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Parthiban Kanavu and Raja Raja Cholan, two Chola themed movies, proved to be duds in the box office. Boasting of big stars, big writers and grand themes, they came a cropper. And some of the elements that proved to be the nemesis of those films are there in Ponniyin Selvan too.

Ponniyin Selvan is the film adaption of the cult historical fiction with the same title written by iconic writer Kalki (Ramaswamy Krishnamurthy – 1899-1954), considered to be Tamil Nadu’s answer to Sir Walter Scott. Originally serialized from October 29, 1950 to May 16, 1954 in his own magazine Kalki, the story appealed to a wide spectrum of readers. Kalki copies sold like hot cake, touching the fabulous number of 71,366. The feat electrified the print media and readership then.

The novel in five parts that run for four years was compiled and published posthumously in 1955. Seemingly a made-for-MGR work, Ponniyin Selvan looked like an encore of the runaway success of his Naadodi Mannan. Having just then missed Uthamapa Puthiran project which his professional rival Sivaji Ganesan caught hold of, MGR eyed Ponniyin Selvan and bought its rights from the writer’s son, Kalki Rajendran.  He made formal announcements, setting in motion the screenplay and all preliminary works. But for reasons unknown, the matinee idol’s dream project was left out in the cold.

Present-day superstar Kamal Haasan too wanted to make a film on the subject and discussed the project with Sivaji Ganesan as Kamal himself revealed at the recent premier of the Mani Ratnam venture. But nothing much came of it.

Also read: The ordinary songs of PS-I: Did Rahman hold back deliberately?

The Chola dynasty, much celebrated in Ponniyin Selvan, may evoke memories in the minds of film connoisseurs probably in their sixties. They can remember how the first Tamil cinemascope Sivaji-starrer ‘Raja Raja Chozhan’ (1973), a sequel of sorts to Ponniyin Selvan, turned to be a damp squib though much hyped in print media. In those days of an intense MGR-Sivaji fans’ rivalry, on the day the mega project  released (March 31, 1973), the prints were transported to cinemas through elephants. In Tiruchi, Sivaji fans arranged a helicopter to pour a flowery rain on the film print. It was their manoeuvre to steal the thunder from MGR fans early awaiting their beloved hero’s blockbuster Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban (May 11, 1973). The MGR-starrer was not shown on cinemascope as the Sivaji film was. The plan somehow could not materialize. MGR fans were trolled by detractors in public on this count.

In Tiruchi, Sivaji fans arranged a helicopter to pour a flowery rain on the film print. It was their manoeuvre to steal the thunder from MGR fans early awaiting their beloved hero’s blockbuster Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban

Raja Raja Chozhan was a film adaptation of a play written by Aru. Ramanathan and staged by the well-known TKS Brothers Group in 1950. The film was produced by G. Umanath, owner of the erstwhile Ananth Theatre in Chennai (who played the rich villain in the 1988 Mani Ratnam film Agni Natchathiram). The historical film “was not filmed enough to reveal the ambience or magnificence of the emperor’s personality,” so went the criticism.

The film, as reviewers and the general public noted, felt more like a family drama involving sentiments (for instance, father-daughter spat delineated by Sivaji and Lakshmi) than a historical narrative of palace intrigues, suspense and cloak-and-dagger mysteries. Nambiyar, the famous villain of those days, was under-utilised as a spy. Unlike the Kattabomman Sivaji, who had a formidable enemy to take on, Raja Raja Chozhan had no great villain. So Raja Raja Chozhan looked like a king with his royal attire and ornaments and strutted about, mouthing lines in chaste Tamil.

Parthiban Kanavu
Similarly, Kalki’s yet another Chola-oriented historical fiction Parthiban Kanavu set in the 7th century, three centuries before the Ponniyin Selvan era, when serialized in Kalki in 1942, wielded a wide readership. But the sting of suspense which ran through the novel, keeping the readers hooked to it was missing in the film version released in 1960.

