The release of Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 2 tied up a lot of loose ends, and in the process, transported readers and non-readers of Kalki’s magnum opus into its world of complicated succession, hurt egos, grief and whirlwind romances. While PS-2— now out on Amazon Prime Video — stayed true to the fates of most characters in the book (including Kundavai and Vanthiyathevan’s romance, Arulmozhi’s coming of age and Sundara Chola’s troubling past with Mandakini), it took a different route with a few others.
The most significant change in the film was that of Madhurantakan’s coronation. In the book, Madhurantakan and Nandini are twins and in fact Mandakini’s birth children. But in a case of baby swapping and divine intervention, Madhurantakan grows up in the Chola kingdom as Sembiyan Mahadevi’s son, while her actual son, Senthan Amudhan (Ashwin Kakamanu), leads life just a few minutes away from the castle as a flower-seller. The film avoids venturing into this sub-plot.
Kumaravel, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jeyamohan and Ratnam, feels it would’ve been confusing to take viewers through this strand of plot. “In the book, the babies are swapped and Sembiyan Mahadevi knows that her baby grows up away from her and yet lets it happen. Kalki established this in various instances. His explanation for switching Madhurantakan and Senthan Amudhan was that nobody would have seen both of them, so the people wouldn't realise it. But this wouldn't be apt to depict in the film.”
In case they had included this in the film, it would’ve raised a big question in the minds of viewers, he says. "When you knew your baby was alive, why didn't you bring him to the kingdom?" And how does she accept a flower seller as a king?” Instead, the team stuck to depicting what unravelled In history. “In reality, it was because of Madhurantakan's upheaval that Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) steps down and makes him the king. So we thought we could retain the same thing.” At the end of the day, Ponniyin Selvan 2 is a love story, he says. The sprawling, staggering romance that Karikalan (Vikram) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) share is the heart of the film. “We sailed towards giving this story the ending that it deserved.” Kumaravel discusses the details that went behind constructing a romantic epic by breaking down five important scenes.
Just when we were expecting the sequel to pick up from where it left off, it instead began with gorgeous snippets of Karikalan and Nandini’s young love. How did you envision this?
In Ponniyin Selvan, a huge question that often pops up in people’s minds is "Who did Nandini love?" That is an important thread. In the very end of the novel, when Manimekalai (the Kadambur princess who loved Vanthiyathevan and didn’t feature in the movie) dies, Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) is beside her and he begins talking with Kundavai (Trisha). He tells her, "Oru vellai ennaye kaarnama vechipotrundha na paathala sirai la dhaan irundhirkanum (If they had held me responsible for Karikalan's death, I would've been imprisoned." And then Kundavai responds, "Pandya rebels would've relieved you from the cell if that happened." So, it established that the man that Nandini really admired was Vanthiyathevan.
So, it was important to speak about whom Nandini actually loved. Karikalan says in the novel that it has been three years since he slept. So imagine how deep his love would’ve been for him to have said this. So, we had to establish this. When the sequel began we wanted this to take precedence.
Water is a beautiful symbolism in the movie. Nandini’s fate begins and ends in a river. Can you speak about that?
Kalki depicted the water in a big way in the novel. For instance, Vanthiyathevan is afraid of water. So, when Kundavai asks him to jump in the water, he says yes in the novel, but avoids it in the movie. There are a lot of floods, storms and such elements in the book. We couldn't show a lot of this in the film, so instead, Mani sir took the principal character and placed her in water.
You told me in the previous interview that writing their first meeting scene was such an easy thing to do. Was the vibe similar in this scene?
Yes, Kalki had written this scene beautifully. The entire scene is warm and depicts moments of respect between the two characters. Certain scenes were really easy for us to write, like Karikalan's confrontation with Pazhuvettaraiyar. This scene unfolds in a jail in the book, and instead of the jail, we placed the couple on the island. It is a private conversation so it made sense to have it on an island in the middle of nature and water.
Why doesn't Kundavai let Vanthiyathevan remove his blindfold?
