For almost thirty years, filmmaker Mani Ratnam wanted to adapt Kalki’s classic Ponniyin Selvan novel to the big screen. He initially wanted to collaborate with Kamal Haasan. Later, in the early 2010s, he planned it as a multi-starrer with Vijay, Mahesh Babu, and Vikram.
However, the project was finally destined to go on the floors only in 2019 with Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Vikram, Trisha, Aishwarya Rai and Jayaram along with an ensemble of other actors.
The first part of the film is all set to release on September 30 in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.
Ponniyin Selvan‘s cast and crew, who are currently meeting the media across major cities in India, spoke to The Federal at a five-star hotel in Chennai. The cast shared a few deets with us on the making of this eagerly-awaited period magnum opus. Mani Ratnam spoke of how Ponniyan Selvan is a perfect fit for the big screen and how this is the right time for the film to be made and on other matters related to his passion project.
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Recognised as a trailblazer for making pan-Indian films even back in the 1980, for boldly tackling subjects like terrorism in Kashmir and the troubling Sri Lankan issue, for tapping into the Mahabharata to create melodramatic gangster movies and for his unmatched portrayal of young love, Mani Ratnam remains matchless.
In the interview with The Federal, Mani Ratnam was his usual affable self. Seemingly unperturbed on the eve of the release of his ambitious and expensive project, the filmmaker said at the outset that Ponniyin Selvan is a spectacle that has to be experienced on the big screens in cinema halls.
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“When I read the novel in my school days, I imagined it only as a big screen spectacle. It has been my dream for a long time to make the characters of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan speak and emote on the big screen. In the future, some filmmakers might make a long format web series based on the novel. But for me, Ponniyin Selvan is always meant to be watched and experienced on the big screen in theatres,” asserted Mani Ratnam.
Over the years, several filmmakers adapted the characters of Ponniyin Selvan in their contemporary films. For example, Ramya Krishnan’s Neelambari from Rajinikanth’s Padayappa was based on Nandhini (played by Aishwarya Rai in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan) from the novel. When asked whether Mani Ratnam used any characters or elements of the novel in his previous films, he replied, “Well, Shobana’s character in the Sundari Kannal song from Thalapathi is based on Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi plays the role in Ponniyin Selvan). That song is like a trailer for Ponniyin Selvan.”
Mani Ratnam does not shy away from giving credit to SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali for paving the way for historical and period films. “Though Ponniyin Selvan is fiction, most of the characters were real people. So, we wanted to make the film as real as possible,” explained the filmmaker. Also, on using classical Tamil in the film, he shares that the writer Jeyamohan had simplified the lines, making it easy for people to understand.
The right time for the film
Mani Ratnam revealed that he has completed the shooting of part 1 and 2 of Ponniyan Selvan. “The second part of Ponniyin Selvan will be out after six to nine months of the release of the first part. Only the VFX and post-production work is pending for part 2,” he said.
Many actors like MGR have tried to make Ponniyin Selvan but with no luck. But, Mani Ratnam feels that this is the right time for the film. “Thirty years ago, we would’ve scouted locations without electricity lines and lamp posts. But, thanks to VFX and the ability to construct grand sets, things have become easier. Also, in those days (the late 1980s up to 2010s), we did not have the mindset to watch films in two parts. But, Baahubali set off the trend and people got used to watching films in two parts,” he said.
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Why Mani Ratnam said no to Rajini
Recently, at the audio launch of Ponniyin Selvan, Rajinikanth had revealed that he had voluntarily asked Mani Ratnam to cast him as Periya Pazhuvettarayar but the director had politely declined.
“I don’t want to get into any trouble with Rajini’s fans. If he comes on board, I have to change the script. Kalki’s fans will come after me if I modify the script for Rajini,” quipped Mani Ratnam, who once had a bomb flung at his home for showing a Hindu-Muslim romance in his blockbuster Bombay.
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On casting Aishwarya Rai as Nandhini, Mani Ratnam explained that when he wanted to make Ponniyin Selvan in 2011, the actor was his first option to play Nandhini. “Again, in 2022, she was the only option. But in the late 1980s, I had (Bollywood actor) Rekha in mind for Nandhini,” he admitted with a grin.
