Two films with a Tamil connection will compete for the Hindi box office this Friday. Vikram Vedha is Pushkar-Gayatri’s remake of their Tamil hit from 2017. The other film is by the director whom Pushkar-Gayatri have acknowledged as one of their favourites: Mani Ratnam.

Ponniyin Selvan: I, which has been dubbed in Hindi from the Tamil original, is Ratnam’s 27th feature. The first-ever adaptation of Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy 1950s magnum opus has been filmed in two parts. The lavish production has a scale and cast to match the sprawl of Krishnamurthy’s five-volume novel.

Chapter two, which is scheduled for a 2023 release, is ready too, Ratnam said in an interview in Mumbai. Some members of Ponniyin Selvan’s cast, music composer AR Rahman, and Ratnam were in Mumbai over the weekend as part of a multi-city tour to promote the production.

While the 66-year-old filmmaker was raised in Chennai and continues to live there, he spent a few years in the 1970s in Mumbai as a student at Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies. The city is the setting for four of Ratnam’s best-loved films: Nayakan (1987), Bombay (1993), O Kadhal Kanmani (2005) and Guru (2007).

“Whenever works call me, I come here,” Ratnam told “The new film’s post-production was entirely done in Mumbai. I have lots of friends here too. The city has a unique character, it has its own dynamics.”

While most of Ratnam’s films have an urban, contemporary setting, Ponniyin Selvan unfolds in the distant past, in the tenth century during Chola rule in pre-modern Tamil Nadu.

“I had read the book a long time ago when I was in school,” Ratnam said. “I was fascinated by it even then. It is meant to be up there, on the big screen. The way Kalki writes, it feels like he is personally narrating the story to you. It’s vivid, the spectacle is there in front of you.”

Mani Ratnam in Mumbai for the promotion of Ponniyin Selvan: I.

The book’s title, meaning “Son of Ponni” (another name for the Cauvery river), refers to the real-life Chola king Arulmozhi. In Krishnamurthy’s fictionalised historical account, Arulmozhi is a commander of one of the kingdom’s armies. His elder brother Aditha Karikalan is the heir apparent, while their sister Kundhavai is an intelligent administrator, keen on keeping the kingdom united and their ailing father Sundara Chola from harm.

The Cholas’ rivals include the influential Pazhuvettaraiyar clan, which controls the treasury, and a faction of the Pandyas, the kingdom’s former rulers. The Pazhuvettaraiyar princess Nandhini has ambitions of ruling the kingdom. A crucial character is Vandhiyathevan, a warrior prince who gets embroiled in the succession drama when he is asked by Aditha Karikalan to deliver a message to the Chola emperor. Also stirring the pot is Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, a spy whose paths often cross with Vandhiyathevan during the warrior’s journey.

The richly detailed novel is bursting with intrigue, adventure, romance, twists and humour. All these factors, as well as Krishnamurthy’s irreverent ground-up view of politics, attracted Ratnam to the novel.

“The novel is about people, characters and politics that are relevant even today,” Ratnam said. “It was written 70 years ago and set a thousand years ago, but is still talking about things that you and I talk about today. It seems timeless, can be put into various settings, and will still ring true. The book has always been special. The film too is an entertainer, but has a lot of depth in terms of characters.”

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

The screen adaptation, written by Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel and B Jeyamohan, was years in the making. A previous version by Tamil movie star MG Ramachandran failed to get off the ground. Ratnam himself has tried to film the novel since the 1990s.

His essential vision for the film has not changed over the years, he said. “It is historical fiction, so some of the history parts can’t be changed,” Ratnam added. “Kalki has woven in the fiction so beautifully. Of course, if I had done it ten years ago, it would have been different, but the core of it hasn’t changed.”

At least two of Ratnam’s previous films directly engage with the epic form. In Thalapathi (1991), Rajinikanth plays a character modelled on the warrior Karna from the Mahabharata epic. Raavanan (2010) – made simultaneously in Hindi as Raavan with a different lead actor – places key events from the Ramayana in a contemporary setting and reimagines Sita’s abduction as a righteous protest against police excesses.

Ponniyin Selvan, which is Ratnam’s first full-blown period drama, presented both joys and challenges.

“I have never done a period film before, so it was completely new,” he said. “I have never adapted a five-part book before either, so that was a challenge. It was like jumping into unknown waters. That keeps you on your toes and alert all the time. Though the book is an epic that is large in scale and scope, it still deals with a lot of smaller human emotions, the interplay between characters, the changes they undergo, their motivations, their angst and anger. The amount of work the film demanded was a lot more.”

Ponniyin Selvan: I (2022).

While production on Ponniyin Selvan began in earnest in early 2021, Ratnam and his team had already covered a great deal of ground years before, when he first planned to adapt the novel.

“A lot of the research and detailing were already in place, since we had attempted the film a couple of times,” he said. “It was easy to get back on track.”

The humungous cast includes Vikram, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha Krishnan, Jayaram, Prakash Raj, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Shobhita Dhulipala, R Sarathkumar, Rahman, R Parthiban, Kishore and Riyaz Khan. The secret to handling so many actors at the same time is to “not think about it and keeping running forward and hope they [the actors] will all still be with you”, Ratnam said.

“The magic of the book, the admiration towards and adoration of the book that people have, drew all of us – also, to be able to tell a story that is set in your history and actually made a difference to you,” he observed. “Whatever the Cholas did then still has an impact today. It’s relevant, and it’s good to have so many people wanting to be a part of the film.”

Jayam Ravi in Ponniyin Selvan: I. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Lyca Productions.

Casting is “50% of the job” done if done well, Ratnam pointed out. “It’s not just a decision of which actor is right for the role. The actor should be available, should be interested, the project should work out. Within that, you pick the best you can. Given the talent that is around, people are able to adapt and mould themselves to different roles. It’s not just you, but them who can make the film ring true.”

The right casting has the potential of making relatively minor characters stand out in such a big-canvas production, Ratnam added. “This is ultimately a two-part film, and there is just this much time we have, so economy becomes important,” he said. “Sometimes, we have just a single close-up to convey a thought or an emotion. The character has to come through in this limited space and communicate. This could only have been done with a cast that is this good.”

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

The film’s Hindi release comes smack in the midst of chatter about the “pan-Indian film’’ – the term for the dubbed non-Hindi film that is gaining popularity among Hindi-speaking moviegoers. Pushpa: The Rise (2021), RRR (2022) and K.G.F: Chapter 2 (2022) are among the southern productions that have dazzled Hindi audiences. The path to the success of dubbed films in Hindi-speaking markets winds past Mani Ratnam’s Tamil-language Roja, his terrorism-themed drama from 1992.

Ratnam has since made films entirely in Hindi alongside Tamil (including Dil Se and Guru), but he is still largely identified as a Tamil director.

“The more rooted a film is, the more universal and authentic the cinema is – the fact that Satyajit Ray could made something set in a village in Bengal or that Akira Kurosawa could make a film about samurais that had an influence on someone like me,” he observed. “The more honest the film, the more chances of it travelling wider.”

Ponniyin Selvan: I (2022).

Also read:

‘A magic that touches you inside’: The ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ book that has inspired Mani Ratnam’s film