Seated comfortably at the director's Madras Talkies' office, the actor grins sheepishly when we mention this. "Apdi lam kedaiyathu (It isn't like that)," he says grinning, "The other actors pull my leg, saying that he never scolds me. I'm just sincere, that's all."
The Viruman star admits that working with the ace filmmaker still feels like “going to university”; Karthi was an assistant director to Ratnam in 2004 (Aayutha Ezhuthu) and later starred in Kaatru Veliyidai (2017). "Nothing much has changed since then. So many decisions in my career have been influenced by Mani sir and the perspective he gives me. With him, you can always ask questions and get insights. Being on the PS sets was akin to peeking into a different lab each day, and discovering whole new worlds.”
Karthi, who was asked by the director to read the script first before finishing the Ponniyin... novel, says that his character, Vanthiyathevan, has several shades to him. "When you're acting majestic like a king, it is easy, but my character, who undergoes several moods and emotions, was tough to crack. There are five lakh versions of Vanthiyathevan in the minds of people who have read the book, and I needed to live up to their expectations."
That stems from the fact that his character, who, in a story primarily about royalty, gets to be goofy and jovial. "In historical subjects in Tamil cinema, humour is rare; it was usually left to comedians and not heroes. Balaiyaa’s histrionics as Hemanatha Bhagavathar in Thiruvilayadal were extraordinary, for instance, with Sivaji Ganesan perfectly complementing his character. With Vanthiyathevan, the challenge was how we were going to present the rich material."
He grudgingly agrees that some of his own personality comes across in Vanthiyathevan. “He smiles, flirts and cracks jokes.. We have not seen anyone like him since Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the Pirates (of the Caribbean) movies. Whereas Vikram’s Aditya Karikalan is a classic ‘man’s man’; the brave hero we traditionally see in epics. Could people still respect a character such as the one I portray? That was the biggest challenge for me, and I trusted Mani sir implicitly.”
For all the important sequences, Karthi says he would re-read that section of the book before heading for the shot. He laughs, "Mani sir would say, 'He's asking too many questions. Did he read the book and come?'"
Galloping to glory
Karthi had to learn how to run, swim and even ride a horse in heavy armour. "My armour was my second skin. Generally, I have this raasi in my career of wearing the same costume throughout the film, and that came to haunt me here too," he laughs.
It helped that he got to spend a lot of time with horses. "Ravi (Jayam Ravi) kept pulling my leg, saying that I spent more time talking to the horses than him. A horse is not like a Kinetic Honda; it does not move after you just hop on. You have to connect and vibe," he says.
Karthi initially wanted to spend time with one horse and understand its behaviour before heading for the shoot, but that was not possible due to the lockdown and pandemic restrictions. His adeptness at horse riding thanks to an earlier film (Kaashmora) helped. "We shot Ponniyin Selvan in full gallop, which means that when I'm riding a horse, I am actually riding it for 50-60 kilometres. Anand (sound engineer Anand Krishnamoorthi) once recorded a track of its breath, and it was astonishing to hear how the horse's breathing pattern matched my tense breathing."
Winning the popular vote
When the film was first announced, there were several debates on its casting choices, but almost everyone agreed that Karthi was a great choice to play Vanthiyathevan. “I was really scared initially, but what gave me confidence was that people accepted me in the role. I’ve done 25 films now, but here I was playing a character that people had imagined for so long in their minds. I spoke to a historian who told me that many people misrepresent Vanthiyathevan to be a spy or messenger — but no — he’s also a prince. He’s a royal trained in administration, politics and battle, which is why he’s Aditya Karikalan’s best friend and trusted by him. In short, he is an IAS officer without a department!”
Karthi describes his scenes with Jayaram (who plays Azhwarkadiyan Nambi) as some of the most special moments on the sets. "I've loved Jayaram since Chanakyan (1989), and later in his films with Kamal sir like Tenali and Panchathanthiram. Here, his character is supposed to be nosy and sarcastic; the way he acts even when he doesn't have dialogues is fabulous. Azhwarkadiyan Nambi is supposed to be short and fat; Jayaram is not that in real life so, he had to change his body language and hunch. We rehearsed many times on our sequences and the time spent with a senior actor like him was a learning experience."
Setting the standard for grandeur
The actor describes Kalki’s novel as “fascinating” and a rich history lesson, woven with song and poetry. “Most intriguing to me were the power dynamics detailed in the book; in those times, a king was considered the supreme leader, equivalent to a God.”
With Ponniyin Selvan, he feels lucky to have been part of a project that many big names of Tamil cinema, including MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan, dreamt of but did not execute.
"We have stayed as true to the writing as possible, but made creative choices in order to compress the extensive material into a film. How else do you present it to an audience, 90% of whom have not yet read the novel? Bringing all the story arcs together, streamlining them without confusion, and deciding which bits to enhance with visual grandeur... this is where Mani sir’s true genius lies. Also, unlike other historical fiction features, most of the film has been shot outdoors in real locations. Just like in Gladiator or the series Rome, Ponniyin Selvan will take you into the heart of the town and period it's set in."
Karthi concludes saying that his admiration for Mani Ratnam has only increased over time and repeated interactions. "He has set the standard for grandeur, aesthetics and colourin Tamil cinema," he says excitedly, "Remember the Pachai Nirame track (Alaipayuthe), which showed us how beautiful green could be? Or the classy white shirt and beige pants in Mouna Raagam; it was the same colour combination that a lot of us complained about in our school uniforms!"
Jayam Ravi sees the big picture
Dreams do come true. Ask Jayam Ravi, and he will tell you all about it.
He vividly remembers the day when he got a call from Mani Ratnam's office, seeking a meeting. "He said he was going to make Ponniyin... and as a fan of the book, I was thrilled. When he said he wanted me to do the title role (of Arunmozhi Varman, or Ponniyin Selvan), I was thrilled to bits."
Unlike several other actors in this all-star cast, this is Ravi's first collaboration with Mani Ratnam. Ravi says he keeps asking why he was chosen for this magnum opus, then tells himself that it's the result of the hard work he has put in since his debut in Jayam (2003). "When AR Rahman bagged an Oscar, it was not just for his work in that particular film alone, but recognition for his many years in films. Just like that, I see my selection as a reward for the work I've put in all these years. This project could have been done by any generation of actors, but that it was made now and that I am a big part of it is a huge blessing," says Ravi, adding that he also cherished the time he spent with actor Vikram, who is a close friend.
Everything on the sets was as real as possible, he adds. "The mise en scène, which indicates all the elements in a frame, was so apt. For instance, if there were potatoes kept in the marketplace during a scene, he (Mani Ratnam) would notice and remove them, stating that this wasn't a vegetable that flourished during that period."
Ponniyin Selvan is set to release in theatres on September 30