Ponniyin Selvan: a few glitches, but spectacular indeed

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 09, 2014 14:16 IST

Ponniyin Selvan is a five-volume historical Tamil novel, set during the Chola Dynasty, one of the three most illustrious with the other two being the Pandya and the Chera Empires.

Serialised by the legendry journalist and author, Krishnamurthy, in his magazine, Kalki, the plot popped out of the pages week after week from 1950 to 1954, catapulting the circulation to dizzy numbers. In southern India, Krishnamurthy became synonymous with Ponniyin Selvan or The Son of Ponni, and the plot and its macabre machinations haunted the dreams, the desires and the dread of just about every household. Such was the integrality of Selvan and his story.

What still continues to amaze is it’s a multitude of characters, each clearly etched and fascinatingly layered, and the story itself is extraordinarily detailed – though sometimes confusing. There are intrigues and counter-intrigues, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, and there are chameleon-like men and women who are out to wreck vengeance, create social havoc and destroy the Chola Dynasty. There is greed, there is valour, there is sacrifice. There is love, there is romance and there is sexual coyness.

Given this broad canvas, it must have called for tremendous pluck on the part of Magic Lantern and director Pravin to attempt a stage adaptation of Krishnamurthy’s novel. Sometime ago, Mani Ratnam had toyed with the idea of making a movie out of Ponniyin Selvan, but probably had second thoughts about taking up a project as ambitious as this.


A scene from the play. (HT Photo/ Gautaman Bhaskaran)

Admittedly, Magic Lantern had staged the play in 1999, and it is possible that Pravin and his team had fine-tuned this latest version of Ponniyin Selvan – which is sponsored by SS International Live and runs every evening from June 8 to 14 at Chennai’s Music Academy. More shows are planned in other cities. While the 1999 edition was four hours and ten minutes long, the one now on is three hours and thirty minutes. Briefly, Ponniyin Selvan deals with a succession struggle in the Chola Palace in Thanjavur. Emperor Sundara Cholar (played by Viswanathan Ramesh) is ill, and in all fairness his eldest son and Crown Prince Aditya Karikalan (that excellent film actor, Pasupathy, last seen in the Tamil remake of Kahaani, Nee Enge En Anbe-Where Are you My Dear) must step in. But the power-driven 60-year-old Chancellor Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Ramasamy) and his young wife, Nandini (Meera Krishnamurthy, who also plays the deaf and dumb Mandakini), contrive to place Sundara Cholar’s cousin, Madurantakan (Elavarasan Raja), on the Thanjavur throne.


A scene from the play. (HT Photo/ Gautaman Bhaskaran)

Pravin’s adaptation is splendid in many ways. He has a firm grip on what sometimes seems like an unmanageable crowd on the stage, designed by Thotta Tharani. There are no fade-ins and fade-outs, and some of the props (that of the fort) and costumes (by Preethi Athreya) are great to look at. There is vivaciousness, there is spiritedness, there is colour and there is some extremely melodious music by Paul Jacob.

Portraying a messenger and protector is the young and handsome Vanthiyathevan (Srikrishna Dayal). He uses his wile and intelligence to bewitch women and smuggle into palaces messages on dry palm leaves from Karikalan to his father and sister, Illayaprati Kundavai (Preethi Athreya), and finally from her to Arulmozhi Varman or Ponniyin Selvan, who is fighting a war in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the most delightful character is Azhwarkadiyan Nambi (Hans Kaushik), the eyes and ears of the kingdom’s Prime Minister. The romantic thread runs from Vanthiyathevan to Kundavai, and from Selvan to Vanathi, a beautiful princess and Kundavai’s friend.


A scene from the play. (HT Photo/ Gautaman Bhaskaran)

There are also some pieces of great acting. Ramesh takes us through a riveting range of emotions, from sorrow to anger to hopelessness and spells of sheer fear, while holding on to the richness of the royal demeanour. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Vanthiyathevan – a serious saviour now and a playboy then, whose mischievous flirtation with the boatwoman, Poonkuzhali (Gayathri Ramesh), forms part of the play’s memorable moments. While her acrobatics fascinate, Dayal literally lights up his character, and seamlessly carries the narrative from scene to scene, and, in fact, the epic unfolds through him. Nambi’s Kaushik is wit personified, absolutely a delight to watch. And so is Elango Kumaravel (his latest screen appearance was in Prakash Raj’s Un Samayal Arayil- In Your Kitchen), who as Ravidasan (the magician) is first-class.

Yes, a pitfall of Ponniyin Selvan can be its length, and although it may be herculean to abridge five volumes (really), I did find some scenes stretched and languorous. And yes, there were a few lines that got stuck in the throat, and sadly the women characters (with the exception of Gayathri Ramesh) made little impression on me. And mind you, a high point of Krishnamurthy’s novel was its women, especially Nandini and Vanathi, whose grit and determination are hardly visible on Pravin’s stage.

But yes, the men and the sheer brilliance of colours and costumes draw your gaze away from Ponniyin Selvan’s glitches.

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