How did Mani Ratnam make an impossible project 'it's possible'? The path of iconic Ponniyin Selvan!

(This article is authored by Alar) 

“On the 18th day of the month of Aadi, in the early hours of the evening, a young warrior, mounted on a horse, was riding down the banks of this ocean-like Veera Narayana Lake... Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan was his name...”

These opening lines are nostalgic for most Tamil readers and fans of the epic novel Ponniyin Selvan. But we as a reader, flipped pages and pages, closed the book with an unbreathable experience, and moved on to the next nomadic tasks. But the legendary Mani Rathnam wants something beyond. His hunger and desire to fetch out the Cholas to visual life, is now marching to the audience after 35 years of his thirst. The novel 'Ponniyin Selvan' travelled to many legends' hands in the Tamil industry, to get a form. But it got nothing but stayed the same as in penned literary form. 

From the hands of legends to birth as a visual form

Tuning years before, the 'Makkal Thilagam' M. G. Ramachandran was already pitched in for the adaptation in 1958. The victory of theatrical success of 'Nadodi Mannan', fueled more confidence to pick up the script of Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan. Kalki was his co-resident in Gandhi Nagar at that time. He even bought the copyrights from the Kalki family for Rs 10,000 which is equivalent to Rs. 8,10,000 in 2020, after the great epic author burned to grounds in 1954.

He further moved to announce the biggest cast for the respective roles, M.G.R himself picked to play Vandhiyathevan, Gemini Ganesan as Raja Raja Chola, Sivaji Ganesan as Adhithya Karikalan, Padmini as Vanathi, Padma Subramaniam as Kundavai, Vaijayandhi Maala as Nandhini, and Saavithri as Ponnguzhali. The advertisement for the launch of the movie was released in 1959. But his dream castle turned into ashes when he met with an accident and six months went into recovering from wounds.

Years later, he couldn't stop making the adaptation. After his recovery, MGR, later roped in Mahendran of Mullum Malarum to pen the screenplay and also approached director Bharathiraja and wanted to direct the movie with Kamal Haasan-Sridevi as the lead. Recently during a promotional event, Bharathiraja recalled the time when he was shooting for the song 'Ponmane Kobam Yeno' for 'Oru Kaidhiyin Diary', when MGR, who was staying at Tamil Nadu House, visited him on the sets.

“He came to the shooting spot and asked, ‘Who’s the master?’ I shyly said it was me". Laughed Bharathiraja, adding, “He was looking to produce a movie for his MGR Pictures and said that he wanted me to direct Ponniyin Selvan. I was shocked. I politely asked him what he meant. He said, ‘You should direct it for me and Kamal Haasan and Sridevi should act in it’.' Bharathiraja gave them the nod, but MGR moved to America a few days after the discussion and it dropped again. This might be fed the two top icons of Tamil Cinema - Kamal Hassan and Mani Rathnam, who had done it now. As Bharathi Raja told, "I don’t know how he [Mani Ratnam] is going to do it. But Mani has the capacity to pull off.”

The year was 1987, the present 'Ulaga Nayagan' was then 'Nayagan' Kamal Hassan, as he was shooting with Mani Ratnam. After the box office hit of 'Nayagan', the duo sat back and discussed the Ponniyin Selvan script, looking for the possibility to bring out the life of the epic. They really hoped to make it work that time. Kamal Hassan believed in Mani Ratnam as he is the beast in combining art and commercial elements together, and most of his films garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success.

Kamal Haasan bought the rights to the novel and worked along with Mani Ratnam. In a January 1994 interview with Filmfare, Mani Ratnam stated that adapting the novel was one of his "dream projects" that he had hoped to work on during his career. Ratnam revealed that he worked on a first draft of the film alongside actor-director Kamal Haasan, who had bought the rights to the novel. They completed the first draft but in the stage of finalizing the budget, they felt that the market for Tamil films was too small at that time to recover their costs. They were afraid of the VFX technology in the 90s and dropped the project and which turned into a jinxed one.

The unstoppable Mani Rathnam again revived the project in late 2010. He roped writer Jeyamohan to finalize the script for the film adaptation of Ponniyin Selvan. In an interview with a Tamil magazine, Dhana Sekaran (director of Padai Veeran and Vaanam Kottatum) said that Mani Ratnam and writer Jeyamohan had started pre-production work for Ponniyin Selvan in 2010. During the discussions regarding the film, Mani Ratnam and Jeyamohan took suggestions from his assistants as well. 

Mani Ratnam had approached Mahesh Babu, Thalapathy Vijay, and Karthi to play lead roles in the film version.  After signing the film, Vijay called it a "privilege" and a "dream come true" to be working with Ratnam for the second time after Nerukku Ner. During the course of the casting process, Ratnam had also considered other actors including Vikram, Suriya, and Vishal. For the leading female roles, the team finalized Anushka Shetty for a role and held discussions with Priyanka Chopra and Asin Thottumkal in regard to other characters.

Expected to be made on a budget of  ₹100 crores, Ratnam planned to produce the film himself at the start. But this time, the blockade came in the form of location issues.  The team was denied permission to shoot in live locations, and the filmmaker realized that he would not be able to retrieve the budget by pitching fancy sets. He informed his actors to shelve the project