Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan is a near perfect adaptation of the first two books of Kalki’s five part series. Just like Kalki did, Mani Ratnam managed to take the viewers back to the tenth century by presenting a grounded movie with realistic performances, locations, and costumes. A sense of wetness pervades the movie as if mimicking the lush descriptions of rivers and lakes and floods in the books.
[Major spoilers ahead]
The essence of most characters and pivotal scenes are retained. But there are some significant deviations from the books and here’s what I feel about them:
Books: The series begins with a warrior, Vandhiyathevan, being sent on a quest to deliver two messages (olai) from Aditha Karikalan – one to his father, King Sundara Cholan, inviting him to Kanchi and another to his sister, Princess Kundavai, inviting her to use his trusted friend Vandhiyathevan to complete any sensitive tasks she might have. That the vassals are conspiring against the crown prince is something Vandhiyathevan finds out by pure chance.
Movie: Karikalan is already aware of the vassals’ plan to meet at the Kadambur palace and probably what the conspiracy entails too. He sends Vandhiyathevan to spy on the group and inform the the king and the princess of the proceedings. This small change gets the story going faster. It makes sense too as the crown prince would probably have his own spies scattered across the kingdom. The movie also had Vandhiyathevan write messages of his own and pass them off as Karikalan’s to get out of a tricky situation, thereby establishing his character as quick-witted, creative, and a tiny bit boastful.
Rashtrakuta and Eelam Wars
Books: There are no war sequences. We meet Karikalan after he’s defeated the Rashtrakutas, when he is frustrated by the lack of support from Tanjai for his quest to continue expanding the northern province. We also meet his brother, Arulmozhivarman or Ponniyin Selvan, after he has captured part of Eelam and when its King, Mahinda, is in hiding. There is barely any violence described in the books and we only hear about the wars of the past in bits and pieces to emphasise on the greatness of the Chola empire and its lineage. Even the small fights here and there are described with a lot of humour (“Vadhiyathevan avainai nokki oongi oru kuthu vittan.”)
Movie: Both the wars are shown along with a bunch of action sequences. I would have been very happy without them but I get it, people want to see action in epic movies. Plain political drama can get boring. What I liked was that the end of the Ratrakuta war is used to accentuate how much Karikalan’s past with Nandhini and Veerapandian still affects him.
Sundara Cholan’s trust in the Pazhuvettarayars
Books: We read about the entire nation slowly turning against the Pazhuvettarayars because they think that the sickly king is being held by them in the Tanjai fort against his will. The king, though, declines his son’s invitation to join him in Kachi because he doesn’t want to offend the Pazhuvettarayars; a clan that served the cholas for six generations. He trusts the Pazhuvettarayar brothers even when there is evidence of their conspiracy.
Movie: Sundara Cholan mistrusts the Pazhuvettarayars the moment he hears about the conspiracy from Vandhiyathevan. Which begs the question: if the king’s life may be in danger from the Pazhuvettarayars, what is stopping him from leaving the palace or demoting them or even punishing them outright? The answer to this question would depend on how the screenplay unfolds in part two.
Kundavai schemes and executes
Books: There is a lot of talk about the Kundavai’s wisdom and capability. However, she only works behind the scenes to navigate the kingdom through the threats, never revealing her hand. Her modus operandi is sending Vandhiyathevan to do her bidding.
Movie: Kundavai takes a more active and open approach that I quite enjoyed watching. After dispatching Vandhiyathevan to Eelam, she visits Tanjai and mitigates the Pazhuvettarayar threat. She entices the vassals by dangling the idea of their daughters becoming queens of Chola Nadu by marrying Karikalan and Arulmozhi. A neat trick that was executed succinctly and humorously on screen showcasing her astute political mind. Her visit to Kanchi to persuade Karikalan to visit Tanjai also shows us what a patriot she is. The movie established in two scenes what we learn over the course of five books.
Books: The Pandiya Abathudavigal plot against Arulmozhi in Eelam is convoluted and probably impossible to show on screen. It involves falling buildings and Arabian thieves, of all things. In the meantime, there is no threat from the Eelam king Mahindan because he runs away and hides in the forest somewhere.
Movie: Pandiya Aabathudavigals seek and find Mahindan and ask for his support to kill Arulmozhi. This makes sense because the Eelam kings have always supported the Pandiyas in their wars against the Cholas. This change also makes the Abathudavigals a much more credible threat to Arulmozhivarman compared to how it was in the books.
People’s love for Arulmozhi
Books: We meet Arulmozhi only in the second book but we hear so much about him that we are as excited as Vandhiyathevan to meet him. He is more popular among the people of Chola Nadu than the crown prince. Kundavai is convinced that he would rule the world. And once we meet him, we are quickly won over by how genuinely good he is. He doesn’t want to destroy the resources of the land he captures. He respects their religion and traditions. Vandhiyathevan is amazed at the stark contrast with which the brothers wage wars – Karikalan destroys while Arulmozhi protects. The people of Eelam love him but Arulmozhi wouldn’t accept the Eelam throne from Buddha bikshus because it is just not right. This is a great sacrifice and it is a very important thing to establish because it forms the basis of the historical incident that prompted Kalki to write this whole saga.
Movie: All his important scenes were there but they did not do enough to justify the goodness of the most important character in the series; the prince who would later become the Raja Raja Cholan, the greatest of the Cholas. He is almost chastised for giving away the Eelam throne and the people’s unanimous love for him is barely registered. The messy fight in the climax almost makes us forget that he is off risking his life saving a man he just met. I would love it if part two rectifies some of this but I doubt it.
All things said, I believe this is the best adaptation we could have asked for and I am gearing up to watch it several times in theatres. What are some of the changes you noticed? Let me know in the comments.