There’s one piece of advice that director Mani Ratnam held on to when he was adapting Kalki’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan, which is made up of five volumes. “Read the book once and then throw it away. Then you write,” a writer told Ratnam. The director followed this advice and what emerged were two films. The first part, Ponniyin Selvan - 1 (PS-1) releases this week. Ratnam has already shot the second part, which is unusual for Indian cinema. The director said his reasons for completing the shooting for both films was purely pragmatic. “If I’d stopped to get all of them [the actors], it wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. The star-studded cast of PS-1 includes Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Trisha and Karthi.
PS-1 marks 30 years of Ratnam working with composer A.R. Rahman. “He’s our Kurosawa,” Rahman said of Ratnam, who said some things about Rahman have not changed despite his successes. “If you tell him [Rahman], it’s outstanding, it’s not enough. He’ll keep at it.” For the music of PS-1, Rahman initially thought he’d try a more classical approach. He sent Ratnam approximately 12 tunes, but the director didn’t respond. Rahman then decided to travel for inspiration. He visited Bali — historically, the Chola empire expanded into South-East Asia — and was inspired by the music he heard there.
Ratnam said that his approach in PS-1 was to make sure the film felt timeless, rather than belonging to a faraway past. “We wanted it like we were there at that time, contemporary. With all the ups and downs, dirt and muck, so that you feel that you’re there and it’s not like a distant view of what happened,” he said. This impacted the way the characters were written and performed too. “I wanted to make it real, that’s all,” Ratnam said. When asked if PS-1 is a Tamil Game of Thrones, the director pointed out that Kalki wrote the story in the Fifties. “Maybe Game of Thrones is an English Ponniyin Selvan,” he said. Later, when Rai was talking about how much she enjoyed playing the antagonist Nandini, Rahman said, “Maybe Mata Hari got inspired by Nandini.”
Hear the entire conversation here: