In her very first film Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was cast as Jayalalithaa. It was a well-kept secret not revealed to this day by either the director or his leading lady.
Though it was quite obvious that Iruvar was about the infamous friendship turned rivalry between two of Tamil Nadu’s most high-profile film personalities turned politicians, namely M G Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi and the role that Jayalalithaa played in shaping Indian politics; no one was saying it out loud then. Now with Jayalalithaa’s tragic and premature demise there is a renewed interest in Mani Ratnam’s politics of Iruvar. One hears the film may well be revived and re-released in languages other than Tamil.
Finally a prominent member of the film’s cast spills the beans. “Iruvar was most definitely plotted around the close relationship between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu. And Aishwarya played Madame Jayalalithaa. This was Aishwarya’s acting debut after winning Miss World, and she wasn’t sure if doing such a volatile subject was the right start. But Mani convinced her.”
This was the era when the process of ‘de-Mani-tization’ (post his flops) had not started.
Sure enough there was a lot of trouble when Iruvar released, first from the censor board which wanted many key scenes deleted as it showed “easily recognizable political figures from Tamil Nadu” (read: MGR, Karunandihi and Jayalalithaa) in a less than flattering light. Protests were staged throughout Tamil Nadu on the film’s release.”
To this day Aishwarya refuses to acknowledge her character in Iruvar as being borrowed from Jayalalithaa. That’s perfectly understandable. If we had asked Suchitra Sen whether she had played Gandhi in Gulzar’s Aandhi she would have refused outright.
In an earlier interview to this writer Aishwarya did concede that her role in Iruvar was closer to real life than any other she had played. “I’ve always believed in taking leaps of faith, always gone in pursuit of roles that require me to explore facets of my personality that are not known to anyone, not even me. I’ve been doing character-driven parts from the time I did Iruvar. I’ve taken risks from the start.”