Biographical films are quite rare in Tamil. However in the last 10 years or so, we have been fortunate to get three such excellent movies. Although none of them were commercial successes, they are certainly worth watching. I’ll briefly review all the three movies, from the most realistic to the most stylistic. Also added on late as a fourth movie is a classic biographical movie.
Iruvar (The Duo):
This movie is based on the life of the real-life duo of M.Karunanidhi and M.G.Ramachandran (MGR). It shows the ascent of DMK, MK capturing power, the split in the friendship of MK and MGR, MGR forming ADMK and capturing power and finally MGR’s death. This is directed by Mani Ratnam and I believe this is one of his best movies. First, it takes a lot of guts to take a movie like this, when the protagonist’s legacy is still richly alive (and in MK’s case he is still in active politics). Though he has cleverly renamed all the characters, it is very clear as to whose life story is being depicted.
Though I was aware of the general events in these two people’s lives, this movie presented so many other details and as I confirmed with my parents most of these details were true. Most of these were kind of open secrets that everybody in my previous generation would know (for instance like how MGR marries Janaki). However some of the other sequences seem to either more closely kept secrets or just imagination – like how MGR’s first wife and Jayalalitha appear alike in the movie (are both played by Aishwarya Rai). But, at least in one case the director has clearly changed the real sequence in the movie (Anna never becomes CM in the movie). This is such a large gap that I consider this only to be a conscious attempt to disclaim this story as a true story. Also conspicuous is that he leaves the story of Jayalalitha totally hanging in the movie – this again might have been due to practical compulsions. Also the director has shown MGR’s reason for the split with MK as ambivalent.
This movie has an excellent cast – Prakashraj as MK, Mohanlal as MGR and Aishwarya Rai as Jayalalitha (her first movie!). Revathi, Tabu and Gowthami are the other female leads and everyone seems to have done their job very well. Stylistically this movie is top class. As it deals with the story of a scriptwriter and actor capturing power, it is filled with poetry and rhetorical flourishes – probably one of the reason why the film flopped in the box-office – which give a special feel to the movie. Though the poetry did seem to go overboard sometime, I did enjoy it mostly, like for instance in a romantic scene between MK and his second wife (played by Tabu).Among other things, the movie does an excellent job in showing how MGR influenced the public through his film songs and in fact two songs are created in the same style! “Kannai katti kollathe” is especially note worthy as it feels like just seeing a typical MGR song!
One thing which can be considered a flaw is that the movie romanticizes the life-story of these two people too much and in the process almost hides their mistakes. There was one scene in the movie, where MGR is questioned by his minister that he like MK is also not controlling corruption and MGR giving a weak reply to it, but this is only one scene which can easily be missed. Also there were too many songs featuring Aishwarya Rai and at least one of them was just an insertion in lieu of an item number. In essence Mani Ratnam might have just taken too many artistic liberties, but still this movie does record the story of two interesting individuals whose lives intersect at crucial points and with it what is till now the most important part of modern Tamil Nadu’s political history.
This is based on life story of Subramanya Bharathi, who is considered to be the greatest modern Tamil poet, despite having died at a young age of 39. Bharathi was a revolutionary in certain ways and he radically opposed many practices prevalent then (early 20th century) like caste discrimination, discrimination against women. As a result he was considered an unfit in his own traditional Brahmin community. Also he supported the freedom movement and his songs were instrumental in spreading the freedom movement in Tamil Nadu. Because of this, he had to spend a long time in exile in French governed
The movie starts with the child hood of Bharathi and how he was recognized very early. In this part the sequence leading to the “mayil pole” is very intriguing and I doubt whether it really happened in Bharathi’s life. The movie shows Bharathi in all his moods, as a revolutionary when he performs thread ceremony and puja for Dalit children, as a man nearly mad with ideas when he commands the Nawab to come and meet him and provide money for publishing his collected works, as a dejected father when he is intimated of his daughter’s marriage only on that day and a dejected man when he discovers that after all these years of reforming society he hasn’t been able to reform his own wife. In fact it also hints at widely believed notion that Bharathi consumed ganja for sometime. Especially impressive was the scene where Bharathi goes to meet Gandhi – he barges in when there is some discussion going on and requests Gandhi to head a meeting where he would sing his poetry. When Gandhi refuses due to lack of time and asks him to shift the meeting, he plainly refuses and leaves after saying that he is pleased with this meeting and that he blesses Gandhi’s freedom movement. This really summarizes Bharathi as he was, as a true unconquered and unhindered genius.
