Mani Ratnam on Magnum Opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’: ‘It’s An Adventure, It Is Intrigue, It’s Meant for the Big Screen’ (EXCLUSIVE)

The release of revered Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s hugely anticipated epic adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s classic Tamil-language novel “Ponniyin Selvan” is the realization of his childhood dream.

One of India’s most celebrated filmmakers whose films include “Nayakan,” “Bombay” and “Iruvar,” Ratnam read the novel when he was in high school and wanted to make it ever since. Post the tremendous critical and commercial success of “Nayakan” (1987), when that film’s lead Kamal Haasan wanted to make another film with Ratnam, the filmmaker considered “Ponniyin Selvan,” but the stars did not align at that time.

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Ratnam’s last film, “Chekka Chivantha Vaanam” (2018), was co-produced by his Madras Talkies and Subaskaran’s Lyca Productions (“2.0”).

“After ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam,’ it happened – when Lyca asked what I was planning to do next, I told them, not planning anything, but I would like to do ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ and Subaskaran said yes – and that’s when it started,” Ratnam told Variety.

The story is set in 10th century India during a tumultuous time in the Chola empire when the power struggle between different branches of the ruling family caused violent rifts between the potential successors to the reigning emperor and a civil war became imminent. All the political and military turmoil led to the Cholas becoming the most prosperous and powerful empire in the continent and one of the most successful and long reigning in history.

“Ponniyin Selvan” was serialized in the Kalki magazine between 1950 and 1954 and was published as five novels in 1955. Ratnam, alongside Elango Kumaravel and B. Jeyamohan, condensed it into a film that will release in two parts.

“The adaptation was not the easiest of tasks – he’s [Krishnamurthy] written it in such detail and such a sprawling manner, we had to take the heart of it and stick to that and do it as one stream,” says Ratnam.

“It is as realistic as we can possibly do, in the sense that the book is written practically through the point of view of a common man. It is from his eyes that the book sees it, and that gave us a perspective,” adds Ratnam. “And so more or less, that is the angle that we have taken. There are no superheroes in this. There are no definite villains in this. They’re all people who have grey shades. It’s like an Alexandre Dumas. That’s the way I see it. It’s an adventure, it is intrigue, it’s fascinating characters. It’s meant for the big screen.”

In the age of big budget epic streaming shows, Ratnam was not tempted to adapt the five books as a series. “From the first time that I read the book, back when I was finishing school, it sounded like a big screen experience. To me when I was reading it, I could see these larger than life figures filling the screen,” says Ratnam. “I thought this story was really demanding to be shown on the big screen. And so there was never doubt or a thought of doing it for streaming, I’ve always wanted it as a feature film.”

The film boasts a powerhouse cast including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha Krishnan, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prabhu, Sarath Kumar, Jayaram, Prakash Raj, Jayachitra, Rahman, Vikram Prabhu, Ashwin Kakumanu, Lal, Parthiban, Babu Antony and Riyaz Khan.

“Casting becomes very important, especially in a film like this, where somebody should carry off a period look convincingly and be the face of that character, be the physical presence of that character. And these characters have been in people’s minds for so long – whoever has read the book, they’ve all owned it,” says Ratnam. “So to be able to give an actual face to it and actual body language to it becomes very crucial. So casting did take a little bit of time.”

Rai Bachchan plays the pivotal role of Nandini in the film. “Regarding Nandini, one of the first persons that came to our mind was Ash, it was just a question of whether she had the time and eagerness to do it. So once we asked, and she said okay, it was all all on,” says Ratnam. Rai Bachchan previously had lead roles in Ratnam’s “Iruvar” and “Guru.”

“Ponniyin Selvan: 1” is produced by Madras Talkies and Lyca Productions with Siva Ananth serving as executive producer. It features music by Oscar, BAFTA and Grammy winner A.R. Rahman and cinematography by Ravi Varman. It will release in regular and IMAX formats in India and worldwide on Sept. 30 in the Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada languages.

Principal photography on “Ponniyin Selvan: 2” is also complete and the film will go into post after the release of the first part with a view to release it in six to eight months time, Ratnam said.

“Ponniyin Selvan: 1” is one of the films that the Indian industry is counting on to bring audiences back into cinemas post the pandemic.

“What we’ve all gone through is something really drastic, the pandemic has been really earth shaking, and it’s terrifying. It’ll take us a little more time to settle down, to come back to normal,” says Ratnam. “But I think when something big and something intriguing comes up, all over the world, people are ready to step back into the screens. I’m hoping “Ponniyin Selvan” will do the same.”

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