Karthi on comparison with Baahubali
Actor Karthi, who plays Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, a commander of the Chola army, said in a chat, “People have been comparing Ponniyin Selvan with other period films. Mani sir has shot the film at real historical sites. He did use VFX and CG but mostly wanted to make a realistic period film.”
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He further said: “I believe that Ponniyin Selvan has the potential to score big at the box-office but, as a team, we don’t want to get into the box-office game, it’s the business of the trade analyst. We all know that Ponniyin Selvan is a dream for so many filmmakers for almost seventy years and even the readers want to watch the characters come alive on the big screen. As a team, we are super proud of the fact that we have fulfilled the dreams of many,” added Karthi, who feels that Mani Ratnam has always delivered ‘benchmark films’ and Ponniyin Selvan will join that illustrious list.
According to Karthi, many legendary actors wanted to play Vandhiyathevan. All he did was to listen to Mani sir’s words and instructions, he said. “The first few days were difficult but I slowly got into the mood of the character,” revealed Karthi about playing a key role in the film.
For him, both Mani Ratnam and Ravi Varman (the cinematographer) are the ‘biggest inspirations’. “Ravi sir would carry the heavy-weight camera and walk from one set to the other immediately. They made sure that we stayed energetic and focused,” he recalled.
On horses and the elephants in the film
“Ravi (Jayam) and I used to say if not for us, people would definitely watch the film for the horses and elephants because rarely do we get to see films with so many animals on the big screen,” said Karthi.
The crew had to travel with several horses and, because of COVID restrictions, they could not transport the horses to multiple locations. “Horse is a herd animal, if it has to travel solo, the rider must be trustworthy. In one of the scenes, the horse was uncontrollable and it unseated the trainer. But, as the light was dimming, I had to finish the scene quickly. At the end of the scene, I did fall down but thankfully landed safely,” recounted Karthi.
Jayam Ravi, who is essaying the role of Arunmozhi Varman aka Raja Raja Cholan, Prince of the Chola dynasty added: “I had to shoot with an elephant, it’s a sweet animal.” But, his biggest challenge was not having a rope to climb up onto the elephant.” Luckily, he did not fall and things went smoothly. “I was lucky,” observed Ravi with a grin.
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On playing Raja Raja Cholan
The actors seem to have left it all to ‘Mani sir’.
“Mani sir told me in the first meeting to not get pressured. He explained how Ponniyin Selvan would sit, emote, and walk. I just had to understand the character and do what he says on the sets,” explained Ravi.
For the actors Mani Ratnam was the inspiration behind shooting the physically demanding war scenes. “After finishing one scene, Mani sir would immediately walk briskly to another location. We had to run behind him many times. At his age, he is very active and motivates others,” said Ravi.
Trisha on playing Kundhavai
Trisha shared that people ask her often whether Kundhavai will turn out to be an iconic character like Janu from her film, 96, and Jessie from Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya.
“To be honest, when I played those characters, I never knew it would pick up such a cult fan following. As of now, I believe Kundhavai is a very special and bold character. Thanks to Mani sir’s detailed explanation of the character and six months of rehearsals, I enjoyed playing her,” said the actor.
Make-up is not just for girls
Generally, people assume that actresses take more time to appear on the sets because they have to wear makeup, hairstyle, jewellery, etc. On the Ponniyan Selvan sets, the male actors took more time. “Jayam Ravi’s wife Aarthi used to tell me that he is using all her shampoo bottles to maintain his long hair,” said Trisha with a laugh.
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“If I came at around 2.30 am to the sets, Karthi and Jayam Ravi would come 10-20 minutes later,” she added. “Thanks to the heavy ornaments and an elaborate hair bun, I only drank water with a straw. It was difficult but the talented technicians and performers made the process enjoyable,” she said.
On working with Aishwarya Rai, she confessed, “Ash and I got along so well on the sets. But in the film, our characters are poles apart. On seeing how well we got along, Mani sir asked us to stay away from each other and not crack jokes on the sets. He made sure all of us stayed in the mood of our characters,” said Trisha.
(Vikram and Aishwarya Rai were not present during this interview session, they play Aditya Karikalan and Nandhini respectively.)