Ponniyan Selvan: Lyrics are ho-hum, say critics; what kept Vairamuthu out?

Vairamuthu, with his solid grasp of ancient words and an understanding of Sangam literature, may have been a better choice as lyricist for a period film like 'Ponniyan Selvan'; but, others feel the new lyricists were not given enough time

To do justice to a period film, a veteran lyricist like Vairamuthu would have been a better choice than a newcomer like famous poet Ilango Krishnan, felt critics, fans and literary figures

On July 31, the much-awaited film Ponniyin Selvan’s first single, Ponni nadhi, was released. Composed by AR Rahman, the lyrics have been written by newcomer Ilango Krishnan, a modern poet in the Tamil literary world. 

Though the song is trending the world over, a lot of criticism is building up against the makers of the film for not roping in veteran lyricist Vairamuthu, whose name repeatedly cropped up in the #MeToo movement.

Creative trio

Vairamuthu, a seven-time National Award winner for lyrics, who completed 50 years as a writer in the Tamil literary world this year, was not included in this project. Despite the fact that the creative trio of Mani Ratnam-Rahman-Vairamuthu has been among the most successful teams in Kollywood, giving Tamil cinema some of its most memorable songs.

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When Mani Ratnam announced the film adaptation of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, a majority of his fans expected Vairamuthu to weave his magic yet again, combining ancient words in a modern meter and blending them with the history of the Chola kingdom. Being a voracious reader, Vairamuthu also has a keen understanding of Sangam literature. 

However, he is conspicuously absent from the mega project. While there is no official word on why this is so, it is suspected that the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by singer Chinmayi Sripada may have led Mani Ratnam and Rahman to give him a wide berth. 

#MeToo allegations

One of the writers closely associated with Madras Talkies, on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Federal that Vairamuthu was indeed kept out of the project because of #MeToo allegations. 

Also read: Ponniyin Selvan lures all — from MGR to Kamal Haasan to Mani Ratnam

“Initially, he was in the project. But, after the production house was criticised for Vairamuthu’s involvement in the project, he was dropped. The film was almost completed and it was only during the post-production stage that Rahman started to compose for the film. Even the re-recording had not been done. Eventually, the film’s date was also announced. The delays led the production house and filmmaker to try out different lyricists and that’s how Ilango Krishnan, who has good knowledge of Tamil literature, was brought in,” explained the writer.

 Karunthel Rajesh, a screenplay writer, also said that Vairamuthu’s name in a pan-India film like Ponniyan Selvan could have sent the wrong message. “Besides playback singer Chinmayi, 18 other women have levelled allegations against him. Even Rahman’s sister Reihana was criticised for roping in Vairamuthu for a project. So, keeping him out of the Ponniyin Selvan project seems like a collective decision made by the producers, director and the composer,” added Rajesh.

The Federal tried to reach out to producers Lyca Productions and Madras Talkies for a comment but neither was available.

Similar ideas, similar words

However, Vairamuthu’s fans and some critics are disappointed that their favourite lyricist has been kept out in the cold. And, they have slammed the song Ponni nadhi for not offering anything new, either in words or in ideas or tunes.

Lenin Ernesto, a journalist and movie enthusiast, told The Federal: “People must understand that a poet is different from a lyricist. All poets cannot write good songs and all lyricists cannot pen meaningful poems. For example, actor Dhanush is a good lyricist but he cannot become a good poet. Similarly, Ilango Krishnan is a good poet, but to turn into a full-fledged lyricist, he needs to work hard. Only a handful of poets get an opportunity to work in a big film like this in their debut as a lyricist. In such a situation, poets need to utilise the chance well.”

In his view, in Ponni nadhi, Ilango has embraced the ideas of a song penned by Vairamuthu. “Consider the song Thai thindra manney from Selva Raghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan (2010). The first few lines of the song go: Nell aadiya nilam engey / Sol aadiya avai engey / Vil aadiya kalam engey / Kal aadiya silai engey. (Where the land had gone in which paddy danced / Where the court had gone in which the words danced / Where the battleground had gone in which the bow danced / Where the sculpture had gone in which the stone danced).

