Readers Write In #537: My journey with ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, from watcher to reader to writer

Posted on January 5, 2023

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By Krishnaraj Sambath

As a Watcher

FDFS (my first ever!) on 30-Sep-2022, 6PM show in Houston, TX. There were 5 of us in total in the theatre, including my wife and 4-yr old son. (Not the ear-deafening paper-showering cinematic FDFS experience I was hoping for)

As a Reader

Why did I pick up this book?

While the face reveal of Oomai Rani was a cliffhanger and left me wanting to know what next, it was only part of the reason. I recalled from one of the PS-I promo interviews Maniratnam saying that if the movie inspires the audience to read the book, he considers this film a success (or something to that effect). That was enough of a push for me to buy the book. So I did, that same day.

How did I go about it?

Reading anything (let alone a novel, the most epic one at that) in Tamil after two decades was a struggle, to be honest. It took a while for the muscle memory to kick in. But when it did, it just flowed like a .. Ponni nadhi. (What nostalgia!) Where I cheated – skipped all songs, skimmed through “recaps” of mental states (which may have been needed for a long novel, told over 4 years, but not when “binge-reading”) I was expecting written Tamil 70 years ago to be different from what it is today. But that wasn’t the case. There was hardly a need for the dictionary. Few words where I needed help, I could just guess (like Dhoomakedhu – Shooting star; Pirayam – Age)

I knew it was easier to start than it was to actually go through with it (Thanks to many failed New Year resolutions). So, I needed a crutch / coach. Come it did, in the form of google spreadsheets, which I used to track my reading progress (I’m sure there’s an app for this, I was just old school). I also recall BR’s advice to Anupama Chopra – read 10 pages every day  or something like that). So, I took that too, sort of.

The chart below shows the number of chapters read since the inception of my journey. The blue line shows how many chapters I had completed on a given date. The black lines were goal posts of each part. The dashed gray line is the line of best of fit – to give me an idea of when I might finish. Thanks to Kalki’s riveting writing (and holiday season), I was able to complete it in ~10 weeks (a good 3 weeks ahead of projection).

How much of the book has been covered in the movie?

Inner pie shows the number of chapters and parts in the PS, the book. The outer donut shows how much of the story has been covered in the PS, the movie Roughly speaking, PS-I first half followed events in Baagam-I (including the interval block of Aadhitha Karikalan – Nandhini backstory) and PS-I second half followed events in Baagam-II Similar to the book, the movie ends with a cyclone in the ocean and “perceived death” of Arunmozhi Varman in the Palk Strait (Don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Arunmozhi doesn’t actually die)

However, the reveal of Oomai Rani’s character is an “induced” high in the movie. Her character is introduced and established earlier. (Arunmozhi Varman, Poonguzhali & Oomai Rani will have a nice supper in Ilangai the night before they head back to Thanjavur only to get stuck in the cyclone.)

This metric of no. of chapters covered (admittedly a flawed one) shows PS-I covers the first third of the novel, presumably leaving a fair bit to cover in PS-II. While there may be some trimming on backstories and recaps, I expect PS-II will hit most of the high/key-points from parts 3-5 of the novel. (I also recall one of the artists mentioning MR doesn’t want to do PS-III)

Who was Kalki’s favorite character in Ponniyin Selvan?

Below I look at the number of mentions of a character in the novel by Mr. Kalki. I will be the first to admit “quantity” is not equal to “quality” or “importance”. I was tangentially inspired by “speech analysis of presidents”. although this is much more rudimentary (and pedestrian). Few notes before we look at the results:

● I did a simple Ctrl+F on character names and noted down the count of appearances Kindle reported (I was surprised and impressed that this feature worked in Tamil font)

● When search results yielded 1000+ results, Kindle didn’t provide an exact number (but simply said 1000+). Thankfully, there were only two characters with this “millenia of mentions” star status

● Some (many?) characters are referred to with multiple names. For e.g., Poonguzhali as Samudhrakumari, Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar as Kalandhagar. In these cases, for “ease of analysis”, I just stuck to their primary names. Also, the secondary names generally weren’t used as often as their primary names.

● Arulmozhi Varman was an exception. Ponniyin Selvan (for understandable reasons) occurs just as often as Arulmozhi Varman. So, I added the number of mentions of “Ponniyin Selvan” to “Arulmozhi Varman”

● __________Pazhuvettaraiyars required another sort of adjustments – because there are  two of

them (Chinna and Periya). Once a scene / chapter is established that it is for “Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar”, Mr. Kalki drops “Periya” and just uses “Pazhuvettaraiyar”. And just the word “Pazhuvettaraiyar” occurs 1000+ times. To keep things simple, “Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar” occurs 314 times. I associated the rest (~700) to “Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar” (who does have more presence between the two).

