Readers Write In #308: Indulging In Iruvar

Posted on December 2, 2020

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(by Shiva Prasad)

How important is the opening shot of the movie? I believe there is no right answer to this question. But, I invariably see a lot of great filmmakers use the opening shot momentously, that you can taste the auteurism from the word go. Iruvar (The Duo) opens with a screen in a 4:3 aspect ratio. We are so used to seeing wide screen movie formats that widens the scope of everything, instead here we begin to get intimate just with the screen size.

There is a small boy timidly looking out of the train window. It is shot in black and white which amps up the dreaminess and nostalgia. The camera pans ever so slightly, there is his mom sleeping with her arms around him. He grabs her fingers tenderly. He lifts his chin up, his eyes widen and he smiles, with catchlight beaming in his eyes. Is it the novelty of the experience, or the innocence of a dream? Answer is probably both. Any which way, we are in for a journey with him.

The movie actually opens with a note (a warning?) which the subtitles might translate “This story is fictitious”. But, I would rather it say, “This is NOT a true story”. What is the difference you ask? Well, this could be based on two key figures in the history of Tamil cinema and politics. This movie is in no way a true-blue representative account of their exact history. This movie neither has characters named after their real life counterparts, nor does it have real footage. It is just a fictionalized account of the story, which is staged, enacted and dramatized to convey the crux of the characters of those two people.

The movie’s ambitions doesn’t stop there, it also attempts to convey the tenor of transitions in tamil cinema, politics and idealism. So for what it is worth, there might be truth in the story, but it is NOT a true story.  I am standing by it, for the purpose of this essay and for the protection of my own sanity. My interest firmly and fervently lies in exploration of the movie, and not in correcting or correlating the truth of their personalities; debating or defending the triumph of their politics; annihilating or antagonizing the trust of their people.

We are introduced to Anandan (Mohanlal) who is a struggling actor. He is actively scouting for roles. He is faced with rejections after rejections as the directors/producers almost behave snobbishly. His ego takes a hit but his mother keeps him in check. She says the money is hard so he has to continue to seek out. He lies that he can drive a bicycle to get a part.

He comes back home in his Inspector costume enacting his part. The house has so many families living besides each other, we don’t know where the line of separation is. He searches for his mother while one of the kids suddenly starts crying in the background (mainly just in the audio). Anandhan finds his mom and shows her his first earnings. Anandhan’s mother swells with pride (in the visual) while the kid’s mother is singing a sweet lullaby (in the audio). We are in for audio visual poetry, aren’t we?

There are always people around him. The family – helping him and worrying about him. The cinema industry – mostly not helping him and ignorant of his existence. Life doesn’t get any easier, as the rejections continue, but his ambition doesn’t diminish. Until one day, when he finally lands the role of a hero in a movie.

A train now moves from the darkness of the tunnel into the light at the end of it. Anandhan is now leaping out of the moving train in joy. First time since the opening shot, we get to see him on his own without all the people around him. The greens which were muted so far in the color palette, are now glowing vibrantly like the first leaves of spring. The grass is greener now, not on the other side, but on his own side. This is his moment.

He walks into the studio (name is MerryLand Studios), his happy place. He walks into the set, it is a palace. He walks up to the throne, he sits quaintly on the edge, at first. Then he grows into a posture fit for a king and holds for a moment. He feels like he belongs there and it is made for him. He runs down from the throne as he sees a sword laying down on a podium. He starts climbing the podium and wielding the sword. He is not quite overwhelmed by the opulence of the surrounding, or the bigness of the moment. He is in his element. He sees the flame on a brass lamp (kuthu vilazhakku), which is usually a sign of auspiciousness and a sign in front of god. He puts the sword down. His demeanor switches from enchantment to gratefulness. He is cut off by a voice.

That voice is of Tamilselvam (Prakash Raj). He is reciting a poem on the futility of religion and its superstitious practices. Anandhan is caught off guard. The camera gets us the close up of these two men. Anandhan slowly steps down from the podium, Tamilselvam approaches Anandhan swiftly while continuing to recite his poetry. The close up amplifies the intensity of their gestures and exaggerates the emotion associated with their movement. We quickly cut to a wider shot with both of them in the frame. Tamilselvam approaches and continues walking, while Anandhan is taken aback and walks in reverse. At one point they stop walking.

