It has been five decades since M.Kaveri first read Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel Ponniyin Selvan in college, and her version of ‘who will play Vanthiyathevan on screen’ changed, as did her preference for Tamil cinema heroes.
It was the evergreen hero MGR at first, then the handsome Kamal Hassan, and now 66-year-old Kaveri settled into her seat to watch the flirty Karthi on screen.
Actor Karthi plays the colourful, flamboyant chieftain in the Chola Army in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-1, which released on 30 September to much excitement.
The film has come at a time of a huge surge in interest and reclamation of the stories of the Chola kings in popular imagination and the celebration of the Chola period as the Golden Age of Tamils.
It has raked in Rs 400+ crore worldwide, so far, becoming the highest grossing Tamil film after Kamal’s Vikram (Rs 450 crore). A theatre in Canada’s Oakville had said that the film was shaping up to be a “massive hit” and the “#1 best-selling film” in its 30-year history, with over 3,000 tickets sold for just the first four days of showtimes.
The character of Vanthiyathevan had captured Kaveri’s heart when she was only six years old. She would listen to her mother read the novel out loud to the neighbourhood women in their village in Madurai and hang around when they discussed the different shades of the character Nandini, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the film.
Later, after she was married, Kaveri would tuck her legs under her saree, the book on her lap, a snack, and a cup of piping coffee next to her. Never quite sure when exactly she turned the page, she’d ravish the novel on summer afternoons in between household chores. Kaveri has read the whole novel, which runs to five volumes and when combined 2,300 pages, “at least 4-5 times.”
From 1950 to 1954, Ponniyin Selvan was serialised in the Kalki magazine, leaving an indelible mark on the minds of many readers in Tamil Nadu. Many wondered for years who’d play their favourite characters if the story was ever adapted for screen. It was no surprise then that director Mani Ratnam’s PS-1 motivated senior citizens who had grown up listening to their parents tell them the story trek over to cinema theatres after years. Some were outraged over how much inflation had caught up with movie tickets.
“I loved the film!” exclaimed Kaveri, who quietly complained about the IMAX prices in Bengaluru where she now lives with her son and daughter-in-law. “Mani Ratnam must have loved the story too since whoever is on screen at any given point fully occupies our heart.”
When Kalki magazine first hit the markets in 1941, only 12,000 copies were in circulation for every issue, Chennai-based historian V. Sriram said in a video on his YouTube channel. By 1950, when the Ponniyin Selvan story, a historical fiction, began to be printed, that number had shot up to 73,000 for every issue. “That was the impact of the novel on the magazine and the reading public,” said Sriram. “At the end of the novel, when Kalki showed Rajaraja not ascending the throne but handing it over to Madurantaka Uttama Chola, the public was angry and disappointed. They even wrote letters to Kalki and he had to explain to them, but that was history.”
People had hopelessly fallen in love with the characters to the extent they wanted to rewrite the parts that were non-fiction. Sriram offers an explanation on the raging success of the novel. “Post-independent India probably needed heroes. We had grown up on a steady diet of English historians, who were telling us our kings were all useless, they were debauched, that our history was bad and that it needed the English to come and give us new life. Post-independent India was looking for heroes, and role models it could take to, and Rajaraja became that role model,” he said.
Since its release, the film has received rave reviews doing well in multiple Indian languages with Tamil folks even pushing back on reviews coming from Bollywood-aligned critics. One Twitter user ‘Enthahotness’ deconstructed the story in a hilarious six-part audio note in her South Indian-accented Hindi so the people in the North can understand. She named the novel’s three main siblings: Aditha Karikalan, Kundavai, and Arunmozhi Varman, as Amit, Sumit and Pooja, to aid better understanding.
In one of the promotions ahead of the film’s release, actor Sobhita Dhulipala was hailed for schooling an India Today journalist, when he said he was “shocked” to know that there was such “little information” on the Chola Dynasty.
To his question on why it has taken so long to discover a dynasty that is part of “our history”, Dhulipala countered: “What does it mean when you say, ‘our history’?”
She said that the British presence in India was also a part of Indian history, as much as Cholas, Pallavas or the Mughals.
“Borders are porous and history has proved that stories that become immortal are stories that must be taken forward and celebrated,” said the actress. “This is one such story.”
Literary translator Suchitra Ramachandran, who had watched the film twice with elderly family members, said the Ponniyin Selvan story was about “people, ideals and values.”
In a long Twitter thread, she wrote how readers are “forever charmed” by the “goodness” of the book. “There is no truly evil character in the book. It has no darkness, no princes plotting to burn their rivals alive. It presents the conflicts of the Mahabharata with the earnestness of the Ramayana,” she wrote, adding that the story keeps the “conflict of values alive.”
She later asked why is this particular conflict of values between ambition, stability and compassionate justice important? “Because that was the central conflict of ideas that built the Chola era. They are the values of Tamil culture as we know it today,” she wrote.
Many who had read the books and were invested in the story had strong opinions on what they saw on screen: some mesmerised, some critical.
Historian Nivedita Louis said the scene where Kundavai meets Vanthiyathevan for the first time, etched vividly in her “teenage imagination.”
It was a “classic love at first sight” scene, Louis said, sculpted to “perfection” by Kalki. “His describing the beauty of Kundavai and how a flower came between her delicate face and Vanthiyathevan’s vision,” she said. “Mani Ratnam’s PS-1 fails miserably as this scene has been weeded out from the movie,” she complained.
Others agreed with Louis’ observation that the forts and bastions depicted in the movie looked “all too alien to the Tamil landscape”. “The movie gives a feel as if there is a Royal ball in some North Indian kingdom and all are dressed to the hilt for it!” she said.
It was definitely quite the task to recreate furniture, jewellery, food, clothes and even armoury from the Chola period, said research consultant S. Jayakumar, whose job on the set was to ensure authenticity to that period. He is a Chennai-based researcher on cultural history. “There is no ‘one book’ that can be a guidebook to make a Chola period movie,” he said.
There are historical references on the kings, their importance, the lineage and the chronology, all recorded meticulously by the historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, “but he does not speak about food, clothes, vessels, furniture in detail, these are important for the movie,” said Jayakumar. The team delved into “multiple sources” visiting the famous 12th century CE Darasuram Temple, looking at Chola bronzes, visiting Ajanta murals on references to furniture, and even sifting through the material in Sangam literature.
Jayakumar spoke about one of the challenges: “We have inscriptions and copper plates of the Cholas talking about the battles, but you don’t have any data on the kind of army that they had at the time that Ponniyin Selvan story was taking place.” The discussions involved identifying references to the kind of weapon used, the kinds of battle formation in place and so on.
“When you go into details like how they hold weapons, what did the sword or shield look like? What is the battle formation? For that, we had to go to some literary sources either from contemporary times or time before that,” he said.
It was certainly a tough task to recreate a story that had lived in people’s minds for decades. As for Kaveri, sixty years after she first heard the story, she is excited for part-two. She spent the months leading up to the PS-1 release sending out messages each time a character was revealed. She’d change her WhatsApp status, and press the forward button.
“The next big mystery is how will they combine the remaining three parts into one film,” she said. “How will they show Aditha Karikalan’s death? Kalki doesn’t talk about it openly and there isn’t much clarity on what happened. This is my next big wait.”
Trichy-resident Rani Vijaykumar, also a huge PS fan, claimed she didn’t shout out spoilers in excitement while watching the movie with her family. Her children beg to differ.
Now, Rani is looking for the right time to ask her daughter: “Can we watch the film again?”
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)