Now onto some observations:

● It is probably not a surprise that Vanthiyathevan tops the chart

● I wasn’t expecting Poonguzhali to come second, although I can’t say I’m fully surprised (whose role maintains significance throughout the novel)

● I was a bit let down that Kundavai does not feature as often as I would have liked her to

On Kalki’s writing style:

● Kalki provides incredible depth & detail for every scene. Here is one example: The pandiya warriors meet at a “paazhadaindha palliyarai”. Kalki goes on to explain about this  place being memorial raised for those who lost their lives in bloodiness of the wars, how it was originally maintained well & frequently visited (like a museum) and overtime people lost context & interest. A second example is Kalki’s discussion on backstories and motivations for why Kodambalur King (Nizhalgal Ravi) supports Madhurandhagan and Malayaman (Lal) supports Adhithakarikalan. This story also involves some vivid imagery of babies buried with just the head up and stamped by elephants

● Kalki threads the zone of Vandhiyathevan’s fantasy of Kundavai carefully – without coming across like a hormonal teenager. He also threads carefully of Vandhiyathevan thinking about both Kundavai & Nandhini at the same time

● Without doubt, Kalki’s creativity, imaginative mind and his understanding of human behavior shines through in how he weaves such sprawling stories through known real facts. A line from Mahabharatham’s title song comes to mind: “Oru kadhaikul pala kadhai; Pala kathaiyil oru vidhai”

● Kalki’s lines are indistinguishable from Maniratnam lines (or vice versa). E.g. Kundavai to Vandiyathevan: Jump onto the river; Exactly like Sakthi to Karthik (in Alaipayuthey): Jump from the train

● Kalki (as the narrator) breaks the fourth wall, very often. I first found it odd and off-key, but eventually got used to it. (It may have been required back when this novel came out, in weekly issues over 4+ years.)

● Kalki switches between epic layered conversation and pedestrian / silly chat. Almost feels like two different people authored it.

● Nandhini’s lines (by Kalki) are razor sharp! Two chapters of events (which I thought would not make it to the movie) suddenly assumes context and heft by a single line of Nandhini.

● In most chapters, the first 2/3rd is a description of the mental state of characters and the next 1/3rd is the actual scene/event

● One oddity was that quite a few characters, when expressing surprise, start with their lines with “Aaga!”. I can’t imagine that’s how people actually spoke back then.

● Title of chapters, in several cases, turned out to be spoilers giving away the main crux of that chapter (especially within the context of events preceding that chapter). I’m not sure why Kalki chose that instead of letting the reader discover what happens.

● In Author’s endnotes, Kalki’s use of English word “Anti-climax” was like a bolt out of the blue, especially after an ocean of unadulterated classical Tamil

● Most mysteries are solved fully, but some are left at 80% solved. This was a bit unsatisfying to me. I’m curious how MR would handle this

● Kalki comes across as a humble person (an impression formed, rightly or not, based on author’s notes)

Assorted thoughts on that era:

● Kings must’ve wielded unrealistic scary powers – The poet in this wiki translation goes on and on about how awesome the king is – before getting to the point.

● Sending a message to your lover takes several days. It takes several more days to know if your message was delivered. Now, all it takes is a double blue tick.

● It’s easy for me to ask now. But I couldn’t help but wonder, if that golden era that stretched several hundred years (900 – 1200) and vast ruling territories, why didn’t our science & technology progress, proliferate and explode in the thousand years since? Why aren’t we already multi-planetary-space-colonizing-species?

● Surprised that there was a “coin minting factory”, they had “taxes” and tax-waivers

My thoughts on PS casting, with book in mind:

● Karthi fit his character to the T. I kept hearing Karthi’s voice as I read lines of Vandhiyathevan – who portrays a mix of playfulness, innocence & tomfoolery. To be honest though, I also thought Vijay (of Ghillli times) would’ve been equally interesting (and probably also made better business)

● Trisha nailed her character as well. Can’t imagine anyone else for her role.

● As good as Shobita was, I kept thinking what a perfect match Aditi Rao Hydari would’ve been for Vanathi

● For Vikram & Aishwarya Rai, I wished for slightly younger versions of themselves for their roles (not being mean here)

● Kanthamaran has such a prominent role – not sure why they didn’t get a known star. Maybe someone like Ashok Selvan or Vishnu Vishal

● Manimegalai (Kanthamaran’s sister, Nizhalgal Ravi’s daughter) is an important character – I’m excited to see who’s going to play that role in PS-II

● I thought Parthiban got a short end of the stick in PS-I with minimal screen time (which is reflective of the book, to be fair). But he does get his moments towards (and after?) climax

● Prakashraj’s wife (the queen empress) surprisingly has little to no mention / role in the book, which is reflected in the movie as well

● Mathuranthakan is such an unlikeable character, incompetent even to be a villain. Credit to Rahman for playing it

As a Writer

Can’t really call myself that, with just this scratch. Well, this is my first non-technical writing

anyways. It’s for you all to react now.