Filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s period drama Ponniyin Selvan: I is a smash hit at the box office. The film which is earning praise for its attention to detail and a different approach to larger-than-life cinema also borrows from a moment in the Indian history — the Chola empire and ascendancy of Rajaraja Chola to the throne. Based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s sprawling work of fiction, Ponniyin Selvan, the film has left many wondering what is fiction and what is real.
Considered one of the longest recorded dynasties in world history, Cholas were at their peak during the ninth and tenth centuries and remained in power till the 13th century. Their kingdom spanned the entire area south of the Tungabhadra River; they annexed Sri Lanka during Rajaraja’s reign while his son Rajendra defeated the Pala king at Patliputra. The Chola king, Rajendra, also used the sea routes to invade foreign countries and expanded Tamil merchant associations. By sea, the Cholas travelled to Srivijaya, Sumatra, Kedah, and they also went right up to Cambodia to establish trade relationships. Thus, the Cholas hold the distinction of the only seafaring empire of India.
However, only a few key characters shown in PS: 1 are based in history. This film mines a vast but rarely explored wealth of Tamil literature, and the events that unfold in the movie were all born from the imagination of Kalki.
“It started as a novel, but later it became more history than a novel. Much of Ponniyin Selvan is imaginary and is based on some amount of real facts. Kalki created a wonderful world of Chola for us to delight in. We have to also look at it objectively. We must realize that several characters he created are not there in history,” said writer and historian V. Sriram talking about the decades-long cultural impact of the novel. Other than the principal characters including Arulmozhi Varman, who on acceding to the throne in 985 CE, adopted the regnal title of Rajaraja, his siblings Kundavai and Aditha Karikalan — most characters are a figment of Kalki’s imagination.
“Characters like Nandini, and Azhwarkadiyan did not exist in history. They were all created by Kalki himself. Historically, we know that a man called Vanthiyathevan of the Pallavaraiyan family married Kundavai. And Aditha Karikalan and Kundavai were the elder siblings of Rajaraja. Aditha Karikalan died mysteriously and therefore Rajaraja came to the throne. He was very close to his sister and he listened to her advice. But, the rest of it is all the creation of Kalki. I wouldn’t break my head looking for historic accuracy in the film,” said the historian.
In the run-up to the movie, many described PS:1 as a Tamil version of the famous television series Game of Thornes. But, Sriram thinks that the real inspiration for the Tamil novel goes back to the 19th century. “There are a lot of similarities between PS and Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Kalki was clearly inspired by that as well in creating this novel,” he added.
PS:1 has garnered unanimously positive reviews from critics and has also caught the imagination of people worldwide. Everyone, including Sriram, is mighty impressed with the film’s superior production value. However, he can’t help but notice certain flaws in recreating the 10th century of the Chola dynasty. He pointed out a series of flaws in production design, including postdated structures.
“Using of Mughal props in terms of jeweller, dress and background was a little jarring,” noted Sriram. He rued the glaring oversights in the production design, which interrupted his otherwise “fabulous” movie-watching experience.
“I don’t think an average audience member is going to notice all these things. For instance, the arches were nonexistent in Rajaraja’s time. And they have used entrances to the forts with the lotus on both sides. That design element entered India after Turkish Sultans came here. The domes were also nonexistent. He (Mani Ratnam) has shot completely in Gwalior and Orchha. Both are post-Mughal era monuments. And showing Thanjavur fort on the top of the hill was terrible because Thanjavur is a flat territory on the river bank. When Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar removes Nandini’s jewellery, there is a close-up of it. You find a lot of that jewellery has Mughal and North Indian inspiration,” Sriram pointed out.
While he understands that those were the creative choices of the filmmakers, what he can’t digest is the poor use of Tamil language in the movie. “The language was not a creative choice. It was sheer negligence to allow people to pronounce Tamil badly. If it was a modern film, it’s okay. But, when you are dealing with the Cholas, which is when Tamil really came into its own and you would assume that people will speak good Tamil,” he complained.
However, he also noted that he will be watching the movie again for he felt, despite its shortcomings in the production, PS:1 “was fantastic as a film.”
Owing to the time constraint, Mani Ratnam has cut out some of the beloved characters from the novel. But, the popular consensus is that he has remained faithful to the spirit and vision of Kalki.
“I hope that this film succeeds, then more filmmakers will start thinking of doing films about the history of Tamils. It’s not like Tamils are only Cholas. The Pandya kings have done equally, Pallava kings have done so much. And the Chera kings in Kerala. The films like this highlight and popularize the history of south India,” said actor and film historian Mohan Raman.
It’s worth noting that in the modern Tamil movies, the Pandyas get a raw deal, while the Cholas are portrayed as all things good. For instance, director Selvaraghavan’s 2010 fantasy drama Aayirathil Oruvan, which also had Karthi in the lead, showed the Pandyas in a poor light. One can’t help but wonder why?
“We have maximum information on the Cholas because they were the largest empire and they were there for a very, very long time. We have a reasonable amount of information on Pallavas, who ruled before the Cholas. Pandyas even less, and Cheras next to nothing. It’s the order of information available and the films also make do with what’s available. They are not well researched,” Sriram explained.
Mohan Raman, who has also played the role of Aniruddha Brahmarayar, the prime minister of the Chola empire, advised the audience to forget Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan and enjoy Mani Ratnam’s PS: 1 without any pre-convinced notion for a better experience.
“There are two kinds of audiences for this film. One is those who have read the novel and the other who have not. For the audience who belongs to the latter category, this film is going to be the most brilliant, gobsmacking, eyeball-popping experience. Those who have read the novel will be guided by their vision of the novel. The novel was written as a weekly series. Kalki did a mega-serial. Every week he ended the story on a cliffhanger. For a three-hour film, you don’t need 22 climaxes. The screenplay out of necessity had to trim a lot of scenes. For the audience who has read the novel, it will be unfair if they expect all their favourite scenes to be in the film,” Mohan said.