IRUVAR – A Mani Ratnam film on Karunanidhi & MGR rivalry


Iruvar 1997

By Mani Ratnam

M. Karunanidhi is no more. Death should neither be an occasion to anoint anyone as a god or a saint, for in its arrival it proves the mortality of the departed. Nor is this the time to demonise or deify anyone, for what were perceptions till now, are facts to be judged. The event calls for an impartial audit into the life, career and ideology of the deceased. The race has been run, and what a glorious marathon it was.

As I reflected upon the passing of the Kalaignar, I was transported to the climactic scene of Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, Iruvar. MGR is being embalmed, and Karunanidhi (played by Prakash Raj) launches into a soulful monologue about his friend-turn-foe’s demise, their friendship and meaning of life and death. With the passing of his other longtime rival, Jayalalitha, in 2016, there is no one left of suitable stature in Tamil Nadu to give the departed leader a fitting farewell. There is no one left to give him an elegiac tribute, the Kalaignar must go with the satisfaction of finding a burial near his mentor, Annadurai.

Mohanlal as MGR was perhaps a no-brainer. The Malyali backgrounds,and the matinee idol status of the two legends made it an obvious choice. But the casting of Prakash Raj as M. Karunanidhi was a masterstroke by Mani. Prakash was considered primarily a villain till then, and with his vehement dialogue delivery, heavy physical presence and proud body language, was able to convey about the Kalaignar, what could not have been put into words. Prakash Raj’s studied performance, in conjunction with Mohanlal’s effortless master class has ensured that Iruvar would forever be remembered not just as Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, but also as the best political biographical film ever produced in India. Prakash Raj went onto win the National Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for this role.

MGR and Karunanidhi became friends during the early days of their struggles. MGR did small roles for a long time, before he got established as a leading star in the late 1940s.Some of his early scripts were penned down by Karunanidhi. Meanwhile, the master of rhetoric, the great orator, Kalaignar fought for the revolutionary ideas of Justice Party, DK and then DMK (since 1948) with great verve and energy.

Annadurai (played by Nasser) was the founder-leader of DMK, revered by Tamils, and mentor of Karunanidhi, but he also understood the power of cinema which can be used to influence people and effect change. In the early 50s, MGR joined DMK, a move which aroused jealousy in the bosom of Kalaignar, while at the same time making him proud of his friend and expectant of electoral dividends .There is a scene in the film when both friends stand atop the roof of Karunanidhi’s home, and witness how thousands of MGR’s fans had gathered outside to catch a glimpse of their star. MGR is hesitant as to how should he react, but Kalaignar holds his hand and raises it in acknowledgement to loud cheers. Since MGR had the power over people, something for which Lenin and Hitler worked all their lives, he must use this to change lives for better, Karunanidhi urged MGR. Kalaignar understood he could not match MGR in mass appeal, and was always reluctant to give him any kind of position in the party or government, for fear of being overshadowed. That apart, Karunanidhi despite acknowledging that he himself was not an expert in economics and finance and yet run those ministries well was reluctant to concede that an actor could work for the welfare of the people as well. He became possessive about the hard work and sacrifices that the hardcore political activists put in, and didn’t appreciate the idea of a matinee idol appropriating political space.

Just before the path breaking 1967 elections, MGR was accidently shot in his neck while shooting for a film. This incident was milked by the DMK to allege conspiracy against its cadres. Finally, DMK came to power for the first time, and Annadurai became the CM, as MGR also made  his Assembly debut .The film inexplicably shows that Anna didn’t ascend the CM post, but this is not factually true for Anna remained a CM till his death in 1969. Naseer has given a mind bowing performance as Anna, and Mani Ratnam has poured all his Dravidian reverence into filming him. The triangular relationship between the revered leader, his trusted and trained commander, and the popular outsider is the strength of this film.

After Anna’s death, MGR and his friends swung support in favour of Karunanidhi who became the CM .People around MGR wanted him to play a more active role. It has been suggested in the script  that Aishwarya Rai, playing Jayalalitha, was the one who made MGR realise how much the duo detested each other .But this might be a tad too unfair towards the deceased lady. Anyway, MGR asked to be given some responsibility or ministry, preferably the Health portfolio, but Karunanidhi declined saying until he was active in films, this could not be done.

Subsequently, MGR publically   demanded  that the party  make its accounts public, and made allegations of  corruption against some leaders and accused the leadership of straying from Anna’s path .This led to MGR’s expulsion ,and he formed the  AIADMK in 1972,which went onto win Assembly elections in 1977,80 and 84.MGR remained at the helm of the state from 1977-87.His charisma completely overshadowed Kalaignar’s organisational skills ,and the latter  could never  register any state victory against MGR . AS a CM, MGR introduced many pro-poor measures like mid day meal scheme, free electricity to farmers, cheaper rice and others, which endeared him to the ruralfolk. In 1984, he won elections even while lying on a hospital bed in the US. The script has mostly been true to the actual turn of events.

In a poignant scene towards the end, the two leaders, with their wives in tow, happen to come across each other at a social occasion. The duo greet, sit adjacent and make some small talk. Mohanlal and Prakash Raj have performed the magic of underplayed mannerisms in these few moments.

MGR’s first wife had passed away not long after  marriage, and later he married again (Goutami in film).But the script  suggests that Jayalalitha (Aish) resembled the first wife quite a bit and this is what drew MGR towards her in the first place. Of course, the first one was a demure, shy housewife, while Jaya was an exuberant, educated showgirl. Aishwarya Rai, in her silver screen debut, performed both these roles with elan, and perhaps never again in her career played such powerful charaters ( and with such abandon).For the sake of avoiding uncomfortable ending, the script leads Jaya to her death in an automobile accident.

 Kalaignar, on the other hand, got married (to Revathy in the film) in a self-respect marriage which did away with all rituals and ceremonies. On his wedding night, he expounded his wife on the virtues of freedom and human equality. Later on he fell in love with another girl (played by Tabu) and marries her as well. This second wife was the love of his life, his soul companion.

The film strays from reality only as far as Anna’s and Jaya’s deaths are concerned. It brings home the message of the Dravidan movement quite well. Nasser, Goutami, Revathy, Tabu and Aish, all have done good jobs. Santosh Sivan’s cinematography and use of light is the highlight of this film, as well as the fact that it is shot in 4:3 compositions, while avoiding the popular cinemascope.

Kalaignar leaves behind a mixed legacy. While no one can deny his seminal contribution to the Dravidian cause, and Tamil language, he has also been accused of nepotism, shielding corruption and having double standards. He has been instrumental in granting rights to women vis-à-vis ancestral property, safeguarding and providing reservation to the backward classes in Tamil Nadu (69 pc),working for the welfare of poor, transgenders, minorities and disabled. But it is also true that his contempt for Hindu gods and rituals, controversial statements on Ram Sethu, appeasement of minorities, flirting with LTTE (even MGR did) and claiming to have a  scientific temper(but quietly discarding his black shawl for a yellow one ,and wearing jewel studded rings) have also ruffled feathers. With a political career spanning over 80 years, five terms as CM and the record of never having lost any election (won 13 Assembly polls), some accusations are bound to crop up.

Watching Iruvar might be a very apt way of paying him tribute.


About author

Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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