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Why Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’ doesn’t disappoint fans of Kalki’s novel

There can be few complaints for zealous fans of Kalki’s novel, as Mani Ratnam’s screenplay is tight and the performances are mostly spot-on, especially Vikram’s fabulous portrayal of Aditha Karikalan’s delusional love for Nandini

October 01, 2022 04:27 pm | Updated October 02, 2022 05:05 pm IST

A still from ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’

A still from ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’

For ardent fans of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam’s PS: 1 starts with a tinge of disappointment.

The opening scene is not Vanthiyathevan on horseback looking at the Veeranam tank that looks like a sea. Instead, the movie opens with Aditha Karikalan in battle. But don’t feel let down, as the movie, on the whole, stays majorly true to the fictional history penned and serialised in Kalki magazine by Kalki Krishnamurthy in the 1950s.

While the book begins and ends with Vanthiyathevan who runs through the story, the movie’s spotlight is on the two Chola princes. It begins with Adhitha Karikalan, and after the interval, it restarts with Arulmozhi Varman, again in battle.

The movie certainly has a grandeur to it unlike the book that came through as two stories; one of a spy in love with a gorgeous and intelligent Chola princess (Kundavai), and the other of a Chola prince’s (Aditha Karikalan) vengeful and bloody romance with his young lover Nandini, from whom he was separated very early for the sake of the kingdom. 

Another let down is the introduction of Poonguzhali, the young woman who sails on a boat to Sri Lanka often from Kodiakarai and saves Arulmozhi Varman (who refers to her as “the daughter of the ocean”). Sadly, Kodiakarai and its ghosts have no place in Mani Ratnam’s narrative. Since it is a movie, the director has chosen to introduce only the main protagonists. For the book lovers though, Poonguzhali holds a special place in their hearts.

The morning of the movie’s release, my dad told me, “The casting is good; Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, Karthi as Vanthiyathevan, Trisha as Kundavai, and Aishwarya as Nandini. Even Jayaram as Alwarkadiyan, Sarathkumar and Parthiban as Pazhuvettaraiyars. Mani Ratnam has been spot-on. You need to appreciate the pain he must have taken to make the movie.” 

He was absolutely right. Jayaram and Karthi’s camaraderie and foolhardiness come alive in the movie, just like in the book. Vanthiyathevan’s first encounter with Nandini unfolds just as in the book as well; so is the cunningly-beautiful confrontation between Kundavai and Nandini.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini in the film.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini in the film.

But one character that doesn’t translate truly into celluloid from the book is that of the king Sundara Cholar (Prakash Raj). The book describes him as “the most handsome man in the world.” Kamal Haasan would have killed it. Also, in the novel he was mostly confined to his bed, ailing, troubled, lonely and suffering from his sins, but the movie fails to bring out his unbearable pain.

Mani Ratnam, though, portrays through Sarathkumar, the pain of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, an old man and a veteran of so many battles, who falls in love in with a young woman (Nandini) to become an object of ridicule. The director has captured the longings of a love-sick grand old man towards his partner, sensually and sensitively. It is as good as the book.

The screenplay is tight, tied to the main story, and the dialogues jump from the pages onto the screen. Did we miss something in the movie? The early meetings between Vanthiyathevan and Kundavai at Kudanthai Josiyar’s house, or the instance when Vanthiyathevan “kills” a stuffed crocodile by the banks of a river, can’t be forgotten by lovers of the novel. While both the movie and the book portray Vanthiyathevan as a flirt, the book reveals clearly his unwavering love and commitment to Kundavai. The movie, not so much.

But has the movie outdone the book anywhere? Maybe in portraying Aditha Karikalan’s delusional love for Nandhini, brilliantly portrayed by Vikram, except for a few close-up shots towards the end of the movie.

Vikram as Aditha Karikalan in the film.

Vikram as Aditha Karikalan in the film.

Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan is part of the cherished, collective memory of millions of Tamils in the post-independent era and therefore no one, including MGR and Kamal Haasan, dared to make it into a movie. But Mani Ratnam need not be nervous, as PS:1 has not failed fans of the book.

(This writer read the five volumes of Ponniyin Selvan non-stop as a 12-year-old in his aunt’s library during the summer of 1983)

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