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The work, in brief
Continues to captivate in 2018
A five-volume, Chola-period romance written in the 1950s has young readers hooked
One summer, when my cousin was in college in Chennai, she wandered into a bookstore and found an English translation of The First Flood, the first book in the five-volume Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan (Darling of Ponni). She took it home, started reading, and didn’t put it down until she had finished. Desperate to know what happens next but also broke, she returned to the store pretending there was a mix-up: she had really intended to buy the second volume. She pulled off this trick once more before her outraged mother intervened.
The incident says a little about my cousin — resourceful or shameless? — and a lot about the hook of that book. A sprawling historical romance set in the Chola period, full of tongue-twisting names, quotations from classical Tamil poems, and asides on religion and history, Ponniyin Selvan is not your standard summer bestseller. Yet even in translation, the story by prolific Tamil writer ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy is as engrossing and popular as it was when first published more than 60 years ago.
How popular? When Kalki first wrote the story in serialised form in the early 1950s, the illustrated tale singlehandedly boosted the readership of his eponymous weekly magazine. The epic has since been re-serialised three more times. The five-volume book version was bought by every circulating library, then photocopied and bound by borrowers. In recent decades, English translations have taken the book to non-Tamil-reading generations, especially in the diaspora (some of whom set Quora on fire with questions like “Is Game of Thrones inspired by Ponniyin Selvan?”).
Adaptations keep coming. A graphic novel series by Nila Comics was launched last year and a web series is under production. Plays have been staged, most spectacularly by Chennai troupe, The Magic Lantern. Only a movie remains elusive: M G Ramachandran, Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam have all tried.
That film would have ardent viewers, or critics, across generations. K Jayalaxmi, 77, first encountered the story as a young woman, reading the weekly instalment out to neighbours as they washed the dishes. She was instantly entranced, she says. “Kalki has a way of taking you right there to that time and place.” Twenty-something Kalaiyarasen read his uncle’s copy one summer, then decided to retrace the hero’s journey from Veeranam Lake to Thanjavur on a college road trip. “I wanted to see what those places were like,” he says. He now organises weekend tours for fans, an experience he suggests can be eye-opening. In the book, for instance, the Cauvery is often in marvellous spate but his recent trips have found the Chola-made lakes to be bone-dry.
Historical setting has much to do with the novel’s popularity. Translator and historian A R Venkatachalapathy says Kalki was among the first to write historical novels in Tamil, readable, family-friendly stories that were not set in a fantasy land but in a concrete place and time. Kalki’s research, mining historian Nilakanta Sastri’s new work on South Indian history and travelling the length of the Chola empire right up to Sri Lanka, is part of the book’s lore. His ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham’ is a better novel, Venkatachalapathy notes, but “the Chola period has more purchase than the Pallava”.
Ponniyin Selvan is a paean to the Cholas, and the river that nourished the delta kingdom. The Cauvery — the Ponni of the title — is described as a young bride rushing to her husband, its tributaries a hundred reaching arms. The picaresque hero, the warrior Vandhiyathevan, navigates a landscape of fertile fields, prosperous temple towns, and marching armies. It’s the period before the ascension of Rajaraja Chola I. There are palace plots and romances, storms and omens, scar-crossed warriors and beautiful women of both kinds. There is even a comic trickster figure, a Vaishnavite who brawls with every passing Shaivite and the odd Vedantist.
These characters stay with you even as the story taps into a deep cultural pride, says Pritham K Chakravarthy, translator of Blaft’s anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction. “Today, I tend to question some of the depictions but I don’t really want to,” she says. Another key to the novel’s staying power: the story is left open-ended, allowing the reader to imagine what happens afterwards. “There are also things in the story that you don’t understand as a child,” she says. “So your understanding of the story changes at different stages in your life.”
Venkatachalapathy believes that Kalki, a prodigious writer, would have been disappointed to be remembered mainly for his historical novels. Popular fiction can be gateways into a literature but he often meets people who have not ventured beyond Kalki’s romances. “Ponniyin Selvan is unfortunately the sum total of their reading in Tamil,” he says. Nevertheless, he adds, “a young person who has not read Ponniyin Selvan has missed out on something.”
The book vis-à-vis the film
Writers seldom like the adaptations of their works. Stephen King hated Shining, Ken Kesey refused to even watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Winston Groom didn’t see eye-to-eye with the team that made Forrest Gump. Even Tamil writer Sujatha hated the film adaptations of his novels and has been vocal about it in his writing. We can’t be sure whether Kalki Krishnamoorthy would have liked Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, but it is evident some ardent fans of the novel series have issues. Social media is teeming with criticism against the filmmaker for taking creative liberty with the epic work and for changing some of the core plot points of the film.
