In mainstream cinema, the proper allocation of budget plays a critical role in a film’s commercial success. Many filmmakers spend a measly portion of their budget on the production aspect of their films, resulting in mediocre, substandard finished products. Most of their budget gets drained in signing the ‘stars’ who are responsible for pulling in the crowds. But beyond the initial box office collections, even the magnetic aura of popular actors fails to salvage a film if it is beyond redemption. Unless there is some substance in the screenplay, good song-and-dance sequences, beautiful locations and the usual tropes associated with commercial cinema, it is rare for a big-budget film to succeed simply on account of a star’s presence. And, yes this holds true for films of Salman Khan and Rajinikanth as well. The few films of these megastars that have been outright bad/horrible failed to work their magic at the box-office.
Hence, it becomes important for the superstars to work with competent directors who are capable of making decent commercial films that are lapped up by the audience. Then, there are some genius mainstream filmmakers too who churn out really good films with A-list stars that are high on the entertainment quotient and at the same time strive for artistic excellence. Gopala Ratnam Subramaniam, known as Mani Ratnam, falls into this category. After having made a slew of highly successful films with the biggest giants of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth and Kamal Hasan, in 1997 Ratnam roped in Malayalam cinema’s biggest superstar, Mohanlal, for his magnum opus Iruvar (in Tamil).
Iruvar, an epic political drama inspired by the lives of M. G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi is set against the background of cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu. It stars Mohanlal and Prakash Raj as friends turned political opponents, with Aishwarya Rai, Revathy, Gautami and Tabu portraying the women in their lives. With such a high-profile subject as its central plot and starring some of the biggest names in Indian cinema, Iruvar had a very high budget. The film boasts of high production values: grand sets, exotic locations for song sequences, beautiful costumes, A.R. Rahman’s enchanting music and background score, Santosh Sivan’s magic with the camera, and a huge cast and crew for filming the mass rallies of the two political rivals. All of these contribute to the making of a visually grand spectacle that is sufficient to mesmerise the theatre-going audience.
With all the checkboxes of commercial cinema checked, Mani Ratnam does make attempts to push the film’s artistic envelope. But how much can a mainstream filmmaker really push the boundaries of convention in a big-budget film that has commercial success as its primary goal? Does Mani Ratnam challenge the age-old stereotype of portraying the ‘hero’ of a commercial film as a flawless human being who is incorruptible? In Iruvar, the two lead protagonists are idealistic in the beginning and dream of socially uplifting the downtrodden and a discrimination-free Tamil Nadu. But as they progress in life, the deadly cocktail of power and fame consumes them in their larger-than-life persona making them turn a blind eye to the corruption happening within their parties. But Ratnam stops here! He doesn’t push further and show them indulging in corruption or amassing illegal wealth for themselves. Had he rejected commercial considerations, he could probably have explored the growth of darkness within the souls of the two leads.
Another downside of making films primarily catering to mass sentiments is that they need to fall in line with the accepted moral codes of society. Films that perpetuate the existing value systems are embraced by the larger audience. The audience is less accepting of films that stray away from their cherished beliefs, values and way of life. In mainstream culture, monogamy is considered pious and sacred; adultery and polyamorous relationships are taboo! But in Iruvar, credit must be given to Ratnam for showing the two lead actors having more than one partner at a time. While Prakash Raj in the film gets into a relationship with Tabu even after being married to Revathy, the adultery of Mohanlal has been smartly justified by Mani Ratnam in the screenplay. Mohanlal is married to Gautami but falls for a younger actress (Aishwarya Rai) because she completely resembles his deceased first wife (also played by Aishwarya Rai). Since Mohanlal is shown to be the better and less selfish person of the two leads, showing him fall for another woman outside of marriage without a strong compulsion would mean not adhering to the moral compass of society. But what would have been pathbreaking in the film is if any of the female protagonists were shown to have more than one love interest. Although Prakash Raj does profess to his first wife Revathy on the night of their marriage that she should not touch his feet as men and women are equal, this equality is not reflected in the personal choices of the female characters. None of them is shown to have more than one partner. Considering that Aishwarya Rai’s second character in the film is a young, dynamic, modern and vivacious actress, it would have looked natural to show her getting attracted to her male co-stars other than Mohanlal. But, in the film, her screen presence is restricted to being with only Mohanlal. That is because the double-standards of society dictate the moral choices of characters in a mainstream film. Adultery by a man is still somewhat acceptable for the masses but a woman having more than one partner would be blasphemous. And, this is where I feel the big budget of Iruvar acts as a bane in pushing the moral envelope.
Lastly, coming to the lavish song sequences of Iruvar. Mani Ratnam has gained a reverential status when it comes to picturising songs and deservedly so. Actresses crave to be a part of his films because of his artistry in accentuating their beauty and the dream-like romance in song sequences. Many say he is the best, though my favourite remains Vijay Anand! In Iruvar, there are some beautiful songs composed by A. R. Rahman that have been brilliantly picturised by Ratnam and ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan. The melodious love ballad “Narumugaye” is my favourite song in the film, and Ratnam wonderfully shows the love blossoming between Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai (the first wife) after their marriage. Then, the soft and sweet “Pookodiyin Punnagai” perfectly captures the growing closeness between Mohanlal and Gautami while shooting on film sets. The raging poem “Udal Mannuku” about a brave warrior rescuing a kidnapped princess from captivity is further energised by Ratnam’s grand picturisation. For all these songs, the flowing budget of Iruvar works magic in the screenplay. It is in the latter songs of the film where I feel the excess budget plays spoilsport. Often when shooting in exotic locations or while trying to offer a new song-dance experience to the audience, filmmakers tend to go overboard in their indulgence and lose the sense of objectivity. There are four such songs in the film that don’t quite work for me considering the runtime devoted to them on screen.
“Hello Mister Edhirkatchi” is a jazz number that introduces Aishwarya Rai’s second character as a young actress showcasing her dance skills. The song goes on for more than four minutes (a bit too long for my liking). After this, within five minutes, one more fun song “Ayirathil Naan Oruvan” pops up showing Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai shooting in multiple scenic locations like the deserts of Rajasthan, picturesque mountains and villages of the Himalayan region, and the majestic Fatehpur Sikri. In my opinion, this is where the big budget spending of Iruvar hinders the otherwise immersive screenplay. When a filmmaker spends a lot of money to creatively shoot in the most beautiful of locations, the desire to flaunt the spectacular shots as much as possible is quite natural. But this is where objectivity needs to be exercised. If the song doesn’t add much value to the story, it needs to be edited to an austere runtime so that it doesn’t feel like an overindulgence. The same holds for the song “Venilla Venilla” with a runtime of five minutes which aims to elevate the on-screen romance with the grandeur and beauty of Taj Mahal as a backdrop. Again, trimming it down would have surely helped. And, finally the last song of the film by Hariharan “Kannai Kattikolathey” goes too off-track for me. It comes at a critical juncture in the film where Mohanlal turns into a political rival of his friend Prakash Raj and starts opposing his party and government. The song serves as a tool for rebellion by uniting the masses against the government’s indifference towards the poor. However, the song seems more of an escapist fantasy with Aishwarya Rai dancing in the rain wearing a skirt.
In the end, I would like to summarise my ranting by saying that I did enjoy watching Iruvar and I think it’s a good mainstream film. I think there could have been less indulgence in the aforementioned songs. I feel three or four good songs are more than sufficient to whet the appetite of the audience and if done properly (like the initial few songs of Iruvar), they can elevate the movie-watching experience immensely without disturbing the screenplay. Sometimes less is more, even if one has the means and capacity to show more!
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.