The whole set is in black and white. Tamilselvam is dressed in black in allegiance to his Dravidian politics, Anandhan is dressed in white which Tamilselvam looks down upon as the color of Aryan influence. Anandhan says that he knows Tamilselvam as a writer, he has read his work and he is in awe of his command over the language. But, he doesn’t hold back to express his lack of belief in their ideology though.

Tamilselvam is not surprised, he says he saw it coming, he starts pointing and criticizing the religious identifications over Anandan’s ornaments and attire. Anandhan doesn’t take it to heart. He just gets more intrigued. He starts questioning Tamilselvam almost similar to the famous scene from Thirivilayadal where Tharumi (Nagesh) questions Lord Shiva (Sivaji). In Thiruvilayadal, Lord Shiva was taking the form of a poet, to help poor Tharumi. Here, Tamilselvam is a poet denouncing God who could help Anandan.

In a remarkable bit of foreshadowing and symbolism, the shot of Anandan and Tamilselvam talking to each other is composed with a throne between them in the background. The next shot has the view of the whole set, which sees Anandhan and Tamilselvam talking, walking and crossing the white podium and stepping on to the Black carpet. The black carpet is very much like the red carpet in its shape and function. Its path leads to a lone brown chair. They have walked through the black carpet and reached the lone chair. Anandhan continues his question spree, Tamilselvam quells them with repartee.

Anandhan is ecstatic, and claps in exuberance. Tamilselvam asks, if the appreciation is for his views or his expression. Anandan asks if Tamilselvam will write dialogues for his movie. He says Tamilselvam’s language has the capacity to captivate and mesmerize the audience. Tamilselvam is slightly offended. Tamilselvam who was all assertive so far, is now all questions. He quips if Anandhan is calling him a captor or a liar. Anandhan negates the doubt by saying, Tamilselvam’s language has the power to make a big star out of him through this film. Tamilselvam asks the final question, the key question of the entire film, “Is Anandhan a loving friend, or a respectful foe?”

Now, neither one is more assertive than the other. But their difference is apparent. Anandhan values his personal more than his political. Tamilselvam values his ideology more than his individual. But, the difference in their art, attitude and belief is complemented by their similarity in competence, ambition and hope. They form their own Yin and Yang between them. Both stand to gain something from each other. The equilibrium is set.

This is such dense and sumptuous filmmaking, where each component in the art of filmmaking is in its peak prowess. Cinema is primarily an emotional medium, not a lot of people approach it intellectually. But the rationale behind cinema and its primarily objective remains an audio visual storytelling experience to humans. Almost all great filmmakers try to use the medium to create that optimal emotional experience in their audience. So all of this contributes to our experience subconsciously, whether we look for it or not, at least that is what filmmakers intend to do.

This film needs to be so dense, because it covers the life of these two men, from their twenties till old age, spanning a few decades. It captures the transition in tamil cinema, with stylistic evocation of its form and content through time. It conveys the change in political thoughts and mediums used to reach out to the masses. In between all this, we have the dynamics of the relationship between these two people, how their lives criss cross each other, how they influence each other, how they are troubled by each other, what holds them together, what breaks them? Between all this public life does the person and the personal still remain intact?

The cinematography (Santhosh Sivan) is not just replete with beautiful images frame after frame, but it serves a bigger purpose. It also tells the story through composition and movement, yields subtle changes in mood, provides necessary momentum, and adds emotional connect through visual language. It is not just the cinematographer’s job, I reckon, the director (Mani Ratnam) needs to get involved in the decision making of staging, blocking and creating the mise-en-scène. Needless to say it is a collaborative art form and cinematography is surely assisted by art direction (Samir Chanda), make up and costume design, for creating the environment, colors and textures. But for purposes of simplicity, let’s club all these together in discussing how the visuals are used in service of the story telling.

One such visual device used is the circle. Like the crown, domes of palaces and administrative buildings – It represents Power. In one of the earlier scenes, even before the Dravidian Party is formed, Anandan witnessed firsthand the crowd and an oration by Tamilselvam’s mentor Veluthambi (Nassar). Still reliving in the high, post the rally, Anandan asks what his party’s ideas are, if they came to power. They stand on the terrace and discuss their ideas, as both of them get intense into the conversation, the music swells, they move across the terrace, the camera pans and there is a huge dome right behind them. They both stand in front of it and continue to proclaim their wishes for when they come to power.

The circle is also extrapolated to rotating or revolving. When Veluthambi resigns for the post of the party chief, they need to find a new party leader to be made the next chief minister. The camera is in the centre of the table with all the party members standing around. The camera rotates as they find the new leader, we go a full circle and land on Tamilselvam who gets a bigger cheer and support.

