Ever since the album for Ponniyin Selvan-1 (PS-1) came out, I’ve been harassing my tabby cat by singing the line, “Vari vari puli anjadhada, thunjadhada Chozha Chozha!” (the striped tiger does not fear, does not hesitate, Chozha Chozha!) incessantly to his grumpy face. Other fans of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s epic historical fiction novel have reported similar deranged behaviour in the run up to the highly-anticipated film’s release. We knew that a movie could never hope to entirely capture the richness of the novel and its many nuances, but we were still excited about watching these cherished characters come to life on the big screen. And director Mani Ratnam did not disappoint.
Kalki wrote Ponniyin Selvan as a magazine series between 1950 to 1954. The chapters were compiled into five volumes in 1955 and it remains a bestseller with one lakh copies flying off the shelves every year. What explains this phenomenon? Not only are Kalki’s characters from over 1,000 years ago, the novel itself was written seven decades ago. Yet, new readers are drawn into its irresistible world of conflicted human beings, their desires, ambitions, love, hate and heartbreak.
Unlike other period dramas where the focus is largely on war strategies and conquests, Ponniyin Selvan is as much about the internal war within its characters as it is about the succession battle in the kingdom. Kalki generously mixes fiction with fact to explain a momentous decision that Chola prince Arulmozhi Varman (also known as Ponniyin Selvan and played by Jayam Ravi in the film) took when he was offered the throne. Arulmozhi later became Emperor Raja Raja 1, conquering distant lands and building the famed Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur that has withstood six earthquakes. But what was he like as a young prince and why did he make this unprecedented decision?
The novel could have been a one-hero epic about Arulmozhi’s machismo and the triumph of the Chola dynasty. Instead, Kalki lays out a galaxy of complex characters and their actions that form the foundation for Arulmozhi’s frame of mind when he makes the decision. In fact, Arulmozhi doesn’t even appear in the novel for a good portion of it. This is a story that demands introspection from its readers.
Ratnam’s screen adaptation, with its omissions and revisions, is respectful of the spirit of the novel. While the screenplay is by Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel, the dialogues are by B Jeyamohan. And so, the film begins with Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) emerging through the mist on his horse. He’s fighting the Rashtrakutas – but the battle scene isn’t about his valour or his army’s victory. It is about the pause he takes when he lifts his sword but doesn’t chop off the Rashtrakuta king’s head. He’s unable to bring himself to do it. What lies behind his hesitation? What inner demon is he fighting?
Similarly, when the cheeky Vana prince Vandiyathevan (Karthi) crashes his horse into Nandini’s (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) palanquin deliberately and mentions Karikalan’s name in conversation, a tremor crosses her porcelain face. What is the story there? How are these characters connected?
PS-1 is low on dramatic action sequences, high strung dialogues and the over-the-top grandeur we’ve come to associate with period films. This is a narrative that runs on subtlety – when Princess Kundavai (Trisha) discovers that the allies of the Chola kingdom are conspiring with chancellor-treasurer Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarathkumar) to crown someone other than her brothers as the next king, she doesn’t launch into a fiery monologue on trust and betrayal. Instead, she walks in, innocent as a dove, and dangles the prospect of her brothers as eligible bachelors. All the men in the room fall over themselves to offer up their daughters, setting aside their other politicking temporarily. It is a Machiavellian move to disrupt the unity within the opposing camp, but without any cinematic bombast. The scene isn’t from the novel, but it captures the essence of Kundavai and her political acumen; her ability to draw blood without plunging a sword.
In many ways, reading Kalki’s novel was a healing experience for me. The aggressive language of political discourse – so normalised in our country – had made me believe it was impossible to debate or disagree with anyone without losing my sanity. But here was a universe where people never screamed or cussed, however angry they were. If at all an evil thought crossed their mind, they chided themselves for it immediately. They were not boring vanilla people though. They went on great adventures, they lost their heart easily, they argued, they allowed themselves to be consumed by passion – for a man, woman or the gods. But they knew how to go after what they wanted without being corrosive.
After reading the novel, I found myself wondering, ‘What would Vandiyathevan do?’ when faced with an abusive tweet. And I moved on in life with my imaginary horse.
It is this gentle distillation of human emotions that gives Ponniyin Selvan its charm. Despite the famed warriors who stride across its pages, its biggest muscle is the heart. So, though the film eliminated characters like the interesting Kudanthai jothidar (astrologer) and truncated the fiery Poonkuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) into a lovelorn highschooler; though it cut out some wonderful bits like the hilarious crocodile scene or the subplot involving the misunderstanding between Vandiyathevan and Kandamaran, it won me over because it understands Kalki’s vision.
It isn’t surprising that the adaptation hasn’t worked so well for everyone. While most film critics familiar with the novel have given it positive reviews, others have said that they found the film to be underwhelming and confusing. Many on social media who did not like the film have compared it to Baahubali, and said that the “wow” factor was missing or that AR Rahman’s music wasn’t “mass” enough. But such responses were only to be expected. With so many characters, plot threads and so little time to showcase them all, it was always going to be a near-impossible task to please everyone. Especially non-Tamil speakers who cannot pronounce tongue-twister names like ‘Azhwarkadiyan’ or ‘Pazhuvettaraiyar’. I suspect that Ratnam knew as much when he was making the film.
As a fan of the novel, however, I’m mostly happy with the film. I’m glad Ratnam didn’t inject extra testosterone into it or play up the drama with heavy VFX work. I’m glad we have more scenes where people are flirting with each other than trying to behead each other. I’m glad the bloodthirst of medieval kings only appears in context and without glorification. I’m glad my experience of reading the book wasn’t ruined by the film. My imaginary horse is still alive, and I’m going to be singing to my grumpy cat for a long, long time.