graphic novels

A new Tamil comic book series set in the Chola period brings a literary classic to life

Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 2,500-page historical novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has now been adapted into a graphic novel.

Amidst the fertile fields that girdle the large Veeranam Lake in Cuddalore rode a lone messenger on his trusted stallion. Wearing amulets of iron and a spear in his belt, Vandiyathevan was travelling to Chola Kingdom’s capital Thanjavur, carrying a message for the king from his friend, the crown prince Aditya Karikalan.

The adventures of the brave and witty Vandiyathevan are chronicled in the Tamil historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, set in the 10th century Chola Kingdom. The story, which has inspired theatre and movie adaptations over the decades, has been revisited again, albeit this time in comic book form.

The comic begins with a sketch of Kalki Krishnamurthy, the author of the 1950 novel, greeting the reader: “Let me take you back a thousand years. How is that possible, you may wonder? I am going to take the help of some of my artists...”

Making the 2,500-page Tamil text comprehensible for readers above the age of twelve was a daunting task – one that Nila Comics, a publishing house in Chennai, decided to take on.

“I have always liked this story very much since I was a child,” said P Saravanaraja, the managing director of Nila Comics. “We thought to ourselves, if we get into comics 2D animation production, why not try working on something very big?”

Historic comic

Eight years ago, Saravanaraja and his team decided to make a 2D animated film on Ponniyin Selvan (Ponni’s son). The company, PSN Entertainment Private Limited, was engaged in animation training and also worked on visual effects outsourced by Hollywood movies. As the animated film made progress, it struck Saravanaraja that they also had enough material to flesh out an entire comic series. A rare, original Tamil comic emerged.

With the first comic book covering the first two chapters of Ponniyin Selvan, Nila Comics plans to bring out a new sequel every two weeks. They have not yet finished writing the script and drawing illustrations for all five volumes, said Saravanaraja – it is a challenge to simplify the storyline, without losing its core essence.

“Though this project is aimed at introducing children to the novel, we expect that adults will actually be our main readers,” he said. “The ardent lovers of Ponniyan Selvan would feel cheated if we made too many changes.”

Credit: Nila Comics
Credit: Nila Comics

The project is headed by M Karthikeyan, a bright-eyed, middle-aged artist. Though a 20-year veteran of the animation industry, Karthikeyan fell back on the storytelling experiences gained growing up in a family of dramatists and working as a theatre actor to script panels from Ponniyin Selvan. It was not easy – unpacking a tome heaving with characters and events for a comic required some skills.

Another major challenge Karthikeyan and his team faced was imagining the landscape a thousand years ago. Karthikeyan was determined to depict the scene in as authentic a manner as possible. “Right from the clothing and jewellery, to the wooden gates along lake beds that arrest water, we had to draw everything as it would have been,” said Karthikeyan.

A team of 30 animators and artists worked on the project. While senior artists worked on the characterisation of people, the next level of artists designed the landscapes, and the junior artists did the colouring.

The features and expressions of the characters, especially Vanthiyadevan, share a likeness with the animations of Disney movie characters. Karthikeyan conceded that in the beginning, most illustrators and animators were inspired by Disney’s creations. “But as we grow as artists, we begin to develop our own style,” he said. “Tamil Nadu’s native Tanjore paintings and the sculptures in our temples also inspire our drawings.”

Credit: Nila Comics
Credit: Nila Comics

Little space for Tamil comics

Apart from Amar Chitra Katha and Lion-Muthu comics, which translates comics from Europe and the United States, there are very few comic books published in Tamil. Among these, original works are even rarer.

In a state that lives and breathes cinema, little attention is paid to drawing and cartooning, said Saravanaraja. “All those who are trained in different art forms inevitably move towards cinema,” he said with a laugh. According to him, the business model of the movie industry, where returns can be earned in as short a time as six months is far more attractive than the time-consuming world of comic books and animation.

There is not even enough importance given to drawing and art in schools, said Karthikeyan. “Only through drawing will children develop their observations and take note of minute details,” he added.

It is the same attention to detail that Nila Comics attempts to give to the novel, out of respect to the writer.

“Kalki makes us visualise the historic setting with just his words,” said Saravanaraja. “So the job is made easy for anyone who wants to produce a movie or drama on it. The strength of his words help us to recreate the Chola kingdom.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.