Ponniyin Selvan, is a Mani Ratnam Classic
The novel, was a runaway literary success, when it was first serialized in the Tamil weekly Kalki
Mani Ratnam is a national filmi phenomenon, having made movies in all the four major South Indian languages as well as in Hindi. He is also a perceptive recorder of events that define the Tamilian psyche.
"Iruvar"-The Duo-was a thinly veiled picturisation of the Dravidian movement and the rise of Karunanidhi and M. G. Ramachandran. While "Kannathil Muthamittal"- The Kiss on the Cheek-focused on the special relationship between Tamilnadu and Sree Lanka, (which people of the rest of India do not understand), narrated through the eventful story of a Lankan child adopted by Tamil parents.
He has now scaled new heights as a raconteur by bringing Kalki's magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, to the silver screen.
Ponniyin Selvan or the Son of the Ponni River is the affectionate name given by his subjects to Prince Arulmozhi (who later became the famous monarch, Rajaraja Chola), since the river had flung him back when he had fallen into its waters as a child.
In the movie and the novel on which it is based, Arulmozhi denies the truth of this story and attributes the rescue not to the river, but to a mysterious woman, who emerges from the darkness every time his life is in danger.
Ponniyin Selvan, the novel, was a runaway literary success, when it was first serialized in the Tamil weekly Kalki, named after the author of the book, from 1950 to 1954. According to Wikipedia, the story then had a fan following of more than 70000, a record breaking number for the early years of independent India.
Every Tamilian household waited with bated breath to read the latest episode of this romantic saga set in the glorious Chola period, when warriors and sailors of the State ruled the peninsula and the seas around it. By the time the adventure was completed, it had filled five volumes and more than two thousand pages.
We are fortunate that the epic has at last reached movie theatres in the capable and sensitive hands of a great director.
As is usual with historical melodramas, Ponniyin Selvan has a complicated plot and a diverse panoply of larger-than-life characters. Mani Ratnam's skill lies in making the events as well as the motives of different players plausible and comprehensible.
Like the novels of Alexandre Dumas built around the musketeer D'Artagnan, the narrative of Ponniyin Selvan falls into two broad segments. On the one hand, there is the story of the three children of the ailing Chola king, Sundara Chola: Aditha Karikalan, who has defeated the Rashtrakutas and killed Veerapandiyan, the Pandya monarch, in Kanchi, Arulmozhi, who is extending Chola influence in Sri Lanka and Princess Kundavai Piratti, astutely managing political affairs from the royal household. Dissension and strife are in the air all over the kingdom.
The Pandyas are thirsting for revenge with the covert support of Nandini, once the beloved of Karikalan, later the lover of the slain Pandian king. To achieve her aim of destroying the Cholas, Nandini has married the Chola chieftain Periya Pazhavetturayar, who is mobilizing his fellow chieftains to wrest the kingdom away from Sundara Chola and return it to his nephew Madurantakan, from whom it was taken away, when his father died in his infancy.
The political intrigues of the Chola kingdom are tied together through the wanderings of Vandiyathevan, a loyal subject, who is used as a messenger by each of the princely siblings. He fights the Rashtrakutas with Karikalan, carries messages to the princess and Sundara Chola using his cunning and martial skills to breach the security systems of friends and foes in castles and palaces, crosses the seas to join Arulmozhi, even takes the place of the Prince to protect him from Pandian assassins and battles beside him under a stormy sky on a burning vessel.
In his wanderings, he draws on the support of humble subjects of the kingdom-a flower seller, a Vaishnavite devotee who is the butt of Kalki's jokes and, above all, a valorous fisherwoman who takes him to Lanka and pitches in to defend Arulmozhi (there is also a frisky horse, Semba). As befits an epic, the canvas is full of colourful characters, rousing adventures and unsolved mysteries.
There are ominous chants and calls for human sacrifice for Goddess Kali, there are Buddhist priests and golden Buddhas in Lanka, there are seers, sorcerers and spies, there is a strange apparition on an elephant always arriving in the nick of time to rescue the hero.
There are charges and battles galore, fort walls to be scaled and a secret passage-in fact, the heady stuff of a historical romance. And it all transpires under the prescient gaze of a strange comet glowing in the sky, foretelling the rise and fall of kings.
