Ponniyin Selvan is Coming!

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.

33 Years of Nayagan and its lasting impact!

(This post was written for the News portal The News Minute and first appeared on the 24th Oct, 2020 and it can be read here.)

I remember the episode very well. Nayagan had just released for Deepavali in October 1987. There was no pre-release hype then as it is the case for new releases nowadays. However, the poster depicting a clean shaven Kamal with a bloodied nose intrigued us. To us, it was a “Kamal” film and in those days, we invariably caught up with all Kamal films.

Three of us friends watched the film at Anand Theatre in Madras and after watching, we walked down the stairs. The usual quick post-mortem of a film after watching it was missing and the mood was sombre and reflective.  There was an adrenaline rush inside among us with chests all pumped up.

We got to the gate and hailed an auto to get back home. As was wont those days, the usual argument with the auto driver about “meterukku mela pottu kudunga” ensued. Just this time, there was a sense of belligerence in us.  We were not in a mood to succumb to the auto driver’s fleecing tactics.

Writer Balakumaran style dialogues flowed from the three of us in turns. “Niruthanum. Ithu ellathayum niruthanum. Ethukuyya meterukku mela pottu kudukkanum? Ungalaala Madras pere kettu poyiduchu!’ (Everything should be stopped. Why should we pay above the meter? It’s because of you that the name of Madras is spoilt) “Nee enna vena sollikka. Meterukku mela pottu kudutha varum, illa varaathu” (You can say whatever you want, if you don’t pay extra, the auto won’t come) said the auto driver. This ticked us off completely. We got into the auto and told him “Vandiya police stationukku ottuyya’!  Innikku oru vazhi paakaama vidarathu illa!” (Drive the auto to the police station. We have to resolve this today). Clearly, the film had awakened the sleeping Velu Nayakkar in us!

The above is a factual narration and not an imaginary story. I heard similar episodes from others too. The story of a slum dweller taking on the system and becoming a towering and benevolent don, that too in an alien land, which is what Nayagan was all about, clearly touched a raw nerve with Tamil cinema goers.  One the one side, if the character had such an impact on many of us, on the other side, the way the film was made had a huge impact on Tamil film aficionados.

Just the opening shot of a boy running with the sound of his huffing and puffing in the background blew us away. Within a few minutes we could realise that we were not watching another regular film. This was when we watched Nayagan the first time. Once back in college after Deepavali holidays, we would watch it many times over and keep talking about different aspects of the film endlessly. I guess it was not just us. I have often seen many Tamil filmmakers in the past three decades saying that Nayagan was one of the most influencing films in their lives and career. Tamil cinema, in that sense, can be divided into “Before Nayagan” and “After Nayagan” era in terms of filmmaking.

Starting from Kamal’s acting, his get-up, Mani Ratnam’s staging of scenes, PC Sreeram’s epic camera work (for which he got his first National Award), Ilaiyaraaja’s magical score, Balakumaran’s earthly writing, Thotta Tharani’s art direction, the acting by the supporting cast like Saranya, Janakaraj, Delhi Ganesh, Karthika, Naasar and others, and finally Mani Ratnam’s style of filming – it was a case of all the elements coming together impeccably with precision.  Nayagan sowed the seeds for “The Mani Ratnam film” as we see it now.

Months after Nayagan’s release, even as it ran for silver jubilee in theatres, the film kept coming back in our lives.  So, for our engineering college cultural festival, when we were thinking of a theme for our Tamil skit, we hit upon a novel idea. “What if a Nayagan like character lived amidst us in the college?” was the starting point. The next few days in the evenings extending to night we sat to write the script.  Since we had decided to base the play on the movie, we just had to plug in local issues within the movie template rather than re-invent the wheel.  We didn’t realise that we had stumbled upon the now famous Lollu Sabha format then.

Velu Nayakkar in our play was a local don in the campus. Students knocked at his doorsteps to get their college related problems “sorted” out. He helped all students but at the end could not prevent a “CUP” (which was the slang for “arrears” in our times) for his own son. That was the one line concept. We started filling in the scenes.  Campus politics, tyranny of the mess food, unfriendly and strict professors all found their way into the script.

Having fixed the flow, we got down to writing the lines paraphrasing the original film lines so that people could relate to it easily. We scanned the town to lay our hands on the audio cassette of Nayagan film soundtrack to get the lines right. Those were pre-Google times.

The skit was a resounding hit and we won the first place. Bolstered by the success, we went on to stage a few more plays but the first Nayagan experience still remains etched in our memories just like the film is, even after 33 years!

Coming back to the scrape with the auto driver, when we told him, “Vandiya police stationukku otuyya”, he turned around coolly asked, “Entha station? Ashok Nagara? K.K.Nagara?” (Which station? Ashok Nagar or KK Nagar?) We should have known that the auto driver would have also watched Nayagan a few times and was imagining himself as another Velu Bhai who was not going to take anything lying down!

Pic credit: New Indian Express

“Mauna Ragam” – A review 30 years late!

