Readers Write In #390: What’s powering Ponniyin Selvan 1?

Posted on July 30, 2021

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(by Karthik Amarnath)

When I first saw the poster of Mani Ratnam’s next movie— the historical fiction Ponniyin Selvan— I was struck by the title. PS-I. For a moment, it sounded like a science thriller. Like the launch of a new PSLV satellite. I get it, it’s a “new-age” title, slapped on a literary classic, written three generations ago (and the story takes place thousand years before that). It’s a universal title, short and easy to remember, which I guess makes all sorts of commercial sense.  

But die hard fans of the epic may not care much for all that. Many of them have waited a lifetime to see the books come alive— it’s more than fifty years since MGR first announced his intentions to adapt it to the screen. I’ll admit, I am a fan too. When I first read the novel, I was blown away by the exquisite detailing and evocative description of life in the Chola kingdom (which I hadn’t gotten from the VIII std history textbook or the Amar Chitra Katha comics I read till then). There was gripping storytelling full of mystery, intrigue and twists. And then there were the remarkable characters brought alive in a way only great writers are capable of doing. So I understand wanting to see all that through the teleportive magic of modern filmmaking.

But in a way, adapting a novel to a movie is also like a theft. Reading a novel, especially a five volume magnum opus like Ponniyin Selvan, is a long journey through a multi dimensional narrative hyperspace. Kalki Krishnamurthy’s masterful writing and the time you spend reading (it took me a year) lets you form strong connections to characters, and they don’t disappear from your mental universe just because you’re done reading. The intricacies of plot might get sucked into the black hole of lost memories, but the characters continue to show up now and then like they exist in some distant orbit, without faces or voices, as neuronal formations engineered by the mind’s eye. My mind’s eye. And now, the characters will be displaced by those imagined by the filmmakers’, shot in full glory on to the crystal clear cosmos that is the modern movie screen.

But I’ve been here many times before, as I imagine millions of others have. And I understand that the narrative gears driving a book and a movie can be quite different. A novel as intimately narrated as Ponniyin Selvan gives you a telescope that shows every crater, valley and mountain occupying its characters as they navigate the hyper-threaded plotlines. But Ponniyin Selvan also has a story that’s a heck of a yarn, as intricate as it is sprawling. So a movie can choose to level out its characters and still make for a riveting ride.

The question is how much room does commercial Tamil cinema have, especially one that’s made on a 500 cr. budget, for a ride that’s character driven? Tamil movies of that scale are designed to keep as many viewers engaged through the ride as can be, and characters that aren’t archetypes are at best couched on the backseat. An interesting counterpoint here is a movie like Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai, which despite zooming in on just two characters gave the feeling that much was left on paper than was shown on screen. Now, I liked the movie, but the criticism I heard repeatedly was that people couldn’t connect with the protagonist— an accusation we might never have heard in the pre Iruvar phase of Mani Ratnam’s career.

Mani Ratnam, though, has always been a filmmaker first. His writing is shaped by and shaped for the language of cinema. His mastery over the medium is such that complex characters come alive in a matter of moments. Like the terrorist-parent characters in Roja or Kannathil Muthamittal. I could write an entire essay about how and why those characters worked for me, but I’ll drop an easy reason here— casting. Nandita Das and Pankaj Kanpur are “character artistes” who you’d imagine just need a blank sheet of paper and the title of a movie to draw you inside a character.

Of course, Ponniyin Selvan isn’t a blank sheet of paper; it has in fact over 2000 pages of pointillistically precise prose (and some poetry too). And the title role will be played by Jayam Ravi, a “commercial actor” whose success is tied to “light” roles painted in broad strokes. I am not dissing Jayam Ravi’s talents here. I was entertained by Santhosh Subramaniam and Thani Oruvan as much as the person next to me. I can also see why he might be a good choice. He is a star, but one who doesn’t carry the kind of star baggage that a Vijay or Ajith does. And the character he needs to carry, Arulmozhi Varman, has very few shades of grey. But there are heavier roles in the film like the two fascinating female characters, Nandini (who’s played by Aishwarya Rai) and Poonguzhali (who’s played by Aishwarya Lekshmi), and I am intrigued to see how much of what I imagined survives.

I am a fan of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s writing as I am of Mani Ratnam’s filmmaking. The worlds they’ve designed and the experiences they’ve created are entertaining, exhilarating and enriching. But they also belong to different universes which I enter with different expectations. And now, they’re about to collide, thanks to PS-I, which takes off in a year, at a theatre nearby.