Major spoilers ahead!
When Ponniyin Selvan 1 came out, I was talking to a friend who hadn’t enjoyed the movie. I asked him why. After admitting that he only vaguely remembered the books, he gave me a list of scenes he’d hoped to see but weren’t in the movie. I went through the list only to find that most were from the first half of the first book, and some were only in his imagination.
One of my uncles was disappointed that a scene where Vandhiyathevan goes to a temple and listens to a Devaram song wasn’t included.
After watching Ponniyin Selvan 2, I was coming back in an auto when the driver asked me if the movie showed Aditha Karikalan’s death. I said yes, and asked him if he’s read the books. ‘Adhellam, I read when I was this small,’ he said, with a trademark book-reader swagger. ‘Cha, why did they kill him? In the book, Karikalan just disappears after killing Nandhini,’ he said. I didn’t tell him that he was mixing up Karikalan’s ending with and Nandhini’s. Partly because we’d reached home and I was hungry. But the other reason was that his version of Ponniyin Selvan belongs to him as my version belongs to me.
As readers, we parse every word through our own lens specific to a single moment in our life. No two readings by the same reader will be the same, let alone the reading experience of two different readers. The characters take a life of their own and roam in our minds unfettered, borrowing from our knowledge. Ponniyin Selvan has seeped into the minds of multiple generations, flourishing in their imaginations for nearly 70 years. It takes a different kind of courage to even attempt to adapt it.
For both parts, when I walked into the theatre, my heart was in my mouth. I was worried as though I was the one who’d made the movie. I wondered if my husband, who’s never read the books, would like the story. I hoped the book fans would enjoy the film. I wanted myself to like it so desperately that I could only see the flaws the first time around. Both times, I came out with mixed feelings. I sorted them by devouring reviews (the long, professional kind and the Twitter kind), watching decoding videos, re-reading parts of the books, and talking to my friends. Then, I watched the movies again, only to like every bit of it.
No two criticisms of the two movies were the same: It’s too slow, it’s too fast. It’s too religious, not religious enough. Some wanted more war scenes with better action choreography, while others were outraged because there were no war sequences in the books. Some didn’t like the story which was fine. All valid to those saying it.
It comes down to expectations, clearly. We live in an age where Gods and kings are being rethought with six packs. Our cinema is brisk and brutal. A camera lingering on a shot for a second more than it takes for a dialogue to be delivered makes us uncomfortable. We have been primed to not watch characters process a thought, not catch the moment they fall in love, not be a witness as a part of them die. We are told, through words and music. Sometimes, like a sitcom laugh track, there are minor characters whose only job on screen is to emote the emotion the director wants us to feel (no shade, I enjoy several such movies).
I watched Karthi run through a forest wearing leather armour with a heavy sword on his side and thought, ‘Why isn’t he running faster?’. It took me a moment to realise that he doesn’t have to run with superhuman strength. He doesn’t need to land all his blows like a skilled assassin. The army doesn’t have to move with robotic precision. It’s okay that the people in this movie feel real and messy. It’s alright that I am not being spoon-fed what to feel. ‘I am laying out the path,’ the director seemed to be saying, ‘but it is your job to get to the destination’. The path can be seen only when all our senses are alert – interestingly, older people see no problem with this approach.
Show, don’t tell
A lot is said with a few words; on rare occasions, even those words aren’t spared. The movie doesn’t just tell us Karikalan is in an unstable state of mind. It shows us: in the very first scene we see him in Part 2, he hears confirmation that his brother died, wonders if he caused it by turning Nandhini into a vengeful snake, learns that Parthibendran is helping Nandhini, and hears her message to him. He goes from devastation to guilt to suspicion to longing in a matter of minutes. Later we watch Vikram delivering his lines sitting on his ever-moving horse. It makes us uneasy. But the volatile Aditha Karikalan who enters the Kadambur palace is supposed to make us uneasy.
Take the pages and pages of monologue in the book that Arulmozhi speaks to express his sorrow when Mandakini dies. We don’t get a single word from him in the movie. Instead, we see the man, who hadn’t lifted a hand against the Pandiya aabathudavigals who’d tried to murder him in Nagapattinam, take his father’s sword and slice through man after man for killing his beloved guardian angel. His face, which had remained unfazed by wars and hurricanes, crumbles in grief as he fights. (Ilaiyor Soodar playing in the background was a surprising and impeccable placement. A lament from Puranaanooru about a warrior’s death is a fitting funeral song to a selfless woman who spent her entire life protecting Arulmozhi only to give up her life saving his father.)
What hooks me in a story is very different than what hooks you. Something that sat with me for a long time after my second reading was Kalki’s author note where he explains his inspiration to write Ponniyin Selvan. It was fascinating to him that an actual prince who was loved by the people sacrificed his throne because it was the right thing to do. And not just any prince but someone who cemented his place in history as the illustrious Raja Raja Cholan.
That sacrifice was my hook, not who ends up on the throne. When the movie simplified the (frankly) convoluted conclusion of the book and made it historically accurate, I didn’t blink. But a Twitter friend wrote eloquently about why he was disappointed by the ending; his hook to the story was the idealism of a story where a commoner becomes a king filling the readers of the newly independent India with hope. Mani Ratnam’s hook was clearly the tragic and cinematic love story between Karikalan and Nandhini. The wild variations in what draws us to the story explain the criticisms.
