Magic Lantern pulls it off, again, transporting viewers to Chola era in brilliant style.

Chennai’s Music Academy is the favoured destination for all for a week as Kalki Krishnamurthy’s immortal classic, Ponniyin Selvan, is brought alive by Magic Lantern. The theatre group that had staged the tour de force of one of the best loved writers in Tamil 15 years ago pulls off the feat once again. Magic Lantern joins hands with S.S. International, the producers, to put up a lavishly mounted show. The play transports the audience to the Chola era so brilliantly conjured up by a writer of unsurpassed talent in the genre of Tamil historical fiction. The surging audiences prove how it has stood the test of time.

The evocative sets, the directorial talent and the taut script contribute to an evening where, romance and intrigue, swordplay and spectacle, martial arts and music, come together to create an outstanding panorama. The viewer is reacquainted with the brave young messenger, Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan, the supreme spy Azhwarkkadiyan, the aging warrior Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, his enigmatic and intriguing young wife Nandini, the troubled ruler Sundara Cholar, his courageous sons Aditya Karikalan and Arulmozhivarman (the famed Ponniyin Selvan), their wise and beautiful sister Kundavai, her beloved friend Vanathi, the free spirited boat girl Poonkuzhali, and a host of other interesting characters. The exhibition at the entrance adds to the appeal of the production.

E. Kumaravel takes on a task of enormous proportions. He comes out in flying colours. As before, he compresses a work of five volumes into a script so painstakingly worked that it retains all the essential elements of the original. And its spirit. Pravin takes on the herculean task, also as before, of steering the play with a comprehensive sweep. He handles the various threads deftly shifting focus smoothly from the subject of politics to romance, from conspirator to commoner without losing sight of the nuances and the totality of the action and plot.

To transfer a work which is possessively cherished by each reader - where each character is etched in one’s imagination, every line almost known by heart and each action imprinted in one’s memory - is a formidable task. Many will cavil at flaws perceived, at the gap between the imagined and what is seen on stage. But this is a monumental effort where the director takes us through the twists and turns never sacrificing clarity and cogency. It is a straight forward narration where the story is followed faithfully (though there are perforce omissions) and there is not much interpretation. But the main barrier seems to be the language. It is disturbing to see principal characters stumble over their lines. The problem of enunciation troubles many non-mainstream Tamil theatre groups and this hydra cannot be slain even here.

The set by Thota Tharrani as in the previous production is striking and grand. It is ingeniously designed with much thought and care. The massive fort walls with its ramparts and steps provide many levels of action enabling much leaping and jumping by the skilled performers. Though one misses the open air ambience of the YMCA, the sets compensate for this.

The play is team work at its best. The 75-strong cast and the supporting crew of artists and technicians work perfectly together with the entrances and exits meticulously timed and the change of scenes executed seamlessly. The actors strive to fulfil the demands of portraying the difficult roles. Srikrishna Dayal as Vanthiyathevan, the messenger from the crown prince, is played in the style of MGR very much like the previous portrayal by Jayakumar. The actor consistently displays an innate understanding of his role. He endears himself to the audience as he does to Princess Kundavai (Preethi Athreya), a regal vision in ivory and gold, dignified even in moments when she professes her love for the charming messenger. Pasupathy as Aditya Karikalan personifies the impetuousness and anger of a prince who senses trouble all around but has deeper trouble battling the fires within. Azhwarkkadiyan (Hans Kaushik) is tall and stately, but sans the impish charm of the actor of the previous production.

Meera Krishnamurti as Nandini tries her best to live up to the burden of depicting this femme fatale, a character whose beauty, angst and intelligence make her one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. But the burden is too difficult to bear and the demands of the role are not met. Her parries with the sword strike an incongruous note and could have been avoided by the director. Her costume too needs more attention. Mu. Ramaswamy puts in a felt performance as Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar. But the delivery of lines appears to be a challenge even to him. It is Hans Kaushik, however, as Azhwarkkadiyan who seems unable overcome this hurdle the most, stumbling unacceptably over his lines.

Gayathri Ramesh who plays Poonkuzhali is a mere slip of a girl but vaults and leaps with agility. The boat scene where she rows Vanthiyathevan across hardly seems to capture the mastery and skill of a daughter of the ocean who conquers the waves. Sriram who plays Arulmozhivarman has a good stage presence. Viswanathan Ramesh lives up to his role.

Uma is a calm and righteous Sembian Maadevi and her command over words impresses. Her dialogue with Maduranthakan (Ilavarasan Raja) comes off well. Kumaravel makes a wiry Ravidasan but the menace does not come through strongly. The other actors lend support – A. Lawrence (Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar, Jawahar (Sambuvarayar), R. Raju (Kodumbalur Periya Velar), Bhavani Kannan (Vanathi), Palani Murugan (Parthibendra Pallavan), Pothilingam and Devika (sutradharis), S.M. Sivakumar (Anirudha Brahmarayar), the other conspirators and of course those who act as the subjects of the Chola kingdom.

The scene of the shipwreck is evocatively choreographed. The most endearing creation among the effects is the elephant that lumbers across the stage carrying its precious cargo who clamber on to it. The lights (T. Balasaravan) add to the mystery and effectively enhance the atmosphere though sometimes they are a shade too dim. The change of sets by moving the property aids quick change of scenes but it appears strange when the bedridden king is wheeled in and out preceded by the Yali arches. The dirge at the end dilutes the impact. A jarring note is struck by the crown in the final scene as it looks like a fibre glass helmet studded with synthetic stones.

Great care and thought have been lavished on the costume for the huge cast, a mind boggling exercise, well accomplished by Preethi Athreya. Make-up by Bhanu is also good. Other important players are Paul Jacob (music), sounds (Kalai Selvan) and props (Siva). Pasupati is in charge of martial arts and choreography.

Can the production of a text so close to the collective heart of the Tamil people and their expectations be fulfilled? Many have baulked at taking on the job.

But Magic Lantern rises to the challenge once again and comes up trumps carrying the audience along on the tide of its commitment and passion. It provides a four-hour marathon of colour, action and spectacle through its stupendous efforts hopefully reaching out to even those who have not read the volumes.

A fitting tribute by the theatre group and S.S. International to the writer and his extraordinary work 60 years after it was first published in serial form in Kalki magazine.