A great story-teller, Mani Ratnam is experimenting with a real-life historical in Ponniyin Selvan, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.
Now that Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan, the first of the two parts of the pan-Indian film, is due for global screening on September 30, a cottage industry has propped up in Youtube discourses across the Tamil-speaking world, the language being the mainstay of the film, the historicity it is based on -- and of course the serialised novel by freedom era writer and magazine editor, Kalki R Krishnamurthy (1899-1954).
The Youtube channels dish out discussions with historians who have been working and writing on the 'late Cholas' of the 10th to the 13th century, or stand-alone one-man shows by aspirational journalists and self-taught aficionados of the glorious era of Tamil history.
Then, there are those who have made Ponniyin Selvan the film, the cast and the history the original story and the film are dealing with, a part of their exclusive packaging.
Of course, the coming movie is only the first of a two-part production with the second one promised to release next year.
Mani Ratnam, however, shot the entire film in one go, also because the actors could not be expected to dedicate their time exclusively for two-plus years, the Covid lockdown having eaten into his shooting and travel schedules in a very big way.
If nothing else, most male actors wear naturally grown hair and wig, as a result of which they were appearing in social and family functions as such.
They could not shave their beards or cut their hair, for playing other characters in other films before the PS shooting was complete.
The Youtube discourses commenced even when Mani Ratnam's movie-making hit newspaper headlines in 2018, and has continued off and on, and picked up greater momentum when the release date of PS-I became known earlier this year.
The original discourses on Facebook and WhatsApp groups had to do more with the birth anniversaries of Rajaraja Chola, by whose novelist name the film too is titled.
Though no one is talking about it openly, everyone knows and says so in whispers that Tamil cinema, rather Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, wants PS to hit the jackpot at the box office.
The odds, they say, are even, if not low. That is because the Tamil readers' individual reading experience, cutting across generations, and their expectations from the novel have to be matched by the film-maker's own narrative.
For those outside of Tamil Nadu, viewing PS-I in another language, more than the historicity, the viewer has to 'connect' with the product.
A greater storyteller, Mani Ratnam is experimenting with a real-life historical -- where the writer has taken too many liberties with characters, characterisation, and hence facts.
Thus, there is anxiety in other film0makers who now are itching to make historical movies out of their favourite novels, in Tamil or other languages, and are waiting for the BO verdict.
More importantly, they also want to know if the viewers are ready to accept anyone other than MGR-Sivaji-Gemini era actors as kings and rulers, though there are no such hang-ups over heroines donning similar roles.
Before the MGR-Sivaji era, there were those like M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P U Chinnappa, doing such roles.
In the MGR-Sivaji era, again, there were actors like Muthuraman, Sivakumar and A V M Rajan, who acted as lesser characters. Actors like P S Veerappa, M N Nambiar, S A Ashokan and R S Manohar played the antagonist(s). S V Ramga Rao, S V Sahasranamam and the like played character artistes, as they were in social dramas of the time.
It is a different story when it comes to a pan-India historical, as different from puranic themes.
Going beyond the face of the actors and the reputation of the film-maker, the viewer should be able to relate to the storyline.
It cannot turn out to be yet another Raja-Rani story, though as Indian cinema has had them in Hindi and Telugu originals, among others, in recent years.
Here again, for the Hindi viewers especially, Aishwarya Rai's is the only on-screen face that they can recognise. But the argument also goes that before Baahubali I, the actors were not known outside the Telugu desam, comprising Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
For all this, however, Mani Ratnam is not the first film-maker who dreamt of capturing Kalki's work on celluloid.
In his time, the inimitable M G Ramachandran, who along with thespian Sivaji Ganesan had captured the Tamil film-goer's imagination for their period movies set in palatial backgrounds, had wanted to do it himself.
When he finally relented after his hay day on the silver-screen had been replaced by those in active politics as the founder of the AIADMK party and as chief minister not very long ago, Kamal Hassan opened up on his own dreams.
As Kamal said at the PS-I audio-launch at Chennai recently, he had to give up on the idea, as the idea of a two-part film had not been thought of in the nineties as they are now.
Kamal had acted in Mani Ratnam's Nayakan (1987), a box-office hit to wide critical acclaim, was convinced, as anyone else in his place, that Kalki's magnum opus could not and should not be compressed into a two-to-three-hour offering.
As an aside, Rajinikanth, another of Mani's favourite actors in super-hit Thalapathy (1991) told the Chennai audience, how he had wanted to play the antagonist Periya Pazhuvettarayar in the PS concession and how Mani Ratnam had said 'No'.
As the film-maker said, Rajni's fans would not have it, and it would mean they buying trouble when none may exist.
As the wag quipped, if Rajini or Kamal were to star in a Mani Ratnam PS, then it would be about them, and not even about the characters that they portrayed.
That would have been doing injustice to the writer. Anyway, it would not have been a Mani movie, as Nayakan and Thalapathy turned out to be in their times.
The question arises if Mani Ratnam can recreate Kalki's wordy magic through his celluloid mastery.
