Down memory lane: When Mani Ratnam and G Venkateswaran wanted to make ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ in 1989

In March 1989, Mani Ratnam and his late brother and producer G Venkateswaran spoke to The Hindu about making the film adaptation of Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’ and the financial challenges it posed

Updated - April 20, 2023 04:04 pm IST

Published - April 19, 2023 04:56 pm IST

Director Mani Ratnam, clicked in February 1996

Director Mani Ratnam, clicked in February 1996 | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan 2, featuring an all-star cast and produced by Lyca Productions, is gearing up for release in less than a week. The first film, released in September last year, turned out to be one of the highest-grossing films in India.

But what many don’t know is that in 1989 — when Mani Ratnam first dreamed of making a film adaptation of Kalki’s novel — the financial challenges it posed were so enormous, that late film producer and Mani’s brother G Venkateswaran had a rather interesting solution to cover the cost; to collect five rupees from those interested in promoting the film and giving them a free seat for a screening wherever they lived.

WATCH: Mani Ratnam: ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ offered huge scope to me as a filmmaker

Speaking to The Hindu’s S Shiva Kumar in March 1989, producers M Saravanan and Venkateswaran, producer-directors Muktha Srinivasan and S Thanu, and director Mani Ratnam shared their views on the then-growing apprehension that Tamil cinema producers had in making high-budget extravaganzas. They covered a variety of points, like what defined an ‘extravaganza,’ the star value of Rajinikanth and T Rajendar, the importance of stars in mounting and selling a project, why Srinivasan had to sell the negative rights of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakanto G Venkateswaran a week before its release, and more.

‘Playing it safe’: The news report published by The Hindu on 24-03-1989

‘Playing it safe’: The news report published by The Hindu on 24-03-1989 | Photo Credit: S Shiva Kumar/The Hindu

During the conversation, Mani Ratnam and G Venkateswaran spilled the beans on their dream of making Ponniyin Selvan. It was Nayakan hero Kamal Haasan (Mani’s Nayakan came out two years prior to this) who shared his desire to make a costume drama, to which Mani suggested Kalki’s epic novel. A budget was then worked out, with its feasibility being calculated, as stated in the report, but there was little noise about the same since the announcement.

Mani Ratnam assured that the project had not dropped, and said, “Ponniyin Selvan is a very big film and I hope I will be able to do it sometime. But you have got to do a project only if the market can bear it. There is a hesitation to go straightway into it because it is really an extravaganza like Chandralekha. If we touch it, the project has to be done well which means a lot of money. So whether the Tamil market can afford it is what we are looking at.”

‘Playing it safe’: The news report published by The Hindu on 24-03-1989

‘Playing it safe’: The news report published by The Hindu on 24-03-1989 | Photo Credit: S Shiva Kumar/The Hindu

And Venkateswaran, who was prepared to produce the film, had a novel idea to cover the marketing costs of the film. “I would collect five rupees from each person interested in promoting the film; then, I would try to collect Rs 5 crores, and give them one seat free to watch the film wherever they were from.”

“Anything the film collected more than this would be donated to the Tamil University in Thanjavur,” he further added. When asked if the film viewer of 1989 would still be interested in watching costume dramas, Venkateswaran pointed out the success of television shows such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. “It is not as if people have lost the taste for costume dramas. You must have guts to make one,” he was quoted as saying.

Mani Ratnam gives directions to Kamal Haasan while directing a scene from ‘Nayakan”

Mani Ratnam gives directions to Kamal Haasan while directing a scene from ‘Nayakan” | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mani Ratnam, on the other hand, always seemed passionate about bringing the world of Ponniyin Selvan to life on the silver screen. “It is the paciest adventure story I have read. It has romance, adventure, intrigue, everything. It is a terrific yarn and I think it is right up what I would like to do.”

Mani Ratnam clicked in April 2000

Mani Ratnam clicked in April 2000 | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES  

When asked if he would stick to the old-school filmmaking techniques, like the cardboard sets that were previously used for period film settings, Mani said, “I have to really look into that; I don’t know what I will come up with, but I am sure it is possible to balance the whole thing out. It is not necessary we do it in an old-fashioned way; there is something totally artificial about them. Probably we will do it on location... we will have dirt and dust and wind and rain.”

And now, after 34 years, Mani is finally making his dreams come true, and Tamil cinema is no longer apprehensive about making big-budget epics. Why would it be, when we have always had a fearless maverick in Mani Ratnam?

ALSO READ: Mani Ratnam: ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ will shine more than the first film; that was just an introduction

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