‘I request the readers to travel with me to 1952…’
Writer Kalki Krishnamurthy is fond of breaking the fourth wall, directly talking to the reader when he writes his novels. He speaks to the reader and I intend to follow the same style here. It would indeed be hard to imagine that era for someone who is reading this on a smartphone. Theatre was the only source of entertainment, with films in India still in a nascent stage. The very act of scrolling this virtual screen would sound like magic in those times. Even television had not made its debut in post-independent India. It would take another eight years for the first broadcast to happen and decades for TV to become a household item. To put it simply, drama, talkies, street drama, and magazines were the only modes of entertainment then.
But there’s something common between people of today and 1951 — everyone discussed Ponniyin Selvan. While we are now tweeting and texting about the upcoming film, back then readers discussed the story sitting in thinnai (sit-outs in old Tamil households) as they played Dayakattai (Tamil dice game). They queued up in front of book stalls hoping that they would get hold of the new edition of Kalki. The story revealed itself at its own pace. It took months after the novel started appearing in Kalki magazine that the titular character made his appearance. Every move in the story was discussed threadbare; those who got hold of the magazine first also earned bragging rights.
Let’s leave them and their FOMO in 1952 and deal with yours. If you are here, you might have come across the snobs who have read the Ponniyin Selvan novels and are abreast of its expansive scale and larger-than-life canvas. But it is possible to thoroughly enjoy the film without having read the book. Maybe, a few introductions would come in handy. Here it goes:
Written between 1950 and 1954, Ponniyin Selvan novel has not only sustained its fame for the past seventy years but has continued to be one of the bestsellers. For an ancient language like Tamil, novels (Puthinam in Tamil) are a relatively modern literary form. While the form has been around for decades even before Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki’s work made it a mainstream affair. To draw a parallel, let’s say, though many series have been around for years, Game Of Thrones made new series buffs. The story and the books were passed down generations. Personally, I have heard stories about how my paternal grandmother used to collect the pages of Ponniyin Selvan from Kalki magazine and bound them together as books.
Another reason for the novel’s popularity is that it was about one of the three popular kingdoms of the South. Cheran, Cholar, and Pandiyans are called Movendar (Three Crowned rulers), in Tamil. When the novel started coming out, India was brimming with patriotism as it had been only about five years since independence. Naturally, a novel boasting the country’s antiquity was celebrated.
Set in the 10th century, the novel is about the ascent of its titular character, Ponniyin Selvan, who is widely known as Rajaraja Chola I. He is one of the few kings, who is regarded as The Great. The Chola kingdom is said to be at its best during his rule between 947 CE – 1014 CE. He is popularly known for building the great Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Chola capital city. However, the story is not entirely based on accounts of true events. Kalki has taken a lot of liberty in writing historical fiction. However, he has also blended many well-researched events into the story, which calls for a separate article. To put it simply, Ponniyin Selvan is not a historical book to rely on, it is a fictional work based on some real events and people. Ponniyin Selvan is the story of how and why Arulmozhi Varman, the second son of Sundara Cholan, succeeds him.
Sundara Cholan (Prakasha Raj in the film), the emperor of the Chola Kingdom, is bedridden with deteriorating health. He is in Thanjavur, one of the capitals of Cholas. It is hard for anyone to see the king as he is heavily guarded by Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (Parthiban). Factually, the Pazhuvettarayar clan were feudatories in the Chola kingdom, who had a great reputation with the royal family. They were also related by blood and marriage. In the book, Pazhuvettarayars along with Nandini Devi (Aishwarya Rai as the wife of Periya Pazhuvettarayar) are depicted as the antagonist, who stage a coup to stop Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), the elder son of Sundara Chola, from becoming the king. Instead, they want Madhuranthagan, Karikalan’s cousin, as the next emperor. All this while, Aditha Karikalan is in Kanchipuram building a golden fort for his parents. He wishes his parents to come and live with him in the fort. So, he sends Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan (Karthu) with two objectives. One is to go to Thanjavur and invite Sundara Cholan to Kanchipuram. He has to then go to Palaiyarai (another capital city of Cholas) and meet Aditha Karikalan’s sister Kundhavai aka Ilaya Pirattiyar (Trisha) and pass on a secret message. Ponniyin Selvan’s novel is predominantly the journey of Vandhiyathevan.
When he finishes one mission, another one finds him. You may now ask, what about the titular character Ponniyin Selvan aka Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi)? While Aditha Karikalan is in the North of Thanjavur, Arulmozhi is in Eelam (Sri Lanka), deep South beyond the ocean. He is sent by his father to capture Eelam. With all the key players far away from the capital, the Chola kingdom faces the threat from its mortal foes – Pandyas, who have infiltrated the Chola kingdom. So, the war here is not fought on the battlefield. The enemies come from within.
What to expect from Ponniyin Selvan movies
It’s more about what to not expect from Ponniyin Selvan films. Ever since the film was announced, people from every walk of life have been comparing it to SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus Baahubali. Even the film’s producer Lyca’s Subhaskaran asked Mani Ratnam if PS will be similar to the Telugu blockbuster. The answer is no. Though PS and Baahubali are about the fight for the throne – like every other sword-and-sandal films – Mani Ratnam’s film will be more about the characters and less about the war. To put it simply, Ponniyin Selvan will be a story-driven film with character arcs and dialogues taking the centre stage. Unlike, Baahubali there is very less scope for a blown-out war sequence. However, Ponniyin Selvan is more or less a suspense story. The mystery around Nandini Devi is what keeps the story going. On top of it, there will be no paucity of ‘theatre moments’. From the introduction of Arulmozhi Varman to Kundhavai-Vallavaran’s meeting, the novel boasts of heroic and high moments. I ask the readers to especially watch out for Devaralan Aattam’s song, which is going to be both a visual and aural delight.