Though the verdict is not out, the answer just now is a studied yes-and-no.
Kalki's readers, including the '90s kids who picked up the five-volume classic in recent weeks for the feel of it, has to accept that reproducing his narrative width may not be possible even in a two-part film.
A 10 or 15-part teleserial for an OTT platform would have been a better option, but it could not have brought out the opulence and effects that the story and packaging demand in this tech era and which can be reproduced only in a theatrical experience -- not on a small drawing room TV screen, with so much of domestic distractions.
The screenplay, penned by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel, with whom the master shares the title-card space, thus sticks to a manageable narrative, which some old-world Kalki aficionados would feel as a let-down.
A theatre personality who had dabbled in film roles from time to time (the latest memorable offering was in Kamal Hassan's Vikram, as Agent Lawrence, the weapons specialist who sacrifices his life while saving the protagonist's grandson), Kumaravel had scripted the whole of Ponniyin Selvan as a four-hour long play in the nineties.
It was staged in an improvised open-air theatre in Chennai as far back as 1999, and as a closed-door performance more recently in 2014.
The cost, according to him, was Rs 50 lakhs in the late nineties and double that amount in 2014.
Kumaravel had not gone to satisfy the imagination of individual viewers, but given his own interpretation, or condensation of Kalki's narrative-style writing.
As Kumaravel recalled in a Youtube interview recently, he chose the underlying theme of Kalki's work (on which the author did not bestow a clear and sustained focus, delineating it from the descriptive narrative).
His focus was about an impending vacancy to the Chola throne as the reigning monarch was ailing, and how other characters around him viewed the options to fill the vacancy, coupled with individual aspirations, ambitions and intended roles and contributions.
That should also explain why Mani Ratnam roped in Kumaravel for assistance while writing the script and screenplay in his inimitable style.
As Kumaravel explained, Mani Sir has given his own interpretation of Kalki -- and that is what the film-maker's brand-image has been, all along, even on social themes.
Going by the teaser, there could be a naval engagement or movement (vis-a-vis Sri Lanka?) that has not been pictured in Kalki's version.
Contemporary era Tamil novelist, B Jeyamohan, who has dabbled in historical novels to call his own, with a sense of social history, has penned the dialogues for PS I and PS II.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that Kalki is being filmed. In his lifetime, celebrated Tamil film-maker K Subrahmanyam created history by making a film out of Kalki's Thyaga Bhoomi (1939), a social drama set in the midst of the freedom movement -- hence the title, though the main story-line was not about it.
As it goes, when the British governor of the then Madras Presidency banned the movie, when re-released after an earlier ban had been lifted, the producers opened the gates of Chennai's Gaiety cinema for free shows until the police could serve the ban orders. But that was in a different era, in a different setting, but it is a record of sorts.
Likewise, it is unfair to compare Mani's Ponniyin Selvan with S S Rajamouli's Baahubali concession, the first truly pan-Indian movie, which created sensation and box-office records that are hard to break years down the line.
Rajamouli's was his own story, his own vision of the characters, all of whom were imaginary.
For Mani Ratnam, most of the important characters were real-life personae, to whom Kalki's very descriptive pen had added character and characteristics.
His challenge is to see if the mainline Tamil film-goer would accept how much of deviation, whatever be the effect on the untrained viewer in other Indian languages.
Worse still, through the past decades since Kalki serialised Ponniyin Selvan in the Tamil weekly magazine by his name (yes, also Kalki) in the mid-fifties, generations of his readers up to the present one have imported their own ideas and visions on individual characters and times in Kalki's novel.
It is difficult for the filmmaker even of Mani Ratnam's caliber to live up to each one's expectations, which are based purely on the fertile nature of individual imagination.
Thus, for instance, traditional Tamil film-goers idea of a ruler, especially those supposedly living in opulent style in lavish palaces and not thrown into the jungles by the enemy, is one of conventional elitism.
Like south Indian viewers could not digest Ramanand Sagar's Lord Krishna in Nitish Bharadwaj against a blue-painted N T Rama Rao in very many Telugu originals and some Tamil films in the era of Eastman Colour...
Traditionally, Tamil film's princes and emperors have been fair-complexioned (even if made up in the case of actors other than MGR), clean-shaven, et al.
This applies to the younger generation viewers, too, who have not seen an original Tamil historical made in their time.
To them, too, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan (the last one, mostly in the black-and-white era), say, up to the mid-eighties.
Most of Mani Ratnam's male characters in PS-I wear a beard and tresses that are uneven, as in Mrinal Sen's DD rendering of Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, again in the late eighties.
This is unlike the women in PS-I, who appear in the traditional Tamil filmi outlook, earmarked for period movies of the kind.
Considering that all these male characters keep appearing in almost every scene, the viewer acceptance becomes easier and necessary at the same time.
At the same time, the younger generation's acceptance of aging actors in characters that are eternally etched in their twenties can be a tricky question for which the answer would be known only when the film is released.
