In one of the promotional videos for his upcoming role as Alwarkadiyan Nambi in Ponniyin Selvan, a delighted Jayaram remembers how director Mani Ratnam introduced him to the film’s nuanced universe. “He opened a big chart in front of me and began explaining the main characters and how they are all connected. At the end of it, I felt like I had actually read the book itself,” he said.
Ratnam’s film is based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan, a five-part historic fiction series, first published in the Fifties. The series went on to become a sensation with its unique take on the historical Chozha dynasty — since there is no English equivalent of the letter “zha”, Chozha is sometimes written as ‘Chola’ — a Tamil kingdom that was at the height of its powers during the medieval period.
While it is unclear how much Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1 will cover, here’s a quick overview of Kalki’s magnum opus. Fresh Floods (volume 1) details Vanthiyathevan’s expedition to reach the Chozha family. Whirlwind (volume 2) is set mostly in Sri Lanka and explores the past and secrets of the lead characters. Sword of The Slaughter (volume 3) details Aditya Karikalan’s battle against Veerapandiyan and Nandini’s scheme. The last two volumes (The Crown; The Pinnacle of Sacrifice) document conspiracies for the throne and finally the coronation of the rightful prince.
The Chozha family is at the front and center of Kalki’s universe, but other clans also feature significantly in the book. These include the Pallavas, Bana (also written as Vana), Pazhuvettaraiyars, Malayamans and Kodambalur families, who are all Chozha allies. The rivals of the Chozhas are the Pandyas, who are from a neighouring kingdom.
We can expect the film will explore themes such as revenge, power and a battle of succession since these feature prominently in the written epic. The literary universe of Ponniyin Selvan is filled with rich characters and complex back stories, which can make it daunting for the uninitiated. However, we’re here to help you unpack the epic ahead of the film’s release. So, just as Ratnam did for Jayaram, let us walk you through Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, without revealing major plot twists.
Known as the golden period for art, architecture and development for the Tamil people, the Chozha era finds a special place in Tamil culture and history. During this period, trade, agriculture and irrigation is said to have flourished. It was also during this period that several temples were built, including the Thanjai Periya Koyil at the Chozha capital of Thanjavur.
The dynasty also originated from the valleys of river Cauvery, a river that gives the novel its name. Kalki, who is said to have grown up on the banks of river Cauvery himself, often spotlights the river in delectable ways in the novel. When a young Arulmozhi Varman falls into the river while on a royal boat, he is rescued by a mysterious woman and returned to his family. But the woman soon disappears, leading everybody to believe that he was saved by the river Cauvery herself. Thus he became “Ponniyin Selvan” or Cauvery’s son.
The novel, which is based on real Chozha kings and queens, traces the events that eventually lead up to Arulmozhi Varman becoming Chozha emperor Raja Raja Chozha I.
Set in the 10th century, the novel begins with Crown Prince Aditya Karikalan sending a message to his family through his good friend Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan. But what he doesn’t know is that there is an unrest brewing among a group in the empire that believes that the ailing Sundara Chozha is soon going to die (prophesied by the presence of a long-tailed comet in the evening sky, which is believed to indicate that royal blood will be split).
Thus begins a battle for succession, one that has pulled in readers across generations for years now. It will have to be seen if Mani Ratnam’s cinematic adaptation can pull off the same mastery, over seven decades later.
Here are some of the key characters you need to know before watching Ratnam’s film.
Sundara Chozha (Prakash Raj)
The ailing emperor of the Chozha dynasty is bedridden and situated at the Thanjai fort when the book begins.
Aditya Karikalan (Vikram)
The eldest son of Sundara Chozha, Aditya Karikalan is the crown prince of the dynasty. He is a fierce warrior, who is best known for leading the Chola expedition against the Pandyas, a rival Tamil dynasty.
A second child and only daughter to Sundara Chozha, Kundavai is known for her intellect over political matters, as much as she is for her beauty. The book establishes that Sundara Chozha often consults with her over matters concerning his reign, a fact that threatens a few men in the kingdom. She is also said to be the mentor of Arulmozhi Varman, her younger brother.
Arulmozhi Varman or Raja Raja Chozha I (Jayam Ravi)
The youngest of the Chozha siblings, Arulmozhi Varman is loved by everyone and is known for his integrity, despite being a ruler in the line. He is in Ilangai (Sri Lanka) when the book begins. Even when he invades a land, he does so with empathy, Kalki tells us. This is depicted best when he vehemently refuses to harass the people of Sri Lanka, a land that he invades, for food and supplies. He instead gets the resources from his own kingdom.
Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi)
A Vana prince, Vanthiyathevan is a witty and vivacious warrior, who is the heart of the novel. It is through him that the readers are introduced to the other characters. He is tasked with sending two important messages to Kundavai and Sundara Chozha, but on his travels, he happens upon Pandya conspirators, a crucial moment that leads him to turn the dynasty’s fate.
Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan)
A face of vengeance, Nandini is born out of Kalki’s imagination. Known for her exotic beauty, she has crossed paths with almost all characters from the Chozha dynasty for various reasons. The primary antagonist is also the young bride of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, the chancellor-treasurer and second most powerful person in the dynasty.
Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi)
Poonguzhali is a self-sufficient boatwoman who is in love with Arulmozhi Varman. She is also an integral part of the PS universe, in that she goes on to save the lives of many characters in the dynasty.
Alwarkadiyan Nambi (Jayaram)
A Chozha spy (think Lord Varys if you will) and a keeper of many secrets, who has eyes and ears across the kingdom. Like Nandini and Poonguzhali, Nambi, too, is a fictitious character.
Other characters in the novel include Vanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala), a shy princess who faints at the mere thought of danger; Madhurantakan (Rahman), the son of former emperor (Gandaraditya) who vies for his place at the throne; and the Pazhuvettaraiyar brothers (Sarathkumar and R Parthiban), aides of Sundara Chozha and powerful commanders in the dynasty.