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Novel and cinema are always strange bedfellows. There have been instances of writers pushing back against filmmakers’ tendency to tweak their stories. For instance, when J D Salinger’s short story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was adapted into the film My Foolish Heart (1949), he reportedly flew into a rage, terming the film trash. But the Academy Award nominations the film subsequently got left the writer dumbfounded and dismayed. Yet, thereafter he remained stubborn in not giving the Hollywood film rights over his works. Back to the home turf, it’s anybody’s guess how the iconic writer Kalki would have reacted to the popular filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s tweaking of his famous novel Ponniyin Selvan, had he been alive now.
Though Ponniyin Selvan I and II films seem well cut out for commercial cinema’s success formula, three generations of readers of the original novel consisting of five major cantos and running into over 1,000 pages do not seem to feel about the films the way they did reading the text.
Of course, the screenplay writers who have sweated it out for making content of the films based on the novel, have just one word to defend their infidelity to the source material: adaptation.
But there are readers who don’t buy their argument. Kalki had built up assiduously the fictional mystery behind Madurantaka Chola’s birth; in fact, it was this mystery and suspense which had kept the readers on tenterhooks for weeks back in 1950 when the story was being serialised in Kalki magazine.
Though Ponniyin Selvan I and II films seem well cut out for commercial cinema’s success formula, three generations of readers of the original novel consisting of five major cantos and running into over 1,000 pages do not seem to feel about the films the way they did reading the text
The information disclosed finally in Chapter 5 titled ‘Pinnacle of Sacrifice’ that Madurantaka who had till then been thought to be the son of dowager queen Sembian Madevi and who also staked claim to the Chola throne was not her son in truth took the readers by surprise then.
The sub-plot describing (of course, only through dialogue) the swap of new-borns — Sembian Madevi’s still-born male child mistaken for being dead and her speech and hearing impaired maid’s son — and finally bringing to light the truth that it was the small-time flower vendor Sendhan Amudhan brought up by his foster mother Vani Ammai in the Shiva worship practices, who was the real Madurantaka Chola. A simple and humble man into the flower business gets crowned at last, thanks to Arunmozhivarman’s magnanimity.
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But Ponniyin Selvan-II has removed this enigmatic and suspenseful portion. Arunmozhivarman is shown putting the crown on the head of who has all along been hailed as Madurantaka Chola (played by Rahman).
The readers, who have already dived deep into the labyrinth of intrigues, enigmas and guiles of the royal drama, felt, no doubt, let down at the coronation scene shown on the screen blandly and dryly, unlike in the novel.
In Ponniyin Selvan-I too, the scenes where Vanthiyadevan gets introduced to Kundavai and Vanathi are far different from the novel. The scene of their meeting at an astrologer’s house and later the ‘dummy’ crocodile scene on the riverbank full of joy and amusement, which are narrated elegantly in the novel, did not find space in the film; a mere dance-song number replaced the original scenes.
Of course, Kalki has taken liberty with history and let his imagination run wild in the novel. For instance, Arunmozhivarman is shown as being stationed in Sri Lanka in the novel while history has it that he invaded Sri Lanka only after he came to power in 985 CE. While Sambuvarayars became prominent pillars of the Chola kingdom only after the 11th or 12 century, Kalki had brought them into his novel in the 10th century.
Kalki had built up assiduously the fictional mystery behind Madurantaka Chola’s birth; in fact, it was this mystery and suspense which had kept the readers on tenterhooks for weeks back in the 1950. But Ponniyin Selvan-II has removed this enigmatic and suspenseful portion
Historically there was only one Pazhuvettairayar, the author created two Pazhuvettairayar brothers – the elder one marrying the fictional femme fatale Nandhini. There is no denying that one of the two ‘Madurantakas’ shown by Kalki is purely the figment of his imagination. But it is this imaginative twist that makes for the thrilling part of the novel.
But Mani Ratnam has probably decided to be more faithful to history than to fiction. As Kalki relied more on his imaginative skill rather than on history, so too the director used his experience and skill in recreating and reinventing several scenes of the novel.
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For instance, the scenes featuring the lovers Nandhini and Adita Karikala in their teens and Vanthiyadevan and Kundavai are romantic and aesthetic, in sync with cinematic demands though such scenes are only suggestively described through dialogue in the novel. The reason perhaps is that the 1950s were much more conservative than the 2020s. Likewise, the character of Manimegalai, daughter of Sambuvarayar, whose love for Vanthiyadevan and fears and anxiety towards her object of love after the murder of Adita Karikalan border on the neurotic. But the film has no space for the pitiable miserable girl (perhaps not equal in beauty and stature to the legendary Nandhini or the royal Kundavai)
By the way, the fans of the actor Ashwin Kakumanu playing Sendhan Amudhan have tweeted their disappointment over the actor being denied the bigger role that should have been granted him if the makers of the film had followed the novel accurately.
Yet the film medium being what it is, it has to make lots of compromises and fine-tuning of the content projected on screen at great cost. That is what the two parts of Ponniyin Selvan have done. After all, adverse reactions don’t count as long as a film sets the cash registers ringing.
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