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Why Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan Fell Short of Expectations

When it comes to literary adaptations, the journey from page to screen is a difficult one. Filled with audience expectations and cinematic constraints, it demands that the filmmakers strike a balance between fidelity to the original text and the need for captivating storytelling for the big screen. Now, adapting an epic fan-favourite historical series like Ponniyin Selvan, is no easy task– it is nothing short of walking on a tightrope!

Kalki enthusiasts spanning various generations had waited with abated breath to witness their beloved characters come alive on the silver screen. The pressure was immense indeed– the intricacies of the Chola dynasty, the political intrigues, and the rich character development that readers have cherished for decades must now find resonance in a visual medium.

And a blockbuster hit indeed it was in the theatres, rising to become one of the highest-grossing movies of 2023! 

Book lovers, however, were not thoroughly impressed (no surprise?). Yes, they are appreciative of the rich, vivid cinematography. Yes, they love the casting and their outstanding performance. Yes, they were fully aware of the limited time– two movies each for three hours could not possibly capture every single detail of five packed novels. They came to terms with their fear of potential deviations from the source material. 

What they were not prepared for, unfortunately, were blatant omissions and drastic changes– Maniratnam might have taken ‘Director’s Cut’ a little too seriously!

While fans are able to look past the rushed pace, they are unable to digest other major transgressions. And there were many indeed, the first perhaps being the omission of Manimegalai. 

One of the inevitable challenges in any book-to-movie adaptation lies in the condensation of intricate character arcs into a limited timeframe. In the books, Manimegalai is an important character, a potential love interest for protagonist Vanthiyathevan. Younger sister of Kandamaran, Vandiyathevan’s friend, her love and her distraught death in his lap was completely removed from the film! Manimegalai becoming a sacrificial lamb for the time constraint of the movies is something readers are still unable to digest. 

Throughout the movie, there are several such changes made, quite liberally so. For instance, while the film rightly points out King Sundara Chozhar’s weakened state due to illness, it does not show that he was completely immobile. Likewise, Pandiyan’s Abathuthavigal (his secret troop) were not so large in numbers but were a small but efficient, tight-knit group. 

But, let’s move on to a more serious issue– Aditha Karikalan’s death. Ambiguity is a double-edged sword in literature, one Kalki masterfully wields to enshroud Aditha’s death in a mystery. The film, however, snatches away the opportunity for the reader’s imagination to flourish in place of a definitive portrayal – it crowns Nandini as his murderer. 

Nandini’s character brings about a whole new issue, the biggest perhaps in the movie! While the movie masterfully captures the twist revolving around her mother Mandakini, it erases the other, far more crucial twist. Nandini, in the books, has a twin who is none other than Madurantakan, brought up mistakenly as the first cousin of King Sundara Chozhar!

Now, the narrative of Madurantakan in itself is entirely toppled over in the film, something fans are vehemently critical of. Yes, Raja Raja Chozhan gives up his throne for Madurantakan – but to the real Madurantakan, Senthan Amudhan! With the movie not incorporating this salient detail of mistaken identity, it not only unforgivably deviates from the plot but also makes the character of Senthan Amudhan in itself pointless. 

Ponniyin Selvan, or rather, “Maniratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan”, certainly has its own flaws. Nevertheless, it is also equally important to realise that characters such as Manimegalai, Nandini, Senthan Amudhan and why, Vanthiyathevan himself are all entirely fictitious, a product of Kalki’s mind and nothing more! More importantly, history, in itself, is left untarnished in both the books and the movies. 

Today, Ponniyin Selvan movies are heralded as the pride of South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, and rightly so! They are hailed for immortalising the legendary King Raja Raja Chozha and his extraordinary life filled with dangers and glory alike. While it is perfectly understandable why readers are displeased, it cannot be denied that South Indian Tamil history now has carved its own niche in the annals of cinematography, only because of the overwhelming success of the movies. 

Hence, at the end of the day, digressions and literary licenses apart, both Kalki and Maniratnam have achieved what they set out for– eternalising history. Mani Ratnam Ponniyin Selvan Mani Ratnam Ponniyin Selvan Mani Ratnam Ponniyin Selvan


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