Couple of days back a friend who is equally a big fan like me of the ace director Maniratnam passed me a link of the film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s ode on Mani’s Mauna Ragam.  The piece titled “30 years of Mauna Ragam” flashed me back to 1986 when the film was released. That was during my 2nd year of Engineering when Mani Sir as he is revered now had not arrived though flashes of his brilliance could be seen in his 1st Tamil film Pagal Nilavu. Mauna Ragam had no mega star cast and got released silently without much fanfare. But then those days mega star cast or no star, we almost watched all movies which hit the theatres and contributed our bit to Kodambakkam. Since was not into writing then, didn’t write any review after watching Mauna Ragam. But we sliced and diced all films some times for days together which could have made for decent reviews. So today I am writing this piece as a review for that film Mauna Ragam, (recollecting from the many postmortem sessions we had in canteens, Railway station benches et al) Mani’s first full-fledged film (he wrote and directed) which announced to the world the arrival of a Director of class. With his next film Nayagan, Mani would go on to stamp his presence and influence on South Indian films forever.

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The narrative in the film was path breaking in many counts as far as Tamil cinema then was concerned.

  • As per me, this was the first film (at least of what I saw) which had a genuine feminist hero (Mohan) who was sensitive to the feelings of his counterpart (Revathi) almost throughout the film. Even when Revathi’s character was at her provocative best in what would seem as taunts at Mohan, he would still react in a calm, composed manner always respecting Revathi’s point of view. He takes all her requests seriously and tries to comply (including going ahead with the divorce) without trying to put forth his point of view.  In a moment of what I call that “directorial touch”, Mohan opens the rear door of his car for Revathi when they come out of the advocate’s office after filing for divorce. One could argue that even MGR was an eternal feminist in his films. But then that was of the Thaikulam (Motherly) variety.
  • For most of the film, the heroine would be shown in rather a stubborn light as one who isn’t willing to move on shrugging her past. Heroines were virtues of everything good in films then.
  • This was again one of those early movies in Tamil where the boy (Karthik) professes his love for the girl very casually in his second or third meeting without beating around the bush so much. In fact that scene when he actually does is only the first of the many scenes in all Mani’s films which establish his credentials as a King of soft romance!
  • I read in Mani’s book that the entire Karthik portion was an afterthought and it was not in his original script. I am now wondering how the film would have actually shaped up without that short but breezy portion where Karthik educated youngsters of those days on ‘pataoing’ girls with confidence.
  • It’s also one of the first films where the hero is a MBA and is a practicing HR Manager. Probably Mani pitched in his own MBA background here and weaved it into the story line effectively. (Union issues, thugs bashing up factory managers and even killing were quite prevalent in the 80’s India). On Mani’s MBA background showing up I must also mention that very memorable “Mr. Chandramouli – Coffee” scene (watch here) in the film. Karthik casually flips Revathi’s book kept on the table and asks her what the book was all about. She says “Econometrics”. A subject unheard of when I watched but which would come to haunt us as the most dreaded paper in the second year of MBA!!!
  • Some of the lines Revathi as a female character speaks early on were unheard of in Tamil films those days. Remember the scene before the first night?
  • In the climax, when the woman (Revathi) sheds her ego and communicates that she doesn’t want the divorce now, the man (Mohan) a HR practitioner who is trained to deal with human egos most of the time at the workplace, finds it difficult to shed his own ego. I thought that the disconnect one encounters between theory and practice was demonstrated very well here. Don’t know if it was intentional or could be I am reading too much.
  • And finally here was a film without any villain per se.

Revathi was super brilliant in the film. She portrays the transition from a college going happy-go-lucky girl to a serious married woman in an unfamiliar land with ease. The hero Mohan was those days called “Poor Man’s Kamal”. When a producer couldn’t afford Kamal they would resort to Mohan. He had limited histrionic skills but did well with the song sequences. And in a superstitious film industry he was considered a lucky charm. But in Mauna Ragam he did manage to emote well and with Surendran dubbing for him superbly, Mohan made his mark as an actor for the 1st time.

Apart from being a trail blazer, the other thing which worked well for Mauna Ragam was its freshness in approach. Just a few characters, set in Delhi, P.C.Sriram’s cinematography, the angles, a no “big star” cast to mention a few.

While I say it was a film with no big stars, I must add though that there was one. Which was Ilayaraja’s music. The songs and the background score integrate nicely into the film and set the mood frame after frame. In that one song – “Mandram vantha thenralukku,…” Raja ably supported by Vaali with the lyrics and S.P.Balasubramaniam with his soothing voice convey the conflict in the minds of the characters so well that you end up feeling sympathetic for both of them! That Raja is the best in the business of re-recording is now beyond dispute.  He demonstrates that in many frames in this film. One such frame is vivid in my memory. In that scene (watch hereMohan asks Revathi to make her choice between “divorce” and “life with him”. As she starts signing the divorce papers, Raja uses the oft-repeated score in marriage muhurtham scenes in Tamil movies – “Maangalyam thanthunanena,…” and that too as very coarse chorus. Nobody else could have conveyed the contradiction and the battle of the mind better!

Not that the film was flawless. I always thought that Mani struggled with comedy. And soon he realized it and jettisoned attempts in forced comedy in his later movies. In this film, the comedy track with V.K.Ramaswamy and a Sardar looked very amateurish and was avoidable. Again a girl who was carrying the ghosts of a tragic love affair in the mind is shown in the initial scenes as a very happy-go-lucky person without any trace of melancholy in her mind. Now you can understand that I am nitpicking and trying desperately to be balanced!

Frankly when we watched the film for the 1st time we were speechless. And then we watched the film again. And talked about it many times over. Why write this review 30 years later, now?? Well just to thank Mani for this and the many other classics he bestowed us.

Postscript: So, it’s 30 years of Mouna Ragam, baby!” I told the wife yesterday as she is also a fan of this film. And she quipped, “Common, in January it’s going to be just 20! You forgot that we got married in 1997???” 😃😃😃