All the songs, many of them written by Bharathi himself are very good (music composed by Ilayaraja) and suit the movie. The movie ends with the funeral of Bharathi, which shows the lack of recognition for this poet, as it is attended by only seven people. Bharathi’s own song, “Nallathor veenai seithey” beautifully rendered in the background is most apt –
“Nallathor veenai seithey athai nalam keda puzhuthiyil erivathundo
Solladi Sivasakthi ennai chuddar migum arivudan padaithuvitai…”
“Do you make a good Veena and throw it in the dust,
Tell me Sivasakthi, you have created me with a sparkling intellect…”
(See here for the full translation, also other poems translated in the same site)
As the name suggests, this is a biographical film on Kamaraj, who was a popular CM in Tamilnadu and considered to be the ‘kingmaker’ nationally. One thing we can notice in the movie is that it is almost documentary style. While this does make us believe that all the incidents shown are true (which I think most of them are), it also becomes a little boring. Nevertheless, it does a good job in showing the principled life of Kamraj and how he virtually shames the current politicians (or perhaps all the politicians who came after him). In fact the dialogues in many places seem to be chosen for this effect as they virtually lash out at the various ills like corruption which plague today’s politicians. The scenes which showed how Kamraj got the idea for the now widely popular mid-day meal scheme for school children and then implemented it were particularly good. In fact this scheme started in Tamil Nadu and was so successful that it has been extended to most other states in
Despite being in a documentary style, the movie doesn’t aim to avoid all controversies. Towards the end, it clearly shows that Kamraj is highly disappointed with Indira Gandhi. In fact before going to sleep for the last time, he hears the news that she has imposed emergency and is furious at this and regrets that he had made a wrong decision by selecting her as PM. Also Kamraj is shown strongly criticizing the DMK, for populist policies like rice at Rs.2/Kg. (or some such related thing) and also gaining sympathy on an unrelated injury to MGR during film shooting.
Some of the incidents shown which seemed very relevant to the current political scenario are –
- After Kamraj becomes CM, his house in his hometown immediately gets water connection. When Kamraj sees on going home, he immediately orders the removal of the water connection as he has not paid for it and as CM he should be a model for not abusing power.
- A couple of cars and a police jeep escort Kamraj on a tour outside. He asks as to what all this is for and after being told that it is for security, he asks – “When I am in my country, among my own people why do I need any security?”
- Kamraj usually helps some poor people who come to his residence for help, with his own money. However, when the wife of a person arrested for selling illicit liquor comes, he blankly refuses saying that her husband had done a serious anti-social act.
I felt many other dialogues were aimed directly against current political ills, but I don’t remember many of them now. In fact, if our current politicians were made to watch this, they would feel remorse for at least some time. Dissapointingly, whereas the above two films were at least well received by critics, this didn't seem gather much attention among critics or people - probably because it was quite a low budget venture?
One main thing the movie missed was to show how exactly Kamraj-led Congress lost to DMK in 1967 elections. It did offer some reasons like the populist policies of DMK, but I think the main reason is that Kamraj did not strategically tackle the anti-Hindi (or rather anti Hindi imposition) protests at that time. The movie doesn’t even make any mention of anti-Hindi protests (at least I don’t remember it), so in a way it seems to be blind to Kamraj’s flaws. Nevertheless, an excellent watch which shows how politicians ought to function.
Now, these is a late addition as I was planning to review only the above 3 movies. However, I recently watched this movie as part of the Raj TV’s series of movies called “Tamil Cinema 75”* – to celebrate 75 years of Tamil cinema. This too is a biographical movie, so decided to include this here.
This movie is one of the classics in Tamil cinema and in particular one of Sivaji’s dialogues is so well quoted that every person who has lived in Tamil Nadu would know that, if not the movie. This shows the life of Veerapandiya Kattabomman who ruled the areas around Panchalankurichi (in south TN). He was one of the earliest people** who resisted British rule bravely and gave up his life fighting for it. I have not been able to see how much of the movie’s story is real because, when I searched Wikipedia I found two articles, this and this, while the first one gave only very basic info about Kattabomman, the other gave very detailed info but it was exactly the same as that in the movie!
The movie is a long one running for more than 3 hrs and as I saw it on TV, it prolonged to nearly 4 hrs! I had missed the early portions of the movie, but true to its classic status it managed to keep me interested for the rest of the time. The movie proceeds at a leisurely pace, but is never boring. It has a lot of songs, but again they were also not boring since many songs helped in the narration itself. Even at the worst, I didn’t feel that any song was ‘inserted’ as I feel in watching many masala movies now. And surprisingly, except in portions towards the climax, the movie was never really melodramatic and didn’t involve too many verbose dialogues either. Of course I listened to the dialogue where Kattabomman refuses to pay taxes to the British officer for the umpteenth time, and yes the verbosity does seem justified!
Sivaji Ganesan, needless to say, gives a great performance as he brings forth the good heartedness and patriotic fervor of the character. The other lead actors like Gemini Ganesan, Padmini have also done well. In short, this justifies itself as a classic for a good patriotic theme and a good, if not great execution of it.
* - I have a big grouse against this effort by Raj TV. Though good intentioned, it doesn’t seem to be executed well. After some good movie in the start, it seems to be airing some very ordinary movies and suddenly some day we again see a good movie playing. Worse, they don’t advertise the movies even one week in advance and their website doesn’t even have info on what movie is playing today!
** - Though Sepoy mutiny of 1857 is popularly considered to be the first revolt against British, it is not. There were revolts by some chieftains in Tamil Nadu like Puli Thevar and Kattabomman, followed by a much a bigger revolt called the Polygar war.