We see Kalpana (Aishwarya Rai), she is sitting in front of a mirror with her feet up in the seat of her chair, locked herself inside the changing room. She shouts outside to her grandmother that she wouldn’t come out. Her grandmother says Anandhan is waiting for her in sets. She puts her feet slowly down automatically on hearing Anandhan’s name as a mark of respect, even though nobody is looking. She wants to go study, she can’t take this disrespect and the hypocrisy of this cinema industry anymore. She doesn’t care if it is the producer or even the director standing outside. She wants to quit. She is swiveling continuously in her chair, she thinks that is within her power. She hears some hushes outside of her door, she stops swiveling. She loses her power, It is Anandan outside the door.

Later when Tamilselvam becomes Chief Minister, he addresses a rally with a temporary crown on his head. The camera revolves around him a few times as he makes his speech. There is the sound of a car and agitation in the crowd. The camera stops revolving, the camera focus shifts to the car. Anandhan is by now a huge star, he arrives at the rally right in the middle of Tamilselvam’s speech. We cut to Tamilselvam as he stops his speech midway, the camera completes the arc around him just enough to remind us who is still in power. But there is a clear disruption in the dynamics of his power.

Anandan visits Tamilselvam’s office and asks for a Ministry under his government. Tamilselvam swivels in his chief minister chair a few times, before rejecting Anandhan’s idea. This incident creates a major friction between the duo. In the interim, they hear the news of Veluthambi’s death. In a rally following the funeral, Tamilselvam then Chief Minister addresses the crowd with a poem and recedes back. Anandan takes the mic, he starts by saying, I am not going to read a poem nor shed tears, but I need answers. The percussive beats start pulsating in the score. The camera starts to revolve around the party members standing in the dais in front of thousands of people.  Slowly but surely, the camera tells us the power is shifting from Tamilselvam to Anandan as he brings up the corruption accusations and exposes everyone in the cabinet, asks them to take responsibility, show the records of their wealth and make it public. He says only then our leader’s soul will rest in peace to a moving response from the crowd. The change in power dynamics is not just a mild disruption now, but a thunderous blow.

The party workers retaliate and Tamilselvam agrees to expel Anandan out of the party. Anandan appears broken, after hearing the news, He recedes into the darkness of his room, doesn’t allow anybody to enter, including his wife Ramani (Gowthami). He emerges back, the camera moves from the darkness to light, following Anandan. The press and people waiting for him surround him immediately. He gives everybody dessert and says it is best for him, it is his independence, before starting his new party. The camera is continuously revolving around him and his ardent supporters. The change in power dynamics is now complete.

The final bit of revolving camera happens after Anandan fails to show up for his marriage with Kalpana. She goes to his office, Anandan is leading against Tamilselvam in the elections with his newly formed party. He looks up and all the party members start walking away, giving them privacy. She comes and sits in the chair opposite him, criss crosses her legs and starts to speak. The camera starts revolving. There seems to be a power battle, but she is holding her ground, and she is the only one doing all the talking. She reads him and his situation like an open book. She could spot a lie from him miles away, she is three steps ahead.  She has the power now. Anandan finds it very hard to speak one word. The camera stops with Ramani standing in the background, forecasting a power battle that may ensue. Kalpana walks away. She has the power to quit now.

Another piece of visual device used is the mirror. It is used to demarcate the actor and the person. It is also used to differentiate the reflection from the truth. In the scene where Ramani plays the heroine to Anandan while they are filming Pookodyin song sequence, Ramani comes into her changing room. Her uncle, who is her guardian in the film set, walks in on her and closes the door. He enforces him on her and starts abusing her, as he starts seeing some relationship brewing between her and Anandhan. The camera starts with both reality and the reflection in the mirror. Then it slowly moves into only the mirror, separating the duality of the actor and their real lives, we finally see only the reflection on the mirror, this makes us focus only on the real life troubles of the actor. The camera moves back out as we hear a knock on the door, bringing us back to the demands of the show business.

In the scene where Kalpana swivels in her chair, she is first shown only in the mirror, that’s her personality of how she wants to see herself, going to study. When she hears Anandan’s name, we get back to her shot from the angle of the mirror, the actor she is supposed to be, the role she has signed up for. When she starts swiveling, we get both of them, the reflection and the reality, the oscillation in her mind, the ambiguity of her impending choice.

