Spoiler-Free Guide to Ponniyin Selvan’s Novel Before Watching Mani Ratnam’s Epic

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Writer Kalki Krishnamurthy enjoys breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader when writing his novels. It speaks to the reader and I intend to follow the same style here. It would indeed be hard to imagine those times for someone reading this on a smartphone. The theater was the only source of entertainment, with films in India still at a nascent stage. Just scrolling through this virtual screen would sound like magic in those days. Even television had not made its debut in post-independence India. It would take another eight years for the first broadcast to take place and decades for television to become a household item. To put it simply, theater, walkie-talkies, street theater and magazines were the only modes of entertainment then.

But there is something in common between people today and people in 1951 — everyone was talking about Ponniyin Selvan. As we tweet and text about the upcoming film, readers at the time discussed the story while sitting in thinnai (sit-outs in old Tamil homes) as they played Dayakattai (dice game Tamil). They lined up in front of the book stalls in the hope of getting the new edition of Kalki. History unfolded at its own pace. It took months after the novel began appearing in Kalki magazine for the titular character to make an appearance. Every move in the story has been discussed to the hilt; those who got their hands on the magazine first also earned bragging rights.

Leave them and their FOMO in 1952 and take care of yours. If you’re here, you might have come across some snobs who have read Ponniyin Selvan’s novels and are aware of its scale and larger-than-life canvas. But it is possible to fully appreciate the film without having read the book. Maybe a few introductions would be helpful. Here it goes:

Popularity

Written between 1950 and 1954, Ponniyin Selvan’s novel has not only maintained its fame over the past seventy years, but has continued to be a bestseller. For an ancient language like Tamil, romances (Puthinam in Tamil) are a relatively modern literary form. While the form has been around for decades even before Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki’s work has made it mainstream. To draw a parallel, let’s say that although many series have been around for years, Game Of Thrones has made new series enthusiasts. The story and the books have been passed down from generation to generation. Personally, I have heard stories of how my paternal grandmother used to collect the pages of Ponniyin Selvan from Kalki magazine and bind them together as books.

Another reason for the novel’s popularity is that it was one of the Three People’s Kingdoms of the South. Cheran, Cholar and Pandiyans are called Movendar (three crowned rulers), in Tamil. When the novel started coming out, India was brimming with patriotism as it had only been about five years since independence. Naturally, a novel boasting of the country’s antiquity was celebrated.

The story

Set in the 10th century, the novel chronicles the rise of its titular character, Ponniyin Selvan, widely known as Rajaraja Chola I. He is one of the few kings to be considered the Great. It is said that the Chola kingdom was at its best during his reign between 947 CE and 1014 CE. He is popularly known for building the great Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur, the Chola capital. However, the story is not entirely based on accounts of real events. Kalki took a lot of freedom in writing historical fiction. However, he also mixed many well-documented events into the story, which requires a separate article. To put it simply, Ponniyin Selvan is not a historical book to rely on, it is a work of fiction based on real events and people. Ponniyin Selvan tells how and why Arulmozhi Varman, the second son of Sundara Cholan, succeeds him.

Premise

Sundara Cholan (Prakasha Raj in the film), the emperor of the Chola Kingdom, is bedridden with deteriorating health. He is in Thanjavur, one of the capitals of Cholas. It is difficult for anyone to see the king as he is heavily guarded by Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (Parthiban). In fact, the Pazhuvettarayar clan were feudatories in the Chola kingdom, who had a high reputation with the royal family. They were also related by blood and marriage. In the book, Pazhuvettarayars and Nandini Devi (Aishwarya Rai as wife of Periya Pazhuvettarayar) are portrayed as the antagonist, who stages a coup to prevent Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), the eldest son of Sundara Chola, from become king. Instead, they want Madhuranthagan, Karikalan’s cousin, as the next emperor. All the while, Aditha Karikalan is in Kanchipuram building a golden fort for her parents. He wants his parents to come and live with him in the fort. Thus, he sends Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan (Karthu) with two objectives. One is to go to Thanjavur and invite Sundara Cholan to Kanchipuram. He then has to go to Palaiyarai (another Cholas capital) and meet Aditha Karikalan’s sister, Kundhavai aka Ilaya Pirattiyar (Trisha) and give her a secret message. Ponniyin Selvan’s novel is mainly Vandhiyathevan’s journey.

When he completes one mission, another finds him. Now you may ask, what about the titular character Ponniyin Selvan aka Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi)? While Aditha Karikalan is north of Thanjavur, Arulmozhi is in Eelam (Sri Lanka), deep south beyond the ocean. He is sent by his father to capture Eelam. With all the key players away from the capital, the Chola Kingdom faces the threat of its mortal enemies – Pandyas, who have infiltrated the Chola Kingdom. Thus, the war here does not take place on the battlefield. Enemies come from within.

What to expect from the Ponniyin Selvan movies

It’s more about what not to expect from Ponniyin Selvan’s films. Ever since the film was announced, people from all walks of life have compared it to SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus, Baahubali. Even Subhaskaran, the producer of the film Lyca asked Mani Ratnam if PS would be similar to the Telugu blockbuster. The answer is no. Although PS and Baahubali are about the fight for the throne – like all other sword and sandal films – Mani Ratnam’s film will be more about the characters and less about the war. To put it simply, Ponniyin Selvan will be a story-driven film with character arcs and dialogue taking center stage. Unlike Baahubali, there is very little room for a blown war sequence. However, Ponniyin Selvan is more or less a suspense story. The mystery around Nandini Devi is what keeps the story going. On top of that, there will be no shortage of ‘theater moments’. From introducing Arulmozhi Varman to meeting Kundhavai-Vallavaran, the novel boasts of heroic and elevated moments. I ask readers to pay special attention to Devaralan Aattam’s song, which will be both a visual and aural delight.

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