Kalki has set this potent mixture within a south Indian context during a period when a Tamil kingdom extended its political influence far beyond the confines of the peninsula towards south and southeast Asia, with no thought of Delhi or the Gangetic plain.
For the rest of us Indians, the novel and movie are a healthy reminder of the Tamilian faith in their unique and ancient language, history and tradition, unrestricted by what we define today as an Indian identity. The abiding popularity of the serial is due to its inherent Tamil character, harking back to a time when a powerful southern dynasty ruled the land and the seas.
The novel played a role in stoking the Tamilian's pride in his ancient achievements and this was soon reflected in a strong sentiment of regional identity, culminating in the rise of State level political parties and the total exclusion of national ones.
Mani Ratnam is fully aware of the appeal of the novel to all Tamilians. He has confessed that he had waited for years to make it into a movie. With the skill of a true entertainer, he has now brought it before a national audience by dubbing it in the four major south Indian languages as well as in Hindi and providing English subtitles throughout.
Following the practice of others before him, the film has also been simultaneously released for the Indian diaspora and is already raking in shekels across the globe. Here is one more South Indian producer, stealing a march on Bollywood by his willingness to overcome language barriers to put his creation before all audiences on the strength of its entertainment value.
Multilingual viewers are spoiled for choice, but those who understand Tamil should opt for the basic Tamil production to get a flavour of Kalki's epic, especially because the script has skilfully simplified the sonorous periods of the royal dialogue, while retaining the humorous sallies of the king's subjects.
A two thousand page story packed with adventure cannot be told quickly. Mani Ratnam has compressed Kalki's lavish narrative into two episodes. What is now released is Ponniyin Selvan 1, which is almost three hours long. Shots of the sequel have already been completed and will be before us in a year's time.
The director has used several devices to recreate in viewers the curiosity and suspense experienced by devoted readers of the serial, who would wait week after week to follow the fortunes of their favourite characters.
The hero, for example, who has given his name to the title appears only after the intermission, since the earlier half of the movie is focused on the exploits of Prince Aditha Karikalan, Princess Kundavai Piratti and the rest of the royal family. Our curiosity is also piqued by the intriguing moment at which the first segment of the epic is left hanging.
Most of us in the audience who have no access to the novel do not know the twists and turns of the sequel. The tale has been paused just after Arulmozhi and Vandiyathevan have battled Pandian assassins on the heaving seas under a darkening sky with the fisherwoman, Poonguzhali, rushing to their rescue.
On land, Sundara Chola and his retinue fear that Prince Arulmozhi has drowned. Rebels and opponents hover like vultures around the throne. Who knows where it will all end? Not having read the novel and not wishing to plough through 2000 pages, I look forward to queuing up for tickets when the sequel is released in 2023.
Considering the professionalism of Chennai studios and the guidance of a meticulous director, it is no surprise that the movie's technical values meet the highest standards. Although it is packaged for all viewing formats, it is best enjoyed on the widest IMAX screen.
Keeping in mind the seafaring skills of the Cholas, I was eager to watch sequences filmed on the water. They materialized at last only after the halfway mark, when a sumptuous line of sea craft rose out of the ocean and loomed before the Lankan coast.
There are eye catching battles shot on the beaches and seas and a glorious ending on a burning ship, with Vandiyathevan lashed to the mast and Arulmozhi and Poonguzhali fighting to bring him down. While a storm rages and ships and rafts are tossed around like toys.
This multistarrer uses several popular actors of south Indian and Hindi movies who are part of Mani Ratnam's old repertoire. There is, for example, Prakash Raj who played the role of Karunanidhi in Iruvar as the aging Sundara Chola and Aishwarya Rai, the beauty queen who made her movie debut in Iruvar as the lovely and treacherous Nandini.
Some among the younger cast like Karthi have also worked with Mani Ratnam before, while many are new to his direction. The costumes are sumptuous and settings are magnificent.
A R Rahman, Mani Ratnam's favourite music director has produced a score that keeps pace with the fastmoving narrative. A delight to the senses, Ponniyin Selvan is entertainment at its finest.