Sollaama theriyardhudhane ma Kaadhal (Love is something that is unspoken). Paakanumnu avasaiyam illaye, but unaranum (You don’t have to see anything, but feel). That is the bigger deal. The fact that their romance develops so quickly is what makes this so special. In the end, during Madhurantakan's coronation, Kundavai comes a few steps forward and stands next to Vanthiyathevan. It was about depicting these subtle things.
This scene wasn't there in the book. So, what conversations did you have with Mani Ratnam to bring this to life?
According to the novel, they don't meet because they are all in different geographies. Kalki would've mentioned their bond in the flashback to establish their closeness. But we couldn't do that. This was the only chance for us to bring them together. Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi) is back from Lanka and everyone gets to know of his escape from death. So how would it be if all of them met after this? That was the question that Mani asked us. Super ah irukum nu we went ahead. You need such a scene, especially when it's a two-part series.
As they are still in an embrace, the three siblings are happy to meet each other and yet struggle to convey the many things running in their minds. It was a beautiful shot.
That is why Mani Ratnam sir is a great director. The descriptions of all these characters are so taut in the book that it led way to anchor this scene well. Karikalan threatens Vanthiyathevan not to follow him, but Kundavai still tell him to go. She doesn't listen to her brother.
That was such a power move on her part.
That speaks of Kundavai's power. These were all things that were said and expressed without really saying anything. Nobody listens to Karikalan and Vanthiyathevan follows him anyway.
There are a lot of theories about Karikalan’s death among fans. Can you tell us how you approached this in the film?
In the novel, Karikalan comes to Kadambur with a death wish. Do you think he would let Ravidasan touch him? No, he is bigger. Even when he comes to meet Nandini, he asks her who all she has hidden to kill him and is like "I don't want anyone to kill me but you." Then the conversation changes. "Nandini kannula thanni vara vara Karikalan koranjikiten povan (As Nandini’s eyes well up with tears, Karikalan softens)" She'll tell him that he would’ve heard about her mother, but he didn’t know who her father was. She'll tell him who it is in his ears. And he will immediately be like "How did you stand my being alive for so many years? I've made a mistake." When Vanthiyathevan comes out, the entire room is dark. He is tackled from behind and he falls. This is what happens in the novel. So what could've happened with Karikalan? The only possibility is that he would've killed himself.
Tell us about Karikalan and Nandini’s romance.
At one point, if you notice, when Aishwarya turns to see him, her eyes get welled up and looking at that, Vikram's face would just go back. He doesn't want her to cry. He'll do anything for her to stop. I asked Mani sir how he conceived this scene and moment and he told me very simply, "that is only my job." He brought out the character's emotions so beautifully through the actor with just one shot. That is all it is about.
This is a huge sequence in the novel and it runs for chapters and chapters. So, we constructed the scene very meticulously.
Karikalan is also carried by Vanthiyathevan after his death, something that just made all of this so real.
This was also directly lifted from the book. The smoke settles in the background, everyone's eyes are on him and he walks out with Karikalan. This was very close to the novel visually.
How did you write this scene?
We charted out a huge geography for this scene. Starting from the Ravanan sellai (statue) to how she jumps into the castle and sees Sundara for the first time. Kalki has written this scene very descriptively, so we stayed true to the entire sequence in the book.
The novel paints Mandakini with an element of fantasy though. How did you treat that?
Yes, but we broke away from that depiction and stayed close to reality. In the book, she is almost amanushyam (supernatural) and is in different places at once. "Enga athai vegama travel pannuvanu solradhu oda adhu mudinjidhu." We couldn't have depicted these fantastical elements. In the book, Kalki would've written that she jumps up a tree and the castle walls to enter the castle. If it's Sundara Chola's love we're talking about, she should be his age, right? (laughs).
How important was it to detail the relationship that Sundara and Mandakini once shared?
She is Nandini's mother. We also had to address the confusion that Kundavai had, which is whether Nandini and her were siblings. So, we also wanted to clear the air about the possible incest storyline before we went in to Karikalan and Nandini's love story in the pre climax sequence. We didn't want the audience to have the question of whether they were siblings.