Produced by Jubilee Films’ proprietor V. Govindaraj and directed by D Yoganand, the film revolved around the liberation of the Chozha kingdom from the yoke of the Pallava dynasty.  The ensemble cast included the lead pair, Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayanthi Mala, and other famous actors – S.V. Rangarao, S.V.Subbiah and T.S. Balaiah. Famous writer Vindhan penned the screenplay and dialogue.

This writer remembers an oldie saying back in the day that it was a great disappointment that Gemini was not the titular hero; rather he was Vikraman, son of Parthiban, the Chola emperor who bequeathed his son his dream of freeing the Chola kingdom from slavery. The title referred to the cameo role performed by S A Asokan.

Also Read: Why Ponniyin Selvan won’t redeem Jeyamohan’s reputation in films

Gemini Ganesan, a chocolate boy of the old times, was entrusted with the filial duty of taking on the Pallava King Narasimha Pallavan-I played by Rangarao to whom the Cholas were just vassals holding vessels in hand.

In the original novel a Saivite sage appeared now and then to help the hero execute his mission. The identity of the sage was kept a suspense all through the serialized novel, putting the readers on tenterhooks so they could not wait for the riddle to be unraveled. As the story was nail-biting, so the film should have been edgy. But it was not. For the film audience, unlike the readers, could easily identify the mysterious sage as none other than the hero’s enemy, Narasimha Pallavan (S V Rangarao). The enemy, instead of being an archetypal villain always at the hero’s throat, worked like a Good Samaritan! And that didn’t quite work. Imagine a genial Rangarao having to be the villain as well as the Saivite saint. The film won the best feature award at the national level, yet, with all its delectable songs and music, could not set the cash registers ringing.

Another drawback that the fans of those days pointed out was that they expected B. Saroja Devi and Gemini Ganesan to be the leading pair as their chemistry had worked well in Kalyana Parisu in 1959. But their expectations were belied. Saroja Devi did only a cameo role as the companion of the heroine Vyjayanthi Mala. There was a reason. When the film was launched, Saroja Devi was a no-name actress. By the time it was released finally in 1960, she had become a cult actress.

If Vandhiya Devan is more prominent than Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Cauvery) Arulmozhivarman, the title may end up being as misleading as Parthiban Kanavu

Slammed for historical inaccuracies, the film bombed at the box-office despite the lavish production, hype and pleasing songs (music by Vedha and songs penned by the legendary Kannadasan).

Theodore Baskaran aptly captured the failure of Parthiban Kanavu in the words: “The crew of ParthibanKanavu – a film on the Pallavan dynasty – did not even visit Mahabalipuram ruled by the Pallavas…. the film-makers do not even do basic research.”

Eerie parallels
As for the forthcoming film Ponniyin Selvan, there are certain straws in the wind – the trailer which shows Karthi as Vandhiyadevan, one of the protagonists, sitting on a galloping horseback; the album of songs that resonate more with the spirit of the modern times than with that of the classical Chola era. If Vandhiya Devan is more prominent than Ponniyin Selvan (Son of Cauvery) Arulmozhivarman, the title may end up being as misleading as Parthiban Kanavu. Just as Parthiban Kanavu screenplay and dialogues were written by serious writer Vindhan, Ponniyin Selvan’s screenplay and dialogues have been penned by Jeyamohan.

By the way,  a vital question arises now: Have the actors, at least those playing main characters VandhiyaDevan, Arulmozhivarman (later Raja Raja Chozha-I), the conspiratorial Nandhini,  the imperialistic Pazhuvettarayars, royal Kundavai, her companion Vanathi (later Arulmozhivarman’s wife),  Vaishnavite Aazhvarkkadiyan – have they all read the original novel to imbue the feel of the old Chola ambience? Or at least, as film critic Baskaran asked about the crew of Parthiban Kanavu, have they visited the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur?

It is to be recalled that MGR was enamoured of Vandhiya Devan after spending a great deal of time reading the whole novel so he bought the novel at a fabulous price of Rs.10,000 (must be in lakhs nowadays).  So much for Vandhiya Devan! In case Jayam Ravi, on whom the title hinges, gets outsmarted by Karthi, the film may end up being called Vandhiya Devan rather than Ponniyin Selvan.


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