In Tamil cinema, if there is one film that has created genuine unprecedented expectations in recent times, it must be Ponniyin Selvan (PS), the Tamil epic originally written by Kalki Krishnamurthy and being brought to the big screen by none other than Mani Ratnam. I say genuine expectations because there are films where expectations and hype are whipped up by fan clubs, social media warriors and PR machinery. The reasons for the buzz around PS are understandable with the expectations coming from many quarters.
First, there are those who followed PS on a weekly basis when it came as a serial novel in the Kalki magazine in the 50’s. This generation would be all senior and Super senior citizens now like my parents but yet have fond memories of the novel. In the absence of other media like now, this whole generation waited with bated breath every week for four years to read the twists and turns in the Kalki story. Their health permitting, they would like to watch the film to brush up on those memories and see how the novel has been transformed on the big screen.
The second group of people are those who didn’t or couldn’t read PS when it came in Kalki but have heard a lot about PS later from many quarters. Subsequently, they made it a point to read the book once or a few times. This group is the one that is in judgemental mood now and would like to see if Mani Ratnam has been able to do justice to the novel. If I may add, the starting point for this group is “How can anyone, leave alone Mani Ratnam turn Ponniyin Selvan into a film?”
Then there is this group like me which belongs to the same generation as the second but hasn’t read the novel or read partially. For this group, there are no book markers and so the expectations are being shaped by the buzz the film version has generated and would like to see what is this hype over Ponniyin Selvan story itself.
Then finally we have a very large group of cinephiles and in that those who are fans of Mani Ratnam as a filmmaker and probably fans of some of the cast who anyway want to watch this film.
So, this kind of multi-dimensional expectation is a rarity for films in general as mostly the expectations are shaped by the filmmaker or the stars involved in the film or at most the subject if it is interesting. That’s why I began by saying that the expectations from PS are unprecedented and at a super high level.
At another level, the expectations around PS have also been heightened due to the many folklores associated with the film. Like how MGR wanted to make the film in his heydays and bought the rights for the same but couldn’t. Like how Kamal Haasan had intended to make the film but had to drop the idea for many reasons. Like how Rajinikanth who was so impressed with the book, wanted the Neelambari character in Padayappa to be similar to the Nandini character in PS. Like how Mani himself had planned before but couldn’t put together the project then.
In my opinion, if Mani could pull off the project now, he must thank the ace filmmaker S.S.Rajamouli for the same. The success of Baahubali which came in two parts in 2015 and 2017 is what opened the doors or rather eyes and minds of many filmmakers to dream big of mega-budget projects even in regional languages and make a success of it. Incidentally, the story of Baahubali is loosely adapted from Ponniyin Selvan with its palace intrigues, royal family rivalry, love interests et al.
With this kind of background, it is not surprising that those who got the opportunity to be a part of Mani’s Ponniyin Selvan mega project are overwhelmed while those who are not, are feeling a sense of losing out. We heard that Superstar Rajinikanth himself volunteered to be part of the cast of PS even if the role was a minor one. However, director Mani Ratnam did not take that bait and rightly so. If Rajini was part of the cast, the whole narrative of the film would have been that of a “Superstar” film. Presently the film has a huge star cast with some big names like Vikram, Karthi, Prabhu, Aishwarya, Trisha, etc… but none as big as Rajini or Vijay or Kamal to make it “their” film. The narrative continues to stay firmly about the film and its maker.
Usually, the producers deploy a few marketing ideas to promote the film. But I noticed that the makers of Ponniyin Selvan apart from the usual ideas have come up with a few new ideas as well. The release of context videos of that Chola era to create awareness about the setting, I thought was a novel idea. Also, I see that most of the stars in the cast have changed their Twitter handles to their Ponniyin Selvan character names. Getting under the skin of the characters has taken a different dimension totally.
While on marketing, the Ponniyin Selvan buzz has spun off its own commerce. Like the launch of a card game based on Ponniyin Selvan which is a World’s first it seems. Like the idea of “Follow the Ponniyin Selvan” trail launched by Tamil Nadu Tourism with an idea to explore the historical sites where major events in the novel take place. Like coming up with a video that narrates the Ponniyin Selvan story in about one hour by Youtuber Ungal Anban Hemanth which in fact is close to getting 1 million views as I write this. Like releasing the audio version of the English version of Ponniyin Selvan to cash in on the buzz.
With just exactly 5 days for the film to hit the big screens, I am certain that the film will get a huge opening in Tamil Nadu and probably Southern States. Thanks to the large Tamil NRI population, it will draw a good opening abroad as well. I am still not sure if it will be seen as a Pan-Indian film and will draw the non-Tamil speaking crowd to watch the film in the Hindi heartland. For that to happen, the word-of-mouth feedback in the initial week needs to be strong just like it was for Baahubali -1. A good response to the first part will automatically bring the crowds to the second part.
At a time when there is a huge debate around people coming to theatres to watch a film Vs watching on OTT, the high-interest Ponniyin Selvan has triggered says something. That there is a type of content for which the audience will still come to the theatres. Ponniyin Selvan is coming and by this time next week, we will know what shape Mani Ratnam, the master craftsman has given to the epic. I for one am eagerly looking forward and I look forward to writing my flash review of it.
Postscript: In 2021, Rajinikanth’s daughter Soundarya announced a web series on Ponniyin Selvan. Wonder what’s happening to it now.