
"Iruvar" is not without its faults but among all of Mani Ratnam's films, it's perhaps the one film that has aged the best. With AR Rahman's outstanding music and Santosh Sivan's sharp cinematography, both of which capture the passage of time and mood impressively, "Iruvar" was a critical success at its time although a commercial flop.
Viewing it now, at a time when Tamil Nadu is once again staring at a period of flux, with Jayalalithaa's death and an ageing and often ill Karunanidhi, the film becomes all the more interesting. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What explains the sway that they hold over Tamil Nadu? What are their human stories? "Iruvar" has some answers which may dim the cynicism with which we're used to looking at these giants.