If you haven’t read the novel and wondering why some sections are miffed with the ace filmmaker, here are some of the bold deviations from the book.
Missing Kodikarai and underrepresentation of Poonguzhali aka Samudhra Kumari (Queen of Ocean)
It’s a criticism Mani has been facing since the first part. In the books, Kalki spent a lot of pages on Kodikarai and the adventures of Vandhiyathevan with the enigmatic Poonguzhali, who is cynical and disrespectful at the same time. She is called Samudhra Kumari due to her navigation skills and the ease with which she sails through the ocean. It is hinted that there was a romantic encounter between Samudhra Kumari and Ponniyin Selvan in the books. However, Mani Ratnam reduced her to an insignificant character making a meagre impact in the story. On the other hand, even Kalki didn’t pursue the romantic angle between Ponniyin Selvan and Samudhra Kumari–one of the many inconsistencies in the novel.
Mani’s film sans Manimegalai
Manimegalai is the princess of Kadambur Fort, who falls in love with Vallavarayan Vandhiyathevan in the books. She plays a key role in the novel, and tries to take the blame for killing Aditya Karikalan when Vandhiyathevan is accused of killing the Chola prince. She is also one of the saddest characters in the book, who loves Vallavarayan unconditionally. After suffering the pain of unrequited love, Manimegalai breathes her last in the arms of her love. Kalki says Vandhiyathevan will not be the same anymore. The writer claims that the Vanar warrior’s joy, humour, and glee all died along with Manimegalai.
However, the saddest character in Ponniyin Selvan is of course the scheming Nandini. Her origin remains a mystery in the novel. Her relationship with Veerapandiyan is never clarified. Kalki sometimes makes them a couple, and it is also said that she could be his daughter. Her end is far more mysterious. The character just rides away from the Chola kingdom, and it is not revealed what becomes of her. On the other hand, Mani Ratnam is pretty straightforward and claims Nandini is the daughter of Veerpandiyan. In the film, it is hinted that she takes her life by drowning in the river, but it also seems to be a bit open-ended.
Aditya Karikalan’s death
Though historical evidence suggests that Aditya Karikalan was killed by three Pandians — Ravidasan, Soman, and Parameswaran, Kalki handled the death of Karikalan with caution. The novel doesn’t reveal who stabbed Karikalan, leaving many suspects. It is unclear why Kalki had to resort to such an ambiguous depiction of the portion when history seems to have some answers. Mani Ratnam doesn’t seem to have stuck to historical facts, choosing poetic justice instead as Karikalan dies at the hands of Nandini.
The real Madhurandhagan in the book
Finally, the elephant in the room. The biggest problem readers have with Mani Ratnam is the way he dealt with the identity of Madhurandhagan. In the books, the real Madhurandhagan is Sendhen Amudhan (Ashwin Kakkamannu)! The flower seller outside the Thanjur fort becomes the king of the Chola kingdom and takes up the name Uttama Cholan. Kalki reveals that Nandini and the ‘old’ Mandhurandhagan are twins born to Oomai Rani. At birth, Sendhen Amudhan, the son of Sembiyan Mahadevi (Jaya Chitra in the film), is replaced by Nandini’s twin brother. He is brought up as a Shiva bhakt by Sembiyan Mahadevi to prevent him from becoming the king as she knows a Pandiyan should not get the Chola crown. However, Mani Ratnam got rid of the confusion because it would be too late in the game to unravel another subplot in the film. While it sat well in the books, the movie medium doesn’t allow the liberty for such a U-turn at the tail end of the story.
Ponniyin Selvan is also a work of fiction and nothing is written on a stone tablet. Even the novel series is inconsistent with the arc of many of the characters, like the romance between Poonguzhali and Ponniyin Selvan is abandoned and she ends up becoming his sister-in-law after marrying Utthama Cholan. One has to note that Kalki wrote the novel in the course of about four to five years, and had to resort to storylines that brought in more readers. Writer Jeyamohan, who wrote the screenplay of Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan films, noted how Kalki was forced to come up with the whole Madhurandhagan sub-plot to keep the novel going for a while.
Stories are like Chinese whispers — they change with time and evolve; they often get distorted. However, what’s important is that we keep telling them no matter what. Just the fact that a seven-decade-old novel has been retold with such an effort and budget is a beautiful story in itself, the shortcomings notwithstanding.