Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki’s epic novel that eluded film-makers for decades

Ponniyin Selvan, the masterpiece of genius Tamil writer Kalki, has charmed thousands in Tamil Nadu and across the world. The book that follows the story of the Chola king Raja Raja Cholan and his friend Vandhiyadevan transpires in Chola’s capital Thanjavur, yesteryear Thanjai. Spanning five volumes, it pulls the audience into the web of political turmoil and forbidden love, making it one of the best historical fiction I have read till date.

The novel series, published in five parts in the late 1950s, attracted many a directors and producers who wanted to bring it life on-screen. But it never materialised for many reasons. Condensing 2500 odd pages of historical novel Ponniyin Selvan spread across five parts into 3.5 hours movie with the additional challenge of transporting the audience to the tenth century Chola dynasty, is time-consuming and expensive.

Next is finding the right cast to play the role of characters who pulled the readers along. It could be gallant, rugged, witty yet loyal Vandhiyadevan; charming and humble noble Raja Raja Cholan; beautiful, intelligent and vengeful antagonist Nandhini or elegant and smart queen Kundavai. Each characters has depth and so many layers that it would be a herculean task to find the right cast that would do justice to the epic novel. 

At last comes the finance. When you make a period movie that alternates between Sri Lanka, Thanjavur and remote parts of Tamil Nadu, you need to spend hell a lot on costumes, location, probs and what not to convert 21 Century landscape to 10th Century Chola dynasty.

Despite these challenges, some brave souls took on the difficult task to translate the novel into a movie. The first attempt was in 1958, when MG Ramachandran, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu wanted to produce the movie under his title banner – MGR Pictures. It did not take off due to cash crunch. The most recent effort was by Maniratnam, an acclaimed movie director. The deal fell through, again due to lack of finance.

While the move to make a movie elicited mixed reactions (as many like me feel it is impossible to do justice to the original), it disappointed many fans of Ponniyin Selvan, who were looking forward to seeing it on screen. So when three theatre groups dared to stage the novel into three hour drama, expectations were quite high and fans could not help but look forward to it.

First one was by Magic Lanterns. The theatre group Magic Lanterns along with the Chennai-based production company SS International first staged that play in 2014 in Chennai to commemorate 60 years of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan.

Elango Kumaravel, the script writer, said their group first performed Ponniyin Selvan in open air theatre in the year 1999 to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Kalki. Five years later, the theatre group performed it onstage at the request of SS International.  

Before that Kumaravel spend close to six months to compress the content into five acts that spans over four hours. He had to take into account the tone and language as it was important for him to stick close to the original as he felt it lent authenticity to the story. Next challenge was organising the cast. While most of the cast were from the theatre group, open auditions were held for few roles including title character Ponniyin Selvan.

The play was an instant success garnering widespread attention, for it was the first time a theatre group had attempted to bring it onstage for audience to view. When I saw the play in 2015 it was like revisiting the book, for Kumaravel had stuck to the original even the dialogues. Stage props, costumes and actors gelled well to give Sangam experience. O

By then the group had been performing for over a year across Tamil Nadu. They completed 33 shows in Tamil Nadu between 2014 and 2015. Performances did not come cheap. D Muralidharan of SS International that financed the play said the budget they culled out for the play was equal to that of a small movie, running several lakhs, which they might not recover. “Though the project might not be profitable, this opened us a lot of avenues that would help us further our business and we derived satisfaction in form of appreciation from audiences for our efforts,” he added.

The next group to replicate it was Sri Devi Fine arts along with almost a century old SSN Sabha and director Kalaiselvam Sambu. They produced the play in April 2015. Sivashankar, founder of Sri Devi fine arts, said the pursuit began in 2013 when they approached SSN Sabha to stage the play in Chennai. Produced at the expense of ₹40-50 lakhs, the drama gained traction not only Tamil Nadu but also in Bangalore.

“Sambu has been working on Ponniyin Selvan for 25 years and experimented with it on small scale dramas before he was involved with SSN Sabha,” he said. Sivashankaran said, “To earn profit we need to put at least 100 shows. But more than money it is the appreciation for the efforts we put in that gives us satisfaction.”

Mallick Raja of TVK Academy was the last one to adopt the book into play. He did so after the success of SS International and Sri Devi Fine arts. Raja said, “After SS International and Sri Devi Fine Arts staged the play, we also wanted a part in the rendition of the play that is not easily forgotten.” The play ran for 3 hours with 36 casts at the expense of over 10 lakhs, including troop payment, theatre rent, stage props and publicity. But it did not elicit the response he had expected as there were two other troops putting TVK Academy at a disadvantage. “Though there is no loss, there is no gain either,” Mallick said.

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