Elavarasan distinctly recalls a typical day on the set of Ponniyin Selvan. He would wake up at 4.30am, tend to around 80-100 talents, get their costumes and armour in place, making sure they are just right for a tough day of filming. With Mani Ratnam directing and Ravi Varman shooting, Elavarasan’s morning routine requires another level of perfection. The stars we’re talking about here do not include the film’s ensemble cast. Elavarasan’s ‘talents’, though, are just as irreplaceable — the horses.
Elavarasan and his family, who were pivotal in training the horses for the period film, have been working in the industry for 40 years. Elavarasan is the grandson of T Govindarajan, fondly known as the Horse King. “He introduced the horse riding culture in Marina beach several years ago, but soon moved to cinema,” recalls Elavarasan. Carrying the legacy forward, Govindarajan’s son Tamilarasan continues training horses along with sons Elavarasan and Inbarasan.
Govindarajan’s association with Ratnam goes back till 1993, when he collaborated on Thiruda Thiruda. Although working with the filmmaker was not new to the family, handling hundreds of horses on a single set was. Even if it was challenging to manage the horses and coach them spontaneously, Elavarasan remembers the pre-production process to be more demanding.
The magnum opus was shot across several locations, including Puducherry, Rajahmundry, Hyderabad, Madhya Pradesh, Gwalior, and Thailand. The trainers travelled along with their horses to nearby cities like Puducherry and Hyderabad, but procured horses from locals while shooting in Gwalior and Madhya Pradesh. Jeetu Varma, a prominent trainer of horses in Bollywood, supplied horses from Mumbai, while Zabeer Patel is credited for procuring around 40 background horses in Hyderabad. “While filming at places located far away, we got horses from stables nearby and trained them for the specific scenes. For instance, if it takes us three to four days to travel to a place in a car, it would take us at least eight days to travel there with horses.”
Finding Vandhiyathevan and Karikalan’s stallions
In an interview, Trisha credited Mani Ratnam and his eye for perfection for getting the casting just right. Elavarasan agrees, and recalls that the filmmaker left no stone unturned even when it came to casting horses. “Mani sir briefed us on the kind of horse every character needed. He was particular about the colour and characteristics of the horses. For instance, he wanted Karthi sir and Jayam Ravi sir to have black horses and Vikram sir to ride a white one. He further explained that Karthi sir’s horse should be playful because Semba aka Semban (Vandhiyathevan’s horse) is mischievous. He looked at Semba as a character in the film. Similarly, he wanted Vikram sir’s horse to appear majestic.”
Besides the look tests, the costumes for the horses, too, went through various shortlists. “During those days, horses would barely wear any ornaments. They would instead be seen only in leather. So, we had leather masks, belts, and armour made for each horse,” says Elavarasan.
Like the astute filmmaker himself, Elavarasan and his family too go by their own criteria while procuring horses — a horse audition if you will. “The horse should be good-looking and mighty. They should also have healthy, lustrous hair and attractive eyes.” Besides the looks, they are keen on selecting horses that are calm— “some horses bite or kick.”
Training horses and its ‘dupes’
Once the horses are bought, they are trained regularly in different styles. “We also have different horses based on the work they do. For instance, we have artist horses trained specifically for actors. We have chariot horses, horses for jumping, and some to do the “up” stunt. If you take the horse in Karnan, played by Alex, he would’ve done a rear-up jump. Not all horses can do that; they need special training.”
This apart, horses of the same colour are trained to have different skills. “If we have two black horses, one might be trained in jumping and riding and another for the ‘up’ stunt. Just like how we have stunt doubles for any actor, we have two similar-looking horses to shoot a scene. Even in Ponniyin Selvan, we had a dupe horse for Semba during the sequences on the Gwalior fort bridge as we couldn’t take our horses to the north,” says Elavarasan, adding that the horses are also trained to respond to their commands from behind the camera.
Remember the scene in PS where Semba pulls away a piece of clothing from a woman and runs away? Elavarasan tells us how they trained Alex, who played Semba, for this particular scene. “We did some tricks to get the shot right. Alex has been working in cinema for several years, so the horse knew to act as soon as we said “camera ready”. We practised the sequence a couple of times. We attached a carrot to the cloth. So, when Semba pulled the carrot, it looked like he pulled the cloth. Mani sir was happy with the way the horse pulled the cloth and ran around cheerfully.”
Kollywood’s star stallions
Alex, who is regarded as the Chella Pillai of Kollywood, started acting at the age of three, starring in films as old as Vijayakanth’s Captain Prabhakaran (1991). His recent outing was in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan (2021). As for Adithya Karikalan’s majestic white beauty, he is a young horse named Iqbal, who has acted in films such as Vaalu (2015) and the recent series Anal Mele Pani Thuli (2022).
Managing 100 horses wouldn’t have been possible without the facilities provided by the production team, emphasises Elavarasan, who also had his own team of wranglers in place. “Each horse had a rider who looked after the horse and also did stunts during war sequences,” says Elavarasan, who also doubles up as a stunt artist for films. “I worked on a few scenes in Ponniyin Selvan as a fighter, and also stood in for Karthi sir and rode the horse for some shots filmed from a long distance, for which the horse had to be ridden faster than usual.”
Govindarajan, on the other hand, has trained and worked with seasoned actors like MGR, Jayalalitha, Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth (Remember his stylish rides in Muthu (1995)?), among others. But with films being increasingly set in modern milieus, people have shifted to cars and bikes, laments Elavarasan. His team usually gets the opportunity to work on a film or two every year, but this year has been a welcome exception. This year alone, the family has worked on Agent Kannayiram, Vikram’s Thangalaan, Silambarasan’s Pathu Thala, Vijay Antony’s Ratham and Raghava Lawrence’s Chandramukhi 2.
But Elavarasan does not worry about film offers drying up. When they aren’t working on films, the family focuses on their own farm where they train young riders and supply horses for equestrian training at the YMCA college of Physical Education. The engineer-turned-horseman loves his extended family and is proud to carry forward his family’s legacy.
“I trained at the YMCA after my engineering because I wanted to eventually come back and take care of the horses.” With the period drama behind him, Elavarasan has hopped on to his horses for the next big adventure. Next stop is the Kamal Haasan starrer Indian 2, where Ulaganaayagan will be seen riding Iqbal, a superstar in his own right. His majesty awaits.