The Fandom of Ponniyin Selvan

The Tamil historical fiction novel has a following that rivals that of A Game of Thrones
The Fandom of Ponniyin Selvan

In 2017, Jaya Priya Adimurugan and three of her friends decided to go on a trip that would take them to places mentioned in the historical fiction Ponniyin Selvan. All four women, who met on a Facebook group for moms, were fans of the novel by Kalki Krishnamurthy. And why not? An intriguing story of warring kingdoms, political instability, betrayal, and great love. A series that sells over 1,00,000 copies every year. Move over George RR Martin and A Game of Thrones, to make way for Kalki Krishnamurthy's Ponniyin Selvan

The four friends started their trip at Veeranam lake, where the story opens, and travelled for four days. They ended the trip with a visit to the Kuzhagar Temple at Kodiyakkarai. "Kodiyakkarai is a very important place in Ponniyin Selvan," said Adimurugan. "There are ruins of a lighthouse from the Chola era there. It's from this port that Rajaraja used to go to Sri Lanka and meet the boatwoman Poonguzhali. She is said to have worshipped at the Kuzhagar Temple," Adimurugan added, leaping from historical fact to historical fiction (there are no historical records that point to Poonguzhali, who plays a key role in the novel). 

Adimurugan first discovered Ponniyin Selvan when she was 32 years old. She's among the more recent fans of Kalki's magnum opus, which has remained a favourite of Tamil literature for decades. Ponniyin Selvan was originally published in Kalki magazine from October 1950 to May 1954. The first two issues of Kalki magazine sold 12,000 copies when it was launched in 1941. When Ponniyin Selvan began to be serialised, the circulation reached 75,000 copies. Now, there are multiple translations, a four-hour play by the Magic Lantern theatre group, comics, audiobooks, organised tours that cover places mentioned in the story, and more.

Director Mani Ratnam's film adaptation will be the newest addition to a fandom that spans seven decades and several generations.    

"My mother was a preteen when the Ponniyin Selvan series was published week after week in Kalki magazine," recalled Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, who plays the role of Vasuki in Ratnam's film (she's a maid who serves the character of Nandini, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). "My grandmother was a voracious reader and the family was obsessed with Tamil novels and magazines. Especially my mom and aunt, who both went on to become Tamil professors. They used to wait madly for the magazine each week and there were also fights among the cousins about who would get to read it first." When Vaidyanathan was called to act in Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan – 1, she had no second thoughts. She knew she couldn't let go of the opportunity even if her role was a small one. 

Set in the 10th century, Kalki's work of historical fiction is about the early days of Arulmozhi Varman who went on to become emperor Rajaraja Chola I. The title Ponniyin Selvan – which translates to 'Son of Ponni' – is a reference to Arulmozhi who was believed to have been saved by the river Ponni (also known as Kaveri) from drowning when he was a child. Under his reign, the Cholas expanded their kingdom to Pandya and Chera territories, Lakshadweep, northern Sri Lanka and even parts of the Maldives. It was Rajaraja who built the magnificent Brihadisvara Temple (known as Thanjai Periya Koyil in Tamil Nadu) at the Chola capital of Thanjavur. It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

The narrative in Ponniyin Selvan shifts between Arulmozhi Varman's exploits in Sri Lanka, and Vandhiyathevan's travels in Chola country. The latter is sent by Arulmozhi's older brother, crown prince Aditha Karikalan, with a message for his sister Kundhavai and the king – and he gets entangled in the palace intrigue and conspiracies. The story covers the Chola rule from 900 to 950 CE, and the serialised stories were later compiled into five volumes. As its readership expanded, Ponniyin Selvan became more and more celebrated and beloved. Illustrator Maniam's memorable sketches of the characters were another big draw.

Rukmani Kumar, 63, a homemaker in Chennai, says she first read the series in 1975, soon after her final school exams. "I was around 16 then. My neighbour, who had bound copies from Kalki magazine, introduced me to Ponniyin Selvan. I was mesmerised by the plot which has mystery and history intertwined. There are countless characters but each of them has a distinct role to play, however small. The breezy style of writing meant that any average Tamil reader could read the novel. It didn't have the literary or poetic style of Tamil that was associated with historical novels of that time," says Kumar, who lost her Ponniyin Selvan collection in the Chennai floods of 2015. 

Kumar said the series held a special appeal for female readers because of its strong women characters – from the manipulative and stunning Nandini who plots the downfall of the Cholas (played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Ratnam's adaptation) to Kundhavai, the beautiful and astute Chola princess (played by Trisha), and Poonguzhali (played by Aishwarya Lekshmi), the free-spirited boatwoman.

With such an ardent fan following for Ponniyin Selvan, Ratnam's film has massive expectations to meet, particularly since a number of people have tried and failed to adapt the story to the cinema. The earliest attempt was in the 1950s. Superstar MG Ramachandran purchased the rights for the novel for Rs 10,000 and was set to play the role of Vandhiyathevan. Unfortunately, his health failed him. He then got Mullum Malarum director Mahendran to write the screenplay, but that project did not take off. A Bharathiraja film with Kamal Haasan and Sridevi playing Vandhiyathevan and Kundhavai respectively was also on the cards at one point. Later, Haasan bought the rights to the novel and along with Ratnam, wrote the first draft of the script. But this project too was stalled.

