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Historical film Ponniyin Selvan-I, has taken the tinsel town by surprise, reportedly raking in nearly Rs. 500 crore in India and $6 million at the U.S. box office within one month of its release.
Kalki’s novel, though film material, was not originally expected to cook up a storm on celluloid. Kamal-starrer Vikram turning blockbuster can be explained in terms of pure entertainment, but PS-I’s runaway success defies logic. Now, the Tamil tinsel town seems to be caught in the winds raging in the direction of historicals.
Tamil cinema’s track
In Tamil cinema copycats start mushrooming close on the heels of a trailblazer. An off-beat film will create a new template that often degenerates into a beaten track down the line due to cloying overuse.
When an actor’s film dubbed in Tamil from some other language goes down well with the audience, a trend of dubbing all films of the actor concerned emerges. For instance, in 1980s Dr. Rajasekar’s film Idhuthaanta Police was a major hit and consequently all his films in Telugu used to be dubbed in Tamil and released in the hope of encoring the maiden success.
Kalki’s novel, though film material, was not originally expected to cook up a storm on celluloid. Kamal-starrer Vikram turning blockbuster can be explained in terms of pure entertainment, but PS-I’s runaway success defies logic
So is the case with films of all genres: romantic, political etc.
This trend persisted till the advent of the millennium. However, after 2000, no film can be pigeonholed as typecast.
Now PS1 has provided a template. So, more historicals are in the pipeline, waiting to follow in the footsteps of the Chola epic.
According to the grapevine, films such as Sundar C’s Sangamitra left out in the cold in the past are rising from the dead. But many filmmakers are forgetting is that PS – 1 is based on one of the most popular historical novels in Tamil. Most Tamils have at least a nodding acquaintance of Ponniyin Selvan even if they haven’t read the novel.
In the embryonic days of the Tamil cinema, Hindu mythology was the staple of all films. When Tamil film buffs had binged on a surfeit of mythologicals, historical films started flooding the silver screen. It took social dramas some time to edge the mythologicals out. But it should be noted that even in the initial days a few social films hit the screens. Theodore Baskaran says in his book The Eye of a Serpent that Kausalya was the first Tamil social film directed by PSV Aiyar and released in 1935.
Chola themes are not unknown in Tamil cinema. In 1942, the film Aaraayichi Mani (bell tolled to convey the commoners’ grievances) directed by Raja Sandow made the most of the legendary tale of Manuneedhi Chozhan getting a chariot run and crush his own son by way of ensuring justice to a cow bereaved of its calf killed by the young prince.
There are plentiful historical films such as Raja Raja Chozhan, Parthiban Kanavu, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Sivagangai Seemai and so on.Tamil epics have also been brought to screen. Kambar’s son Ambigapathy had an eponymous film version. Famous Tamil verse play Manonmaniam was filmed with the same title.
The film that touched the zenith in converting literary stuff into celluloid drama was Avvaiyaar produced by the old, reputable Gemini Studios in 1953, says Theodore Baskaran. Legendary film-maker and journalist SS Vasan brought ace statesman Rajaji, who was not so much interested in films, to watch Avvaiyar. Rajaji was credited with having written a rave review about the film. But the late Tamil writer Ashokamithran, in his article, Rajaji Went to Cinema, said Rajaji in his diary had noted, “The film (Avvaiyar) was quite ordinary. But how can we condemn a film one had spent fabulous money on daringly? The music was intolerable.”
Cut to the chase, what exactly are the honest opinions of Tamil film movers and shakers about PS-1? Of course, they have openly showered Mani Ratnam with encomiums. But, for their genuine verdict on the film, should we have a sneak peek into their personal diaries?
The question is: Living in an age of socialist and secularist values, should we resurrect historical glories, looking the other way at the inhumanities and reactionary values of the past ages?
Fear of failures
In the current times, now and then historical films are made in Tamil. But none of them has matched PS-1 in terms of popularity and box-office collections. Way back in 1997, Kamal Haasan went about making Marudhanayagam with lots of fanfare, but it was a non-starter. The costs were forbidding. Selva Raghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan and Vasantha Balan’s Aravan proved box office duds, serving as deterrents to further attempts at spinning historicals.
Now the tide has turned in favour of historical films, firstly thanks to the runaway success of Bahubali and secondly to the present PS-1.
There’s no gainsaying that cinema is commerce. But it is a mighty medium that has impacted and impacts society. Hence, there is a natural fear about making panegyric-type films about Tamil kings.
Now, PS-1 has let loose a deluge of Tamil pride revolving around Raja Raja Chozhan. But there is a flip side to it. Recently an old photo showing a group of people standing at the entrance of the Thanjavur Big Temple, forbidden entry, went viral on social media. The reference was to untouchability. This photo shows the tip of an iceberg, throwing up a glimpse of the dark underbelly of the elegantly and gloriously exhibited Chozha dynasty. The question is: Living in an age of socialist and secularist values, should we resurrect historical glories, looking the other way at the inhumanities and reactionary values of the past ages?
History from people’s perspective
Director Mahendran had made certain films based on Tamil novels – Uthiri Pookkal, Mullum Malarum, Nandu, Saasanam. Present-day director Vettri Maran has come up with films Visaranai and Asuran based on novels. Visaranai did not go down well with the audience, but Asuran was a hit. So, novel-based cinema should still be taken forward.
Dravidian films such as Parasakthi had a major role in lifting Tamil cinema out of the mythological and historical grooves and setting it upon social avenues. Now, as if undoing the historic change, millennial cinema is harking back to history.
If historical films set out to see history from the people’s perspective, explore the lifestyle and values of the people in ancient times and focus on the dark side of even the glorified kingdoms, then the genre of historical film will assume significance and become meaningful and relevant in the modern age. In this respect, Tamil novels have the key. If they are tapped for films, it will be beneficial to both literature and cinema.
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