My mother and I came out after a highly satisfying second viewing of Part 2 when an older gentleman started talking to us. ‘Why did the Pallavan turn against Cholas? Imagine if all the kingdoms had been united. We would have never let the Britishers in,’ he said. Our hooks are certainly different, my friend.
Another thing we are not primed for is the muted heroism of these movies. Aditha Karikalan, who has all the markers for a contemporary hero – crown prince, volatile temper, epic love story, thrives in a war and bloodshed – dies. Not for his land or family. Not for his love. He dies to repent for his sins.
But the titular character is not heroic in the contemporary sense. We see Arulmozhi Varman get knocked off a horse, saved by an old lady, and succumbed to a fever. And in the pre-interval scene, where we expect his heroism to shine, he doesn’t fight his way out of the tricky situation but trusts his people to protect him. Even in the final war sequence, he sends Vandhiyathevan to sue for peace first. After ending the war by killing the Rashtrakuta king, and honestly, after earning his heroism the hard way, Arulmozhi kneels on the ground with a bloodied sword in his hand. Unhappiness at having to do what he had to do is etched on his face (which is mirrored by Vandhiyathevan, another unconventional hero).
While the way the scenes and characters are adapted is wildly polarising, we can all agree that the feel of the book was perfectly captured. Kalki’s lush descriptions of rivers, lakes, and seas are turned into beautiful postcard-like frames. Every frame is a painting, every frame has a story. The real locations grounded the story while giving it an exotic feel. Vandhiyathevan, who I consider to be a part of the environment rather than a character, is a firecracker in every scene he’s in, enriching the world with his whimsical spirit. The makers of this world (the director, cinematographer, actors, art and costume departments, music director, lyricist) have given Ponniyin Selvan another dimension we can sink our teeth into and savour. This setting is at once human and otherworldly. This is a world one can get lost in.
Dialogues are <chef’s kiss>
Each understated but powerful dialogue written by Jeyamohan moves the plot, builds character, or does both.
- ‘ஒரு மனிதன் பலமுறை சாவதுண்டு, அன்று என் முதல் சாவு’ was a line for the ages. Also underlines Karikalan’s obsession with death. (Oru manidhan pala murai savadhundu, andru en mudhal saavu)
- ‘கண்டராதித்தரால் சுந்தர சோழருக்கு கடனாகக் கொடுக்கப்பட்டது இந்த சோழ நாட்டு மணிமுடி. மதுராந்தகன் வளர்ந்த பிறகு அதை அவர் திருப்பிக் கொடுத்திருக்கவேண்டும்’ was a succinct explanation of the politics of the movies. Sarath Kumar’s delivery of this line packed a punch. (Gandaraditharal Sundara Cholarukku kadanaga kodukkapattadhu indha Chola nattu manimudi. Madurandagan valarntha piragu adai avar tiruppi koduthirukka vendum)
- ‘கையும் காலும் வைத்து ஏதாவது செய்ய வேண்டாமா’ is a line so reminiscent of ‘I solemnly swear I am up to no good’. Goes to show Vandhiyathevan is Fred and George Weasley rolled into one. (Kaiyum kaalum vaithu edavadhu seiyya vendama)
- ‘அரசர் அறம் தாவரலாமா?’ Kundavai asks the king. ‘அறம் தவறியது நீங்கள், உங்களை நீங்கள் தான் மன்னிக்க வேண்டும்,’ Nandhini says to the crown prince. (Arasar aram tavaralama; Aram tavariyadhu neegal, ungalai neengal dan mannikka vendum)
- The line ‘ஆதித்த கரிகாலன் நூறு அருள்மொழிக்கு சமம்’ says more about Nandhini’s feelings towards Karikalan more than Arulmozhi’s abilities. (Aditha Karikalan nooru Arulmozhikku samam)
- ‘மக்களை நம்பாதவன் அவர்களை ஆழ முடியாது,’ says Arulmozhi, a king already without a crown. (Makkalai nambadavan avargalai azha mudiyadhu)
- ‘நான் செய்ய முடியாத எதையும் உன்னால் நிச்சயம் செய்ய முடியாது,’ Nandhini says to Ravidasan. To that I say, ‘Yaas, queen!’ (Naan seyya mudiyadha edhayum unnal nichayam seyya mudiyadhu)
- ‘அரசன் பேராசை படவேண்டும்’ is the three-word justification for why Madurandagan was crowned king. (Arasan peraasai padavendum) I never found the ending where Sendhan Amudhan, a commoner, was forced to become king convincing because while the concept of ‘power should be wielded by those who don’t seek it’ is great in literature, I want my real-world leaders to be able to fight for it and be prepared for the responsibilities that come with it.
- ‘தலை பத்திரம்,’ Alwarkadiyan, who is privy to the dangers of a royal’s life, tells Vandhiyathevan. An apt warning for someone who often finds his head on the chopping block. (Thalai badhiram)
- And, of course, a proposal that will live forever, ‘உயிர் உங்களுடையது தேவி’ (Uyir ungaludayadhu devi)
Enna solla vara
Is this a perfect adaptation? Definitely not. It has its flaws, but it has a soul too.
Am I saying book readers should be okay with adaptations they don’t like? No. I’m still fuming about the dumpster fire of an adaptation that is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Is Mani Ratnam like AR Rahman too? Does his work need plenty of rewatching to be liked? Maybe. But no, I am not saying that you should spend money to watch the movie twice or more to enjoy it.
What are you trying to say, you might ask.
I like the movies. That is it. That is all I am trying to say.