Ilango used a similar idea. His words are: Neer satham kettadhumey nel poothu nirkum / Uli satham kettadhumey kal poothu nirkum / Pagai satham kettadhumey vil poothu nirkum / Cholathin perumaikoora sol poothu nirkum. (When the sound of water is heard, the paddy will blossom / When the sound of chisel is heard, the stone will blossom / When the sound of enemy is heard, the bow will blossom / To tell the history of Chola, the words will blossom).

“When the story in the film is said to have taken place some 1,000 years ago, shouldn’t the lyricist use the ancient words instead of using colloquial terms?” asked Ernesto.

Also watch: All set for ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ teaser launch

Missing nativity in tunes

Talking to The Federal, poet Pithan Venkatraj said that in Aayirathil Oruvan, the composer GV Prakash, who recently won a National Award, had used instruments which gave a feel of ancient period music. But Rahman’s tunes for Ponni nadhi lack that period feel and just remind one of his earlier numbers.

“If one considers Ponni nadhi as a standalone song, there is no problem. But when it is part of a mammoth project like Ponniyin Selvan, it is natural that people expect tunes and words that resemble ancient times. It is true that the epigraphs prove the Tamil used during the later day  Chola period was not an ancient one but one more or less similar to today’s style. However, while talking about the Cholas, songs featuring ancient words will definitely do more justice. It is here that we feel the absence of lyricists like Vairamuthu,” observed Venkatraj.

People are also comparing Ponni nadhi with another career best of Vairamuthu, Narumugaye narumugaye from Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997). However, poet Uma Sakthi defended Ilango Krishnan. Sakthi said that the lyricists were ostensibly not given enough time to write their songs. It was all done at the last minute, she alleged.

“The lyricists should have been given enough time. It is sad that the current set of lyricists were brought into this project only at the last minute. Even then, Ilango Krishnan has given his best. It is not about the lines, but the tune seems a bit old. But, the composer could have added some more nativity in his tunes,” she said. 

Grasp of a magnum opus

While adapting a historical fiction like Ponniyin Selvan, it is imperative that the songs reflect the soul of the novel. It can be achieved only when the lyricists have a deep understanding of the work. With a five-volume magnum opus like Ponniyin Selvan, lyricists who are equal to the stature of Vairamuthu could have worked better, felt fans.

Sri Lanka-based entrepreneur Pirashanth Kamalanathan explained how Vairamuthu’s grasp of the novel helped the Tamil industry to create a strong female villainous character like Neelambari in the film Padayappa (1999). “Rajinikanth had wanted director Ravikumar to create a female villainous character resembling Nandhini, a character in Ponniyin Selvan. The result was Neelambari (played by Ramya Krishnan). Kalki compares Nandhini’s beauty to the moon and her character to the venomous snake,” said Kamalanathan.

While writing the lines referring to Neelambari in the song Minsaara kanna, Vairamuthu had penned these lines: Vennilavai thatti thatti seidhu veitha sirpam ondru kanden / Adhan vizhigalil vazhivadhu amuthalla visham endru kanden. (I saw a sculpture made out of the moon / But I realised that her eyes spill out not elixir but venom). “Rajini reportedly wanted Aishwarya Rai to be cast as Neelambari, which was inspired by Nandhini’s character. But now, ironically, she is playing the role of Nandhini,” he said.

However, Rajesh pointed out that Ponniyin Selvan is not an out and out historical film. It’s going to be a fantasy film like Bahubali. So Vairamuthu’s presence is not an indispensable one, Rajesh added.

Lyricist Kattalai Jaya observed that though Vairamuthu was not roped in to write the songs for Ponniyan Selvan, he could have at least been consulted while writing the screenplay. 

“Poets like Ilango Krishnan can be masters in modern Tamil literature. But, lyricists like Vairamuthu, Arivumathi, Palani Bharathi and Kabilan have a good grasp of Sangam literature. In period films like this, bringing in such seniors instead of a newcomer would have added weight,” he said.

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