Ponniyin Selvan demands an impressive star cast, grand sets, and spectacular visual effects for a film version to do justice to the series. From the writing perspective, it has proved difficult to condense the entire story into one film. Stumped by budget constraints, Ratnam attempted and abandoned Ponniyin Selvan repeatedly over the past 35 years before Lyca Productions finally greenlit the Rs 500-crore project in 2019. Fans say that the involvement of Elango Kumaravel in the scripting makes them confident about the film. Kumaravel is the co-founder of Magic Lantern and had successfully adapted Ponniyin Selvan to the stage in 1999. 

Many are already imagining how their favourite episodes will unfold on screen. Meenaks, an IT professional who now lives in the United States and first read the series as a 12-year-old, says that it had a "seminal influence" on him and inspired him to write fiction.

"I'm eager to watch the epic battle featuring aged King Vijayalaya Chola who turned the tide through his heroics in a war between the Pallavas and the Pandyas. It led to the eventual re-emergence of the Chola rule. This is a side story in the series. Another episode I'm keen to watch is the romantic scene in the underground prison where Vandhiyathevan and Kundhavai profess their love for each other," he said. 

While she is excited about watching the film, Jaya Priya Adimurugan has concerns. "The prospect of the characters coming alive on screen is very exciting for me, but I'm a little worried that this is a Mani Ratnam film. Usually, the Tamil spoken by the actors in his films isn't that great. The majesty of characters like Rajaraja and Kundhavai also depends on how they speak, and I'm not sure if he will be able to bring that to the screen. Kalaignar Karunanidhi is known for his Tamil prowess but Ratnam's Iruvar didn't portray that side of his well," she pointed out.

As a fan of the book and an actor, Vinodhini Vaidyanathan noted that she had apprehensions about how her role would come out since it doesn't have much potential for screen space. "But I was pleasantly surprised to see that my character was extended into some scenes that were not in the books. From this small example, one can understand that this is Mani Ratnam's interpretation of Ponniyin Selvan, as it should be. Even as we shot the film, I knew this was a different version from the two stage plays that I've seen. Anything we do as creators is from within us, so I'm not really worried about how the audience is going to receive it," she said. 

Ratnam's film will be released in theatres on September 30th.

BOX: (Spoiler alert for readers who haven't read the book)

Who were the Cholas?

The Cholas were a dynasty of Tamil rulers whose rule is considered a golden era of trade, architecture and the arts. Thanjavur was made their capital city by Vijayalaya Chola in 848 CE. In the rule of Rajaraja Chola I, the Chola kingdom became an empire. Rajaraja, born Arunmozhi Varman, was the son of Sundara Chola. He had two siblings, Aditha Karikalan and Kundhavai. Rajaraja's son, Rajendra Chola, further expanded the empire. The Cholas were also known for their powerful navy. 

Is Ponniyin Selvan based on facts?

Kalki maintained Ponniyin Selvan is historical fiction. He generously mixed Chola history with imagined characters and exciting fictional episodes. Vandhiyathevan, who is one of the main characters of the books and can be called its hero, does not figure extensively in the Thanjavur edicts. There are no historical records of characters like Nandini and Poonguzhali, who play important roles in the books. 

Cheat sheet to Ponniyin Selvan:

Vandhiyathevan: Played by Karthi 

Commander in the Chola army who marries Princess Kundhavai. He plays a key role in the books and is portrayed as a brave and cheeky warrior. 

Arulmozhi Varman: Played by Jayam Ravi

Son of Sundara Chola, the young prince becomes Rajaraja Chola I, and establishes the Chola empire. He is widely regarded as the greatest of the Chola dynasty. 

Aditha Karikalan: Played by Vikram 

Crown prince and the oldest of Sundara Chola's three children. He is assassinated as revenge for killing the Pandya King Veerapandyan at the Battle of Chevur. 

Kundhavai: Played by Trisha 

Chola princess and believed to be Arulmozhi Varman's mentor. She chooses to stay in the Chola kingdom all her life and marries Vandhiyathevan.

Nandini: Played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Princess of Pazhuvoor who has mysterious origins and marries the elderly Periya Pazhuvettariyar, chancellor and treasurer of the Chola kingdom, although Aditha Karikalan was in love with her. She has sworn to end the Chola reign.

Poonguzhali: Played by Aishwarya Lekshmi

A bold and independent boatwoman, she falls in love with Arulmozhi Varman, but ends up marrying his uncle.

Azhwarkadiyan Nambi: Played by Jayaram 

Nandini's foster brother and a close friend of Vandhiyathevan, he is a trusted Chola spy. 

Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar: Played by Sarathkumar 

Chancellor and treasurer of the Chola kingdom, he is highly respected for his battle skills and marries Nandini without knowing her real motives. 

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