Mani Ratnam is a filmmaker who revels in ensembles. His gift for handling a star-studded cast is evident in iconic films such as Thalapathi (1991), Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004), Ravanan (2010) and most recently, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018). For his upcoming film, too, he will be helming a strong ensemble. Starring Vikram, Trisha, Karthi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Jayam Ravi (among others), Ponniyin Selvan (PS1) is a period film and a project that has been on many directors’ wish list. It’s the big-screen adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel, which is a fictionalised take on the events that lead to Arulmozhi Varman becoming the decorated king Rajaraja Chola I. If seeing the promotional material for PS1 has left you in the mood for historical fiction, it’s time to revisit Rajaraja Chozhan (1973), directed by A.P. Nagarajan and starring Sivaji Ganesan.
Based on a play of the same name, Nagarajan’s Rajaraja Chozhan follows the exploits of Rajaraja Chola, as he battles familial drama and politics. The film, which is regarded as one of the first southern films to be filmed in wide-angle Cinemascope, is an unabashed celebration of art. At the centre of the film’s universe is the king’s boisterous family with characters as rich as they come. R Muthuraman plays Vimaladhithan, a king from a neighbouring kingdom, who goes head-to-head with Rajaraja’s wits. Sivakumar plays Rajendra Chola I, the crown prince, who is often required to display the courage for which his lineage is known. MN Nambiar, true to form, plays the deliciously-written baddie Bala Devar, the king’s political advisor who doubles up as a spy for Sathyasriyan, the exiled king of Vimaladhithan’s province.
The story of Rajaraja Chozhan follows the naiveté of a king who destroys his interpersonal relationships on an ascent to power, but the film is at its best as a character study. It begins and ends with Ganesan, waxing eloquent about the golden era of the Chola king’s reign. The legendary actor brings his characteristic charm and machismo to the role with every grunt, laugh and scowl. As early as his entry scene — a phenomenon that Tamil star worshippers are acclimatised to by now — the actor is shown to be a king who remains connected to his subjects, one who is happier helping a stonemason rather than attend his own birthday celebration.
The film also pays attention to the women. Some of the finest scenes in the movie belong not to Rajaraja, but to his tempestuous daughter Kundavai (played by Lakshmi), who is in love with Vimaladhithan and fights for him with her father. She also makes Rajaraja nervous, often leading him to bungle his words, which is used for comedic effect. At one point, Rajaraja declares he might be able to predict the world’s future, but he cannot figure out what goes through his daughter’s mind. Kundavai is not just an eyelash-batting pretty face. She challenges her fiancée on his knowledge of art at every chance she gets, while putting up a fight for him when her father says he disapproves of Vimaladhithan entering the family fold. And she is largely successful.
Another strong female character in the movie is comedian Manorama’s Poongodhai, Bala Devar’s accomplice. She gets some of the best lines in the film, often leaving us in stitches. In a superb scene, she puts two lustful men in their place with the dialogue, “Kadhalaum kandapadi vandhu nadamada kudaadhu. Adharkum idam, porul, eval endra oru kattupatu irukavendum (There is a proper time and place for love to commence. It needs to show some restraint).” How’s that for setting boundaries in the workplace? Of course, being a film from the Seventies, it invariably ends up blaming the women for men’s actions. So much so that there is a line that goes like this: “Aavadhum pennal, azhivadhum pennal (one is created and destroyed by women).”
Fittingly for a film about the historical Tamil king who is described as a lover of art and architecture in the Thanjavur edicts, Rajaraja Chozhan takes its art and design seriously. G. Dharmarajan’s magnificent set pieces of the Brihadeeswara temple and the king’s palatial grounds are a sight to behold. Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan’s soundtrack adds to the film’s flamboyance, with Carnatic musician Sirkazhi Govindarajan featuring in a lovely cameo as Nambiyandar Nambi, the popular Tamil poet and scholar. Despite a very predictable ‘twist’, Rajaraja Chozhan ends on a strong note, with a superb face-off between acting greats Ganesan and Nambiar. Five decades later, we’re still hooked to the world that Nagarajan created and the historical period he and his film’s cast and crew brought to life.