From novels to the big screen: Why Tamil film makers are drawn to literary texts

From Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan to Perumal Murugan’s Varugari, literary works have long been adapted into films, a trend now facilitated by OTT platforms and film makers with fresh ideas

Akila Kannadasan
July 07, 2022 17:06 IST


Actor Aishwarya Rai in a still from Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Why do we live so far away from everyone in the village, thatha? Walk faster, I don’t want to be late for school.”


The conversation unfolds between a grandfather, who is a basket-weaver, and his grandson when the former walks him to school. This is the opening scene in Tamil film Seththumaan, and shows the two walking alone in the sun in an arid landscape.

“Let this end with me, this state in which we have to live separately from the village,” the grandfather says. “Study well; when you grow up, become an officer. You will be given a car, a bungalow, an army of helpers. Even if a pin falls from your desk, a helper would come running to pick it up for you.” 

A still from ‘Seththumaan‘ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The conversation speaks volumes about a man who has been oppressed for generations. It sets the mood for the film — the writing has depth, and an understanding of the landscape and its people. This can be credited to writer Perumal Murugan: the film, directed by debutant Thamizh, is based on the writer’s short story Varugari.


“The story had the scope to be developed into a film,” says Perumal Murugan, who has also written the screenplay. The Namakkal-based writer says he enjoyed the process. “I like attempting various creative forms, and it was an experience working in the cinema medium,” he says.

Author Perumal Murugan | Photo Credit: SUDERSHAN V

The trend of literary works being adapted to the big screen is not new in Tamil cinema. But it is more pronounced now, thanks to a slew of directors picking up works of celebrated writers.

One such is Mani Ratnam, who is making Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan in two parts, with a multi-star cast. Elango Kumaravel, who has written the film’s screenplay, first adapted the novel for the stage, and has done over 45 shows with a cast comprising 80 people. “On screen, everything is big,” he says. “As it features several leading actors, there is focus on giving each of them screen time,” he says. This involves taking some creative liberties. “For instance, a character might appear at a later stage in the novel, but we would have introduced it sooner in the film,” he adds.

But there is one aspect that is crucial to the process. “The writer would’ve given the story a key image,” says Kumaravel. “We must identify it and ensure it is maintained in the film. Also, every character must complete its arc as it does in the novel. Only then will the work retain the original’s jeevan (life) and the adaptation will be complete.”

Writer Rajesh Kumar | Photo Credit: SIVA SARAVANAN S

Crime writer Rajesh Kumar is used to people from the film industry knocking on the doors of his Coimbatore home for story ideas. His novels, a potent mix of crime, fantasy, and mystery, are tailor-made for cinema. “The writer and director should travel together in order to make a successful film,” he feels, adding that he is open for working with dedicated film makers such as Arivazhagan Venkatachalam, who directed the 2017 action thriller Kuttram 23 based on his novel. “We will soon get together for a new film,” says the 71-year-old, adding, “I am also on talks with an OTT platform for a project based on one of my novels.“

Film historian Theodore Baskaran points out that Tamil cinema has had literary adaptations even as early as the 1930s. “ Anaadhai Penn, that was released in 1938, was based on writer Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal’s story,” he says. “Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Kalvanin Kadhali was made into a film; Uchi Veyil by writer Indira Parthasarathy was made into Marupakkam. Writer Jayakanthan even directed a film based on his own work titled Unnaipol Oruvan.”

The list includes works by masters such as Ashokamitran, Pudhumaipithan, and Akilan. Baskaran points out, “The two, however, are completely different media in nature and possibility. We cannot compare them.” He adds: “When a filmmaker makes a film based on a literary work, he already has a work of art in his hands: the novel.” He/she can stick to the novel, or interpret it their way.

The important question, Baskaran feels, is, “How is one going to show it visually?” He picks Mathilugal, a Malayalam film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan based on Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s short story, as an example. “In the story, the writer says that the protagonist could smell the fragrance of a woman on the other side of a wall. How does one show this in a film? Adoor does so by adding a peal of feminine laughter in the scene.”

Most of director Vetrimaaran’s films are adaptations of literary works: Visaranai (based on Lock Up by M Chandrakumar), Asuran (based on Vekkai by Poomani), his work-in-progress Vaadivaasal (based on a novel of the same name by C S Chellappa). Literary texts, for the filmmaker, “Start off a journey where I am seeking further.”

Film maker Vetrimaaran | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K

An avid reader, he says that he does not go in search of a book for inspiration. “I bookmark texts when I read them, thinking that I can go back and make it into a film when the time comes.” B Jeyamohan’s Thunaivan is one such. The writer suggested the short story to him when Vetrimaaran approached him to talk about adapting another of his novels. “He felt it resonated more with the kind of stories I was planning to set up, so I have started working on it.” The film is reported to feature actor Soori in the lead.

Vetrimaaran attributes this trend to the rise of OTT platforms. “They function in a set up similar to Hollywood in which an existing text adds credibility when a filmmaker pitches it.” Another reason is that, “Film makers have become bolder; they have more freedom. They are not compelled to include a love story in their films or insert five songs in them.”

Vetrimaaran, however, does like to write his own scripts. “But when a writer’s work is more compelling, I pick it. For he has done all the ground work and research. When we choose their work, we take a short cut into years of hard work. This is the biggest gift they can give a script writer.”

Does the novel weigh down the film maker, making him feel more responsible? “Not necessarily,“ says Vetrimaaran. “It depends on the kind of film you make. I have heard that Alfred Hitchcock, who has adapted several novels, would jokingly say that he would buy a book, simply read its blurb, and let it go at that,” he laughs.

Take note
Upcoming Silambarasan starrer Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu is based on B Jeyamohan’s Agni Kunjondru Kanden
Flat no 144, Adhira Apartments by Rajesh Kumar is being pitched to OTT platforms
Director Vasanth’s next is based on a leading Tamil writer’s novel, which is under wraps for now
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