Tamil director Mani Ratnam’s latest film is the first-ever screen adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s hugely popular novel Ponniyin Selvan. Serialised between 1950 and 1954 in the Tamil weekly magazine Kalki and published in 1955 in book form, Ponniyin Selvan is a fictional work that draws from actual historical events and characters.

The narrative unfolds in the tenth century during Chola rule. Ponniyin Selvan features adventure, romance and a power struggle over who will succeed the ailing king.

Ratnam’s adaptation, which he has written with Elango Kumaravel and novelist B Jeyamohan, is in two parts. Ponniyin Selvan: I will be released on September 30 in Tamil along with dubbed versions in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam.

The heavy-hitting cast includes Vikram, Aishwarya Rai, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha Krishnan, Prakash Raj, Vikram Prabhu, Aishwarya Lekshmi and Radhakrishnan Parthiban. The music is by AR Rahman, the cinematography by Ravi Varman, the editing by Sreekar Prasad, and the lavish production design by Thota Tharrani.

Aishwarya Rai in Ponniyin Selvan: I. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Lyca Productions.

The novel’s serialisation created a rage in the 1950s, said popular historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, who has written and lectured widely on Kalki Krishnamurthy and runs a Ponniyin Selvan reading club. The title translates into ‘Ponni’s Son’ – Ponni is another name for the Cauvery river.

Fans eagerly awaited Krishnamurthy’s weekly instalments, Ramakrishnan told Scroll.in. “There would be boards outside houses saying, Ponniyin Selvan will be read out loud here for people who aren’t literate.”

Krishnamurthy was a fan of such writers as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Hardy and Walter Scott, basing some of his plot points and characters on their novels. Although Ponniyin Selvan spans roughly eight months, according to Ramakrishnan, it packs in a plethora of characters and details.

The main character is Vandiyathevan, a courier who is sent by the heir apparent Aditya Karikalan to deliver a message to the king and queen. Aditya has a brother, Arulmozhi, and a sister, Kundavai.

A game of thrones is brewing in the Chola kingdom, whose chief players include Nandhini, the wife of the chancellor Periya Pazhavetturayar. Aditya Karikalan was once in love with Nandhini, but she has turned against him and wants to gut the Chola dynasty.

In the film, Karti plays Vandiyathevan, Vikram is Aditya Karikalan and Jayam Ravi is Arulmozhi. Aishwarya Rai portrays Nandhini, while Trisha Krishnan is Kundavai.

Vikram in Ponniyin Selvan: I. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Lyca Productions,

Despite its seemingly dark subject matter, Ponniyin Selvan is “a feel-good novel that takes pride in the past”, Ramakrishnan noted. “There is a magic to the novel, it touches you right inside. The language is very simple. The book has next-door characters, they are not distant. Rather than making the prince or the king as the hero, Kalki focused on the courier boy. The structure is superb. The book converted a lot of people into readers. Every historical novel since has been compared to Ponniyin Selvan.”

Ramakrishnan’s own interest in history was sparked by Ponniyin Selvan. “As soon as I finished reading the novel, I decided to write a sequel,” Ramakrishnan said. Infuriatingly for his fans, Krishnamurthy ended his five-volume magnum opus without naming a successor to the throne. The writer died from tuberculosis in 1954, six months after the publication of the final serialised instalment.

“My book, Kaviri Maindan, is the sequel Kalki should have written but didn’t,” Ramakrishnan said. Kaviri Maindan begins five years after the events detailed in Ponniyin Selvan and covers, among other things, Vandiyathevan’s inclusion into the royal family through marriage.

Before Ponniyin Selvan, Krishnamurthy wrote the historical novels Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban’s Dream) and Sivagamiyin Sapatham (Sivagami’s Vow). Parthiban Kanavu inspired the Tamil film of the same name, starring Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayanthimala and released in 1960.

The films Tyagabhoomi (1939) and Kalvanin Kadhali (1955) were also adapted from Krishnamurthy’s novels of the same name. But Ponniyin Selvan, despite being the most well-known among Krishnamurthy’s writings, has not been adapted for the screen until now.

Kalki Krishnamurthy. Courtesy Kalkibiography.com

There was talk of an animated production in 2017, which instead yielded a comic book. For years, there was said to be a “curse on the book” with regards to a movie version, Ramakrishnan said.

One reason could be a nested narrative with several sub-plots. “The book is very long and has characters who keep talking all the time – perhaps it might work better as a web series than a film,” Ramakrishnan observed.

While the teaser for Mani Ratnam’s upcoming film suggests palace intrigue and battles on the land and the sea, the novel itself stays away from bloodshed, according to Ramakrishnan.

Ponniyin Selvan reflects the optimism of the early years after Indian Independence, unlike Sivagamiyin Sapatham, which was serialised between 1944 and 1946. Set in the seventh century during the rule of the Pallava dynasty, Sivagamiyin Sapatham is a “negative novel” that is “filled with corpses” and allegorises the Quit India movement, Ramakrishnan said. Krishnamurthy was an avid follower of Mahatma Gandhi and threw himself into the movement against British rule.

The backdrop for Ponniyin Selvan was new-found freedom and a spirit of socialism in which ordinary people could talk to their rulers on equal terms, Ramakrishnan added. Even seemingly villainous characters see the light in the end. War is mentioned only in a flashback, with the focus on the characters, their adventures and their relationships with each other, according to Ramakrishnan.

“It’s not like Baahubali,” Ramakrishnan added, pointing to SS Rajamouli’s two-part epic set in fictionalised ancient times. “The book is full of dialogue, so it will be interesting to see what Mani Ratnam, who is known for using minimal dialogue in his films, will do with it.” He noted that the novel’s characters appear to be young, either in their adolescence or early adulthood, unlike in Ratnam’s film.

Krishnamurthy’s addictive prose set a benchmark for historical fiction. “In our Ponniyin Selvan Facebook group, at least 10 to 15 of us became novelists because of the energy Kalki emanated,” Ramakrishnan said. Apart from Kaviri Maindan, Ramakrishnan has written the English-language Gods, Kings & Slaves – The Siege of Madurai under the name R Venketesh.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

Veena Muthuraman, author of the Chola period-set novel The Great Anicut, cited Kalki Krishnamurthy as an influence in an interview with Scroll.in.

Ponniyin Selvan is an obvious inspiration” Muthraman told interviewer Abdullah Khan. “From the time I’d heard the story narrated to me as a child, I have imagined stories set in that milieu. There are similarities between the key characters in both novels – for instance, my Kuzhali and Kalki’s Kundavai, or Zhang and Azhwarkadiyan Nambi. Another similarity is the narrative device of a foreigner coming into the Chola kingdom for the first time, which gave me a lot of leeway to show things from an outsider’s perspective because we are all outsiders here, including the writer herself.”

At the launch of his film’s teaser on Friday in Chennai, Mani Ratnam acknowledged the challenges of adapting a cultural touchstone, calling it a “huge responsibility”. The 66-year-old filmmaker noted that others had tried to film the novel, including MG Ramachandran. Ratnam himself had made three previous attempts.

“It is loved by everybody who has read it, they are an authority on it, they own it and they’re very possessive about it,” Ratnam said. “I too am like that, I also own it, I’m also possessive and I will do it the way I want to do it.”

Play
The Hindi teaser of Ponniyin Selvan: I (2022).