In terms of antiquity, the chicken and egg conundrum might predate it, but the question of movies versus books is also in the same philosophical league. It’s impossible to nail a theoretically acceptable answer, while empirical explanations may be aplenty. Sometimes, it just boils down to a personal preference.
As we await Mani Ratnam’s interpretation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan to play out on the silver screen, it is but natural that this age-old question is once again dragged, kicking and screaming, into the public realm.
Ponniyin Selvan — unfairly as some fans think — was a grossly underrated epic. In truth, it was an expansive narration of Chola history that never got its due in the world. The novel dwells extensively on the conspiracy to assassinate the crown princes of Sundara Cholan, the events that followed, and the eventual succession of the second son Arulmozhi Varman, who was to achieve everlasting fame as Raja Raja Chola 1. It certainly had every reader wrapped around its five volumes in rapture.
Serialised in the Tamil magazine Kalki, the author’s seductive narrative style, the cliffhangers, the twists in plot, and the intrigue served perfectly to whet the appetite of its first readers. Subsequent generations feasted on bound volumes of Kalki’s pages, which drew them into the fascinating vortex that was Ponniyin Selvan. While a couple of attempts were made in the past to render the epic on screen — notably by MGR — none worked out until Mani Ratnam picked up the gauntlet. Incidentally, he tried unsuccessfully to make his dream project in the 90s and early 2010s.
One of the main reasons for why none of the previous projects took off could have been the sheer, daunting scale of the epic. How do you crunch five volumes and a zillion characters into three hours or less? What do you include, what do you leave out? And among the Ponniyin Selvan cognoscente — who revere every little nuance — would it not be hara-kiri to leave chunks out, because the medium cannot handle its entire scope? In their minds, the iconic characters of Vanthiyathevan, Kundavai, Nandini, Alwarkadiyaan Nambi and Arulmozhi Varman are already fleshed out by Kalki’s able illustrator Maniam. They have probably even imagined riding the horse on Veeranarayanapuram Eri, taking in the aadiperukku festivities as Vanthiyathevan did, rowing a boat across the seas to Sri Lanka, spying alongside Nambi, or standing still entranced by the beauty of the ladies!
The fact is that ever since man figured how to process film and run it on a spool, movies have been inspired by books, riding on their well-worn spines and daring to surpass the wondrous imagination of the reader itself. No doubt, the hook of the written word is fascinating, because it allows the reader to create her or his own worlds. After all, as Paulo Coelho said, “ A book is a movie running in the mind of the reader”. What a movie does is to flesh that out without leaving much to the imagination, readers find. Not that the kernel of film — as a medium by itself — does not hold within it immense possibilities; particularly of spectacle, offering the ability to see, rather than just imagine, it does.
That happens to be just what Mani Ratnam is recommending too. For those who have not read the books, his message seems to be: ‘You don’t need to worry, enjoy the movie anyway.’ Forget the book, he even told his actors, and trust the film-making process. It’s not important to have read Ponniyin Selvan to watch PS1! He looks to be advising people to treat the movie as an introduction to the wondrous world of the Cholas; allow the film to guide their journey, experience this blockbuster as they would do any other, without the baggage of what they have read or not read (If that is possible, indeed). No doubt in this avatar, the film becomes its own work of art — aligned to — but not encumbered by the book it is based on.
Quite like what the third film in the Harry Potter series was. Alfred Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was truly a work of art that was equal to or even better than the book itself; no mean feat to pull a better one off J.K. Rowling. Or for that matter, what Francis Ford Coppola did so effortlessly with Mario Puzo’s Godfather series, ably aided by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino among others. While streaming platform shows might have it easier — with their relative temporal flexibility and the ability to stretch out their tale-telling better — even these long-form adaptations have seen some diversions from the original versions in the books. Either in terms of plots, characterisations, tweaks varying the pacing, or backstories, there is an effort to ensure that the medium is exploited entirely by the message, and perhaps, vice versa.
That’s what film makers and even authors aim at, ultimately; dropping a hook to draw their audience in, holding them in awe or enchantment, rapture or shock, and allowing them to feel the catharsis that art offers. You might be a purist that still prefers a book over a film. Yet when someone dares to take on the audacious task of interpreting the modern Tamil epic Ponniyin Selvan for the screen, it’s probably something Kalki Krishnamurthy himself might have hoped to see. Let curiosity guide you... and if you are not happy, there is always the book to go back home to.