It’s been just under a month since Mani Ratnam’s ambitious cinematic adaptation of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan released, but its records are only growing steadily. The film, which surpassed the box office collection of almost every Tamil film, has already made it to the Rs.450 crore club at the international box office, according to . And it’s not just the film that is breaking records: Ponniyin Selvan’s wildly popular literary counterpart — Kalki’s 72-year-old novel series of the same name — is making staggering sales and finding new audiences every day.
Kalki’s books, which was originally published in the Kalki magazine between 1950 and 1954, is regarded as one of the largest selling Tamil novels of all time, making an annual sale of close to 1,00,000 copies every year. The sale of the books, which is now available in multiple English translations and audiobooks, has only been augmented by the film’s success.
Very rarely do books do these kinds of numbers, Ramjee asserts. “We sold over 2,700 copies of various parts of Ponniyin Selvan in the first 20 days of the film’s release, which is unheard of. Normally, when a book releases, even when it is a new book with an established author, or nation-wide bestseller, it sells only 2,000 copies in the literary world today. Unless it is somebody like an Amish Patel or a Chetan Bhagat, who are more into the pulp side.”
And Ramjee alludes this spurt in book sales entirely to Ratnam’s ensemble, which co-stars Karthi, Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha and Jayam Ravi. “There is a fraction of the people who have viewed the film, who are curious to know about the end. And then there is another fraction who do not want to be outdated, and feel they can enjoy the experience more. And Mani Ratnam has said it in his own words that if you want the entire experience of Ponniyin Selvan, you have to read it. There is no comparison to the books. So, obviously that is a different league altogether.”
While translations are doing great numbers, the original Tamil novel is peaking its own records. E-publishing company Pustaka Digital Media has two versions of the ebook– Kalki’s Tamil original and English translations by CV Karthik Narayanan and Varalotti Rengasamy. “There has been a 10 fold increase in sales of PS e-books, but the Tamil version has recorded massive numbers. Everywhere, there has been a 500- 600 percent of sales increase,” points out Rajesh Devadas, director of the company. Putting these numbers into perspective, he adds that people are spending so much time reading Kalki’s classic that Pustaka’s regular sales of other authors have come down by at least 30 per cent. “This can only mean that people are spending more time on PS than any other book in the past two months.” These books are most consumed through e-readers like Kindle, smartphones and other handheld devices, Rajesh explains.
Apart from e-books, Pustaka also features the classic in the form of an audiobook, a format that is finding love among readers who want to experience Kalki’s genius in his own words, but at their own convenience. Sukirti Sharma, the head of marketing at Storytel, thinks the genre lends itself well to the format.
“The younger generation do not have the time to read a five-part series. And audiobooks are a much more convenient way to get in touch with our classics,” Sukirti says, adding that the movie has definitely accelerated readers’ love for the language. Storytel recorded a 21 per cent increase in listenership in the last month, leading up to the film’s release, making it their most consumed book in the Tamil language. Re-promoting their book on the heels of the film’s release also helped them reach new audiences.
Audible India, which features narrator Bombay Kannan’s audiobook of PS in Tamil, looks at the burgeoning interest as a positive indication. “It’s wonderful to see the film adaptation of this masterpiece enjoy so much success, and of course the spill over interest in the Ponniyin Selvan audiobooks on Audible, has been heartwarming too. This is a clear indication of the fact that a good story transcends mediums and that there is enough room for every content format – book, movie or audioshow to co-exist beautifully,” says Shailesh Sawlani, VP and Country GM, Audible India.
Deepika Arun, who is one of the narrators of the audiobook on Storytel, started her own podcast platform called ‘Kadhai Oosai’ in 2019, through which she would take Tamil literary gems such as Poi Maan Karadu, Sivagamiyin Sabadham and Parthiban Kanavu to scores of Tamil-speaking listeners, who cannot read the language. But a few months into the lockdown, she began getting multiple requests to make a serialised podcast of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. But she had her doubts about taking on a classic that already had many renditions in existence. “But I could not refuse them, beyond a point. So, I started doing one chapter every day,” she says with a laugh. And that is how she finished narrating 295 chapters over a period of 10 months.
And the frenzy around her podcast only increased when the teaser, and eventually the film released. “It is a 61-hour audiobook, but many people tell me that they listened 10 hours every day to finish it before the movie. After the movie, the consumption for the first few episodes has increased, which is an encouraging sign.”
But what draws readers to consume the book even after watching the movie— which covers a significant portion of the book? Deepika credits Kalki’s mastery of the language and the nuance with which every character in his universe is imagined. “There are so many layers to each of the characters that maybe it is not easy to understand them all in the movie. Take a character like Nandini for example. At one point you will feel empathy for each of these characters, even if they have a negative shade in the book. I think that is the brilliance of Kalki.”
Rakesh notes that the film’s ending— which features Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s shocking reveal as the Oomai Rani— piqued interest among viewers. “A lot of people want to know why the Oomai Rani shares a resemblance to Nandini,” he says, predicting a sustained interest in the books at least for the next year with the movie’s nearing release on OTT, along with the release of PS-2 slated for next year.
Ramjee too hopes the interest for the books doesn’t plateau. “These days, I don't think there is any excitement that is perpetual. But if there is a huge opening for PS-2, which is expected 12 months from now, I see another surge then.” Despite the fate of future sales, Deepika is elated that the sales haven’t taken a hit. While film adaptations largely benefit the sale of literary classics, that is not always the case. An example of this is Kothamangalam Subbu’s cult classic novel Thillana Mohanambal, which got an acclaimed cinematic adaptation in Sivaji Ganesan’s 1968 film of the same name.
“Historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, in one of his talks, mentioned that after the release of Thillana Mohanambal, the book sales and its reach dwindled a lot. Not many people even know it was a book adaptation. And he expressed concern that the same pattern should not be seen in PS. But that concern is gone as people are buying the books to know the story in the actual words of Kalki,” says Deepika, who is just happy to have taken Kalki’s rich literature to new audiences, one podcast at a time.