Mani Ratnam’s films have several recurring stylistic elements. Love will immediately follow the first sighting of the beloved, whether at a railway station or a wedding. Song sequences will have elaborate choreography and complex camera movements. The leads will look dazzling. The cameos will be memorable too. It will rain.

And there will be mirrors, lots of mirrors. Is a Mani Ratnam movie complete without a scene or two of characters gazing upon their own reflections?

Sometimes, there are one-way conversations with the image in the glass. More often, key players will be framed within the borders of the mirror looking at themselves and each other – a symmetrical and arresting composition by a filmmaker known for creating imagery that is both gorgeous and precise.

In Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, mirrors play more than an ornamental role. Among the themes of the Tamil-language production is the illusion of transformation produced by cinema and radical politics – the chasm between what is seen and what actually transpires.

Iruvar (The Duo) is a fictionalised account of the friendship and fallout between Tamil Nadu’s future chief ministers MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi. The camaraderie that is forged on a movie set between the actor Anandan and screenwriter Tamizhselvan extends to the political arena. The movie, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

Mohanlal and Prakash Raj in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj) writes the fiery dialogue that catapults Anandan to stardom. Tamizhselvan urges Anandan (Mohanlal) to join his political party, but a series of disagreements drives the men apart.

Despite several references to actual events, Iruvar is largely apolitical. Ratnam doesn’t address the complexities of Dravidian ideology, settling instead for a stylised riff on the duet between cinema and politics. His cool distance towards his subject matter is expressed through the gorgeous faces that are captured in reflective surfaces but also prove elusive, like the movie itself.

The first face who escapes the frame is Pushpavalli (Aishwarya Rai). She is the woman in the village whom Anandan has been persuaded to marry.

Reluctant since his career hasn’t taken off, Anandan grumbles and then shuts up when he sees Pushpavalli’s incandescent visage. Santosh Sivan’s sensual close-ups of Rai, who made her acting debut in Iruvar, back Anandan’s decision.

Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

When Pushpavalli dies suddenly, Anandan is distraught. I want to see her face, he cries at the cremation. He returns to Chennai where, backed by Tamizhselvan’s rousing dialogue, he becomes an in-demand star.

The illusion of lasting happiness created by cinema is undermined by events beyond the screen. Mirrors, so crucial to the filmmaking process, provide handy backdrops for important incidents in the narrative.

Sparks fly between Anandan and his co-star Ramani (Gautami). Ramani is being abused by her uncle, who preys on her while she is in her dressing room. After Ramani turns up bruised at Anandan’s doorstep one night, he marries her.

Gautami in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

When Anandan joins Tamizhselvan’s party, its older leaders are soon eclipsed by his popularity with the masses. The promise of radical social change as a collective unit undone, the friends begin to drift apart.

More seriously for Anandan, Pushpavalli returns. In one of the most inventive uses of a film-within-a-film device, Ratnam transforms the big screen itself into a giant mirror that throws back memories that Anandan has tried to supress.

There’s a new talent in town, he’s told. At a preview theatre with Ramani for company, Anandan watches a song play out on the screen. It features Kalpana, and she is a dead ringer for Pushpavalli.

Vairamuthu’s teasing lyrics seal Anandan’s fate. Even if the sky stops being blue and rhythm is separated from music, I will never leave you, Kalpana sings.

Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

Kalpana, or the imaginary, is a befitting name for the character, who is once again played by Aishwarya Rai. Loosely inspired by Jayalalithaa, who was MG Ramachandran’s co-star and rumoured partner, Kalpana is both a flesh-and-blood challenge to Anandan’s second marriage and a spectre from his past. The impression is accentuated by the soft-focus light and mist that forever surround Kalpana.

He stares at me as though I am a ghost, Kalpana complains in her green room. When she eventually confronts Anandan, he is touching up his face and she is clutching a hand mirror.

The conflation of the first wife and the future lover is complete. But if Pushpa was ephemeral, Kalpana too is a lie, destined to die in an accident soon after and further the impermanence that has by now come to haunt Anandan.

Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

Perhaps aptly for a film with so many reflective objects, Iruvar lingers on the surface, providing impressions rather than an analysis of crucial decades in Tamil Nadu politics.

The seductions include superb production design (by Samir Chanda), excellent actors, AR Rahman’s outstanding score, and eye-watering visuals. Mohanlal often makes the movie a solo show.

His remarkably subtle performance includes scenes in which he conveys a wealth of meaning with the mere flick of an eye. Anandan turns out to be the biggest mystery of them all, present and yet far away, well-meaning but insincere, real as well as phantasmagorical. If the camera lies, so does the man in the mirror.

Mohanlal and Prakash Raj in Iruvar (1997). Courtesy Madras Talkies.

Also read:

Who else is in it? The cameos are as interesting as the leads in Mani Ratnam’s movies

Santosh Sivan on his lengthy collaboration with Mani Ratnam: ‘Every film is different’