The concluding part of Tamil director Mani Ratnam’s period epic Ponniyin Selvan will be in cinemas almost exactly seven months since the release of the first film. Ponniyin Selvan 2, an adaptation of the Kalki Krishnamurthy novel of the same name, will be released on April 28 in both the original Tamil as well as dubbed in several languages.
“It is tonally the same film, but the tempo and rhythm may be slightly different since the story is progressing,” Ratnam said about the sequel. “There is more drama. It is a dramatic film about emotions, relationships, hurt and revenge and redemption. There is action, but that is part of the narrative.”
Given Ratnam’s pedigree as well as the enduring popularity of Krishnamurthy’s novel, the first part was expected to be a box-office winner when it was released on September 30, 2022. But a record-tumbling blockbuster, which is now ranked among the highest-grossing Tamil films of all time? Even Ratnam, the 66-year-old veteran of the capricious ways of the box office, was taken aback.
“I just wanted the film to reach [audiences] because the novel is so well loved and followed,” Ratnam told Scroll during a recent visit to Mumbai. “It was important that we put the film across in a way that they [readers] could relate to it, that was the priority. But the fact that it has done this well shows how much people love the book and followed it up. Actually, nobody feels they are going to make a blockbuster. You want to make a good film, something that you will be happy about and works commercially too. That is the balance you try to reach, but sometimes you fall down badly. You keep trying.”
Written by Ratnam, Jeyamohan and Kumaravel, the film distils the essence of Krishnamurthy’s multi-volume historical fiction. Ponniyin Selvan is set in the tenth century during Chola rule. The Chola king faces a dual-headed rebellion. On the one hand, a pair of sibling courtiers seeks to oust the king and replace him with a candidate of their choice. On the other hand, the queen Nandini, who is seeking both revenge and power, teams up with a group of Pandyas who have been defeated by the Cholas in battle.
The crew includes Ratnam’s frequent collaborators – music composer AR Rahman, cinematographer Ravi Varman, editor Sreekar Prasad, production designer Thota Tharani and costume designer Eka Lakhani. The sprawling cast comprises highly-regarded talent from Tamil and Malayalam cinema as well as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan from Hindi films – Rai Bachchan made her acting in debut in Ratnam’s Tamil-language Iruvar in 1997.
Among the key actors are Prakashraj as the Chola king, Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, Trisha Krishnan as Kundavai, Rai Bachchan as Nandini, Karthi as Vandiyathevan, Jayam Ravi as Arulmozhi Varman, Sobhita Dhulipala as Vaanathi and Aishwarya Lekshmi as Poonkuzhali.
Ratnam modestly credited the gargantuan success of the first film to the love that readers continue to have for Kalki Krishnamurty’s most famous creation. Ponniyin Selvan was serialised between 1950 and 1954 in the Tamil weekly magazine Kalki and published in 1955 in book form. While a work of fiction, Ponniyin Selvan draws from actual historical events and characters.
“I think it was a pre-sold thing – people have loved the book, and it has been passed down from generation to generation, so in a sense people were waiting to like the adaptation,” Ratnam observed. “Then if the film matched to an extent, they owned it – that sense of ownership was very strong.”
Some viewers of the Hindi version were unable to comprehend the interlinked plotlines or wrap their tongues around the polysyllabic names of the numerous characters. Should they have read the book before watching the film?
“I don’t think that any film can say, do homework and come,” Ratnam said. “Here, there were a couple of things – the main thing was that the historical names were difficult to follow for people who were not familiar with them. Then there were multiple characters. Also probably, the faces [of the actors] were not that familiar outside Tamil Nadu. We couldn’t change the names too much to make them acceptable even though we were aware that it was difficult. We hoped that the characters would come through. For some people, it took a while to understand this.”
Ponniyin Selvan 1 and 2 were mostly filmed together, with portions of the ancient Chola kingdom recreated in Thailand. Among the aspects to which Ratnam and his crew paid close attention was treating both the films as a single production.
“You looked at it as one story – the flow and coherence needed to have been there in the script for it to get translated into the edit,” Ratnam recalled. “We must have worked at least a couple of years on this aspect before actually starting the film. There were multiple iterations of the script. Throughout that period, we were striving for a seamless quality.”
Among Ponniyin Selvan 1’s most celebrated elements is its visual beauty, which dazzles but never overwhelms.
“The concept was clear, which all of us agreed upon – the film should look real,” Ratnam said. “We tried to shoot in as many real locations as possible. We tried not to have sets that looked like sets, so we shot in lots of forts and palaces. It started from creating a world that looked real. The idea was not to shoot like a usual period film from the outside, but from the inside, like you were there at that time and it was all happening around you.”
Before Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam has earned a great deal of fame and respect for the Hindi dubbed versions of his films Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). Buoyed by his recognition among Hindi speakers, Ratnam made two of his films simultaneously in Tamil and Hindi – Ayutha Ezhuthu/Yuva (2004) and Ravanan/Raavan (2010). They had mixed results.
Ratnam also made the films Dil Se (1998) and Guru (2007) entirely in Hindi. Dil Se, a terrorism-themed romance starring Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, remains a fan favourite despite an underwhelming run at the box office.
“You make a film and people either like it or don’t like it and that is what it is,” Ratnam said about Dil Se. “You have to learn from the experience and if you have to do it again, you have to do it differently. There are no fool-proof answers. Sometimes, maybe the idea isn’t reaching, or the method used to communicate the idea is wrong. You have to see it is a thought-level problem or an execution problem.”
He doesn’t care to analyse his films – “If I watch my own films again, I only see the mistakes,” he said. For him, the feedback that makes the most sense is how a film is received by its intended audience.
Ponniyin Selvan is arguably the film that has given Ratnam the deepest connection with his fans across his lengthy career. The source novel, which has many more characters and sub-plots than the movies, can yield any number of spin-offs or even a web series. But Ratnam is ready to move on to his next project.
“A spin-off can be certainly be done, but not by me,” he said. “For me, this is it. The possibilities are plenty. I have got whatever I wanted out of the book. If I try to do more, it will be trying to exploit the book, it won’t be intrinsic and organic.”