In the scene on the hilltop where Kalpana enquires Anandan about his first wife Pushpa (Aishwarya Rai again, the original to Kalpana being doppelgänger). We get the mirror again, We don’t who he sees, Pushpa or Kalpana. There is an identity crisis. She is an entirely different person, the only similarity is how they look. Just looks don’t make a person, their characters and actions do. Who is he falling in love with, Pushpa’s reflection or the real Kalpana?

The film constantly compares and contrasts the life of the duo. They both first get married about the same time. The film cuts between the two ceremonies. Anandan has a religious wedding with Pushpa, while Tamilselvam has a Dravidian wedding with Maragadham (Revathi). Anandhan wedding ceremonies are based on the bride’s native custom, Tamilselvam’s wedding is based on his own ideological custom. When they first talk with their wives, Anandhan talks about his personal feelings, Tamilselvam talks about equality, atheism and feminism. The songs in the movie are key to exploring the change in the form and content of the cinema through these decades. It is one of my favorite soundtracks ever in Tamil. It is sad it doesn’t even land on most people’s A.R.Rahman’s best album listicles. The songs in this movie are not for this movie, it is from the movie that Anandan acts in. They start with Narumugiyae, in which the choice of lyrics are poetic verses similar to tamil literature thousands of years old. They make movies about Kings and Queens. The genre is based in Carnatic music.

It is shot in black and white. The edit transitions clues us subconsciously to evoke that period, we get a sample of everything from iris outs, door reveals, wipes and sweeps. This song is intercut between the film footage and the color footage of romance between Anandan and Pushpa (which is cut normal without those transitions). The other songs also have clues like these in visible sets and cameras, stuttercut clapping to the beat, choreographer’s count at the start of a song, Anandan watching one song in a preview theatre. There is a clear demarcation on what the songs’ purpose in the movie is, it is made for movies inside this movie. But they are not randomly placed, they have their rightful place inside of this movie too. It is fascinating how seamless this appears.

Pookodiyin explores the film set, making the song, the hardships faced by the heroine and love blossoming between Anandhan and Ramani. Hello Mister goes into the Jazz club scene, introduces Kalpana and exposes her talent in dancing, establishes the conflict in Anandan’s mind about her uncanny resemblance with Pushpa. Ayirathil Naan Oruvan takes the filming of songs out across all of the country, emphasizing Anandhan’s films’ narrative thriving on his representation as one among them. It has representation from North, West and East of India. It is consciously inclusive of people of all faith and religion from Muslims to Sikhs, from Nomads to Christians. He wants to appeal to all audiences. Kannai Katti has Anandan campaigning against Tamilselvam’s party to further his popularity and diminish Tamilselvam. It is a beautiful irony that he sings don’t blindfold believe everything, while dancing in a make believe medium which has unnatural amounts of heavy backlight, strong contrast and blue skies for a Rain song. Finally we have Venilla venilla, maybe it has something to do when the film industry finally has enough money to work on costumes and pay Hindi singers to sing in Tamil. I read somewhere Santhosh Sivan mentioning that Taj Mahal is never shown fully in this song, it is shown only partially or framed behind other things, maybe it explores the themes of forbidden love.

Both Anandan and Tamilselvam are into a romantic relationship, with their partners, their muses outside of their marriage. To Tamilselvam – Senthamarai (Tabu) is someone who understands him, enjoys his poetry, she is a lover, a companion, a friend, almost an equal. To Anandhan – Kalpana is a face which reminds him of Pushpa, but she too asks him uncomfortable questions, she reads him and his intentions. While Senthamarai wants Tamilselvan to stay the romantic poet, Pushpa is interested in Anandan’s political journey. Tamilselvam is open about the whole thing, he is not worried about his personal story, his political victory is based on his ideology. Anandan is concerned about the public knowledge of his relationship, as he wonders how it will be received amongst the people, because they take him for his persona, his face value, he is almost a demigod who can do no wrong.

After they both come to power, both of them change inevitably. The film juxtaposes key dramatic moments to add an additional layer of meaning. After Tamilselvam is exposed with corruption in his ministry, he negates those charges with fluid language that doesn’t quite answer the questions. The language that was once used to propagate the ideals of his mentor Veluthambi is now used to hide from his responsibility. The next scene that follows is the death of Veluthambi, not only has his mentor long gone, it also informs the ideals have gone down with him.

