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From India to Malaysia and Singapore, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil epic Ponniyin Selvan 1 sizzles at box office, Entertainment News

Tamil cinema-goers around the world have been captivated by bloody battles, elephant chases, palace intrigue and lost love as Ponniyin Selvan 1, based on the story of one of the most powerful emperors in Indian history, enjoys a dream run at the box office.

Set in the 10th and 11th centuries, the film about emperor Arulmozhi Varman, adapted from an iconic Tamil novel, has amassed well over US$54 million (S$76.7 million) since its Sept 30 premiere – making it the second-highest grossing Tamil film of all time.

Its stellar performance in its home market of Tamil Nadu and the rest of India notwithstanding, the film is also now the highest-grossing Tamil film in several countries with large Tamil diasporas, including Britain, Malaysia and Singapore.

Director Mani Ratnam said the film project – the first of two parts – was among his “most ambitious”, and one he had been eyeing since the mid-1980s.

“I did try a few times and it didn’t fall in place. Maybe for a good reason, because this is probably the right time as the technology and reach of Tamil films have grown tremendously,” he told This Week in Asia.

Ratnam is widely viewed as one of the finest Tamil directors of his generation, and his films including Nayakan, Iruvar and Mouna Ragam have cult followings.

Film critics impressed by the quality of casting and acting, production design and a storyline that features elaborate battles and skulduggery among spies, have compared the film to the HBO television show Game of Thrones.

Asked about the comparison, Ratnam was reported as saying in jest that it was in fact the US series – based on a book series written in the 1990s – that was the “English Ponniyin Selvan”.

The film is based on the bestselling novel by writer and journalist Kalki Krishnamurthy – known better by his pen name Kalki – that was serialised in a popular Tamil magazine from 1950 to1954.

Arulmozhi Varman, also known as Rajaraja Chola (which translates to “king of kings”), belonged to the Chola dynasty that reigned over a large part of southern India for more than 1,500 years, with Arulmozhi’s influence ushering in a cultural renaissance.

The film’s epic drama centres on the war of succession among the Cholas, starting with the story of Vandiyathevan, a man who sets out to deliver a message from Crown Prince Adithya Karikalan (played by Chiyaan Vikram).

In a land plagued by unrest and civil war, Adithya’s sister attempts to help younger brother Arulmozhi Varman (played by Jayam Ravi) take the throne, to bring about political peace.

“This is huge not only in terms of scale, but also logistics and the number of characters, the number of locations and the need to re-create the Chola era,” said Ratnam. “It is a dream come true for me.”

Casting was a challenge, as the film had some 50 characters. Household names such as Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Prabhu Ganesan, Sarath Kumar and Trisha Krishnan headlined the movie, which cost 5 billion rupees (S$85.9 million) to produce both parts, and was shot over 150 days in India and Thailand.

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“Luckily a lot of talented actors were keen to bring Kalki’s magnum opus to the screen,” Ratnam said. “The previous times that I tried to make this film, it was dropped because the cast did not fall in place.”

According to GQ India, the main cast was paid whopping amounts, with lead Vikram getting 120 million rupees and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan earning 100 million rupees.

The Covid-19 pandemic posed the biggest challenge, halting filming multiple times. Varying coronavirus restrictions in each state also complicated matters, as the crew had to shoot in numerous locations.

“We needed huge crowds and that was not allowed. Even the crew size was restricted. But I think the desire of the whole unit to get it done to the best of our ability saw us through,” Ratnam said.

Amid the fanfare, the film has drawn some criticism over historical inconsistencies and religious misrepresentation, such as whether the Cholas were Shaivaites, and the accuracy of calling Rajaraja Chola a “Hindu emperor”.

He had built the Unesco-listed Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore, at a time when the various sects of what is known in the present day as the Hindu religion were not collectively referred to as being part of a broader faith.

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Tamil scholars have pointed out inscriptions and evidence that suggest the Chola king was devoted towards both the gods Shiva and Vishnu.

V. Sriram, a Chennai-based writer and historian, highlighted that historical accuracy should have less priority as the film was based on historical fiction.

“But definitely I feel the film could have aimed for better accuracy in depicting that era, since it was shot in places like Gwalior and Orchha in North India, with buildings that are distinctly post-Mughal with arches and domes that were far removed from Chola architecture,” he said.

He also lamented the lack of focus on Tamil in the film, calling the actors’ mispronunciation “painful” as the language was at its peak in the Chola era.

Mohan Raman, a film historian and actor who had a small role in the movie, agreed that it was “unreasonable” to expect historical accuracy in the film.

“It has been true to the soul of the story, has represented the characters properly and not taken any great artistic liberties and made it possible for people who have not read the book to understand and appreciate the greatness of this great historical fiction,” he said.

With the cliffhanger leaving fans eagerly awaiting the second installation in 2023, Chennai-based educator Viji Shivaram voiced hope that the story would better honour the book’s strong character development: “In Kalki’s books, the women are portrayed as strong characters with a lot of power, and I really hope that is given importance to in the second part of the movie.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.


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