For instance, there is Vikram (56) as Aditya Karikalan, 'Jayam' Ravi (42), as Arulmozhi Varman aka Rajaraja Cholan aka Ponniyin Selvan, and Karthi (45) as Vanavarayan Vandhiyathevan, friend and aide of the former, which character became the hero in the imagination of many readers.
Among the female leads, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (48) as Nandhini and Trisha Krishnan (39), as Chola princess Kundhavai are past their prime in terms of age, but not so in terms of their screen presence, characterisation and talent.
For Tamil movie-buffs from an earlier era, Trisha could simply fit into the role that yesteryear actor Lakshmi performed in Sivaji Ganesan's Rajaraja Chozhan (1971).
At the time, the actor was still in her late teens, and that also helped her carry the role, apart from her performance, which challenged that of Sivaji Ganesan in select scenes, as that particular script demanded.
Another aspect of PS-I is the historicity of characters, which debate began on Tamil social media even when Mani Ratnam announced the project years ago.
This has only increased as the film's release date was announced, with some attributing even 'Brahminical casteist outlook' on Kalki, and even to Rajaraja Chola, or Ponniyin Selvan, after whom the project is titled. But these are peripheral discourses by subaltern scholars, both deserving and self-styled, who point to Rajaraja Chola 'encouraging' oppression of (Dalit) farm labour, and levying heavy taxes, to fund his war efforts, etc, etc.
In the case of Kalki, some have argued that he had left out the supposedly Brahmin birth of Ravidasan and Soman Sambavan, who are believed to be the assassins of Aditya Karikalan (played by Vikram) but leaving them to look like non-Brahmins, possibly from a martial community from the rival Pandya camp, with the former possessing tantric powers, too.
Yet, they do not talk about Kalki characterising Senthan Amudhan, born into a supposedly outcast fishermen community, as someone reciting Saivite hymns in Siva temples and as the regular supplier of flowers for daily pujas.
Of course, in the novel, and hence the movie, some of the key characters like Nandini, who resembles her mother, a give-away, (both played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (played by Parthiban), Azhvarkadiyan Nambi, the ever-present spy, for whom his profession and fighting wordy duels in defence of his Vaishnavite faith against Saivites, were compartmentalised, are some of Kalki's inventions.
Nambi, for instance, is Ponniyin Selvan's version of Gundodharan, the Pallava spy in the author's equally awesome work, Sivagamiyin Sabatham (Vow of Sivagami), serialised a decade earlier in the mid-forties.
What makes Ponniyin Selvan unique among Kalki's three historic novels -- the third one being Parthiban Kanavu, serialised in 1941-1943 -- is that there are only identifiable antagonists but no single protagonist, to give it a hero-centric filmi appeal.
That was not the case when Parthibhan Kanavu was made into a film in 1960 with Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayanthimala in the lead.
That would not be so if and when someone attempts to film Sivagamiyin Sabhatham, either.
Despite popular interpretation that Vanthiyathevan was the centre-piece in Ponniyin Selvan novel, he is not. The title hero, too, is not.
The latter's elder brother Aditya Karikalan is not because for a hero he gets killed treacherously in the end.
For a present-day superhero movie, there won't be anyone for a film-maker to eulogise and fill his screen-place with, in every scene.
This makes expectations over Mani Ratnam's treatment of Kalki's characters high.
Now the question arises if, how and how far did Ponniyin Selvan arouse the 'Tamil consciousness' in its serialised form in the post-Independence fifties, when pan-Tamil Dravidian ideological war between Periyar E V Ramaswamy and his one-time DMK acolytes under C N Annadurai was at its peak. Or, did it at all do so, as being claimed by some, now.
Truth be told, the Tamil literary world had begun moving away from that past, where most historians and popular storytellers like Kalki were Brahmins or were from non-Brahmin upper castes.
The Dravidian generation promoted poet Kanaka Subburatnam, who is better known as Bharatidasan, who adopted the name as a dasa of Subramania Bharati, who, it is often argued was worth a Nobel Literature prize but was never considered.
An iconoclast Brahmin, Bharati still did not measure up to the non-existing Dravidian yardstick.
It is another matter that Bharatidasan, even while projecting himself as a dasa, or servant of Subramania Bharati, wrote more in the pan-Tamil ideological line.
That was also when the likes of Annadurai, Karunanidhi and non-Dravidian writers like Jayakanthan became celebrities in their right.
Compared to the era when Ponniyin Selvan was being serialised or even when it came out in a five-volume book form some years later, with multiple print runs and editions, it is the present generation that is discussing the book, and with that the Chola rule, their greatness and 'smallness', etc, etc, in greater detail.
But then, unless the film-maker deviates violently from the written original – which he is believed not to have done -- the Youtube discourses about the greatness of the Cholas or even the so-called meanness of Rajaraja Chola, if any, may not be there in Mani Ratnam's offering. Because that was not the theme of Kalki's original either.
That is going to be problematic for those hoping for a connection of the kind that could trigger the Tamil consciousness of the kind, which the Cauvery water dispute, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue and the Jallikattu protests (2017) had done in their time!
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com