Nothing changes in the corruption front when Anandhan comes to power. He addresses a rally in the same place he first saw Veluthambi speak. His right hand man, a loyal party worker, turns in a resignation notice, accusing the party of the same corruption charges, that Anandhan publicized in Tamilselvam’s party to come to power and promising to change things. Anandhan makes a sly dig. In a terrific piece of irony, he rejects his resignation and climbs up the stairs to Veluthambi’s statue and pays respect on his death anniversary,. The ideals have definitely gone down the drain manifold.

The acting is phenomenal especially from the two leads. It is not the kind of acting that you are jolted out of the experience of the movie and remark wow! see how good is the acting. It is the kind of acting, where you feel what they are feeling, where you doubt when they are doubting, where you can read the subtle changes in their emotion and thought processes, through the scene, as it happens, to really get into their psyche. I could probably quote the whole film as an example, but let us just sample one scene I love of each of them.

When Tamilselvam comes home to Senthamarai after she has rebelled against her parents and came to trust an already married man, without knowing what her place in his life is. She asks him, what am I to you? He has just one eye to perform, he is shot through staircase railings and her face (could denote visually that she is his one eye, of how he sees the world). He looks at her with love, fondness, vulnerability and relief, he tells her that she is his lover, his companion, his friend. It is just brilliance (So is Tabu’s reaction to it, but at least she gets to have the whole face on screen).

After Anandan is rejected for the ministry he asked for, he is driven back sitting in the front seat of his car. His supporters sitting in the back seat are bad mouthing about Tamilselvam. A lesser film would have put the camera on the people badmouthing and cut to Anandan’s reaction.But this film puts the camera unmoved on Anandan, right through the whole conversation. He is not angry immediately, he doesn’t stop them immediately, he is still grieving and his ego took a big hit. He listens them out very keenly, but doesn’t expose it to anyone. When they are about done, when the saturation comes, he gets down from the car and pulls them out for bad mouthing about his friend. The acting is so life-like, it is not one note, it is a complex emotion feeding one’s own ego but also protecting the privacy of their friendship.

There is so much to look at in this movie, There are these minute gestures, the look on Ramani’s face when she accidentally puts her hand on Anandan’s shoulder, she turns back to see her uncle standing and removes it immediately. The way Tamilselvam stops for a second when he sees Kalpana standing outside Veluthambi’s house after their party won their first election. The way Anandan walks slowly out and immediately gets more energy and walks faster towards the public and the journalists, in the scene after he is expelled from party.

I have only scratched the surface. Note the way they use the top floor and the ground to differentiate the emotions of the duo, also their place among the rest of the people. The repetitive images of their hands holding and raising together in different parts of the movie, with different backgrounds as the story progresses. The repetitive images of the two facing each other, with different objects between them starting with the throne and ending with flashes bursting from the photographers. The way trains are used to denote the journey of hope, happiness, sadness, creation of new relationships and loss of existing ones. The way Kalpana is mostly dressed in green, and Senthamarai is mostly dressed in black and red. The way when Senthamarai (dressed in red and black) first confronts Tamilselvam that it is not fair of him to reject Anandan of a ministry, their child is sleeping in between them in a green dress, may be denoting the impending wake of the new party. The way the camera spirals down when Tamilselvam recites poetry after making love with Senthamarai, denoting the obsession of him falling in love. The same theme music is used when Anandan first sits in his chief minister chair, maybe denoting his obsession with the post. The way the scene after Pushpa dies transitions with a fade to white, the transition is again re-established when Kalpana asks Anandan about Pushpa. The way the camera moves up to a rotating fan as Tamilselvam walks out unable to see Anandan after he is dead. The way the film fades to white again after Anandan’s funeral procession.

I can keep going on. But, I think I have made enough points to establish my absolute love for this cinema. They are two individuals who the people know for their areas of expertise, the actor starts with makeup and ends with makeup even after death. The writer starts with reciting poetry and ends the movie with reciting poetry. On the surface it looks like nothing has changed, but everything had changed when they were alive. As humans we are limited by our nature, our consciousness, our capacity and  our animal instincts. We often forget what is really important until finally we lose it. It is a very tough movie to get right. It aimed high and almost hit bulls eye. Every scene has at least half a dozen primary objectives to accomplish to make its point. Every scene has to establish the time and place, elucidate the context with clarity, maintain the artistic cohesiveness without faltering in the emotional flow of storytelling. It is a gloriously tough ask, but the film holds up being a masterpiece even after two decades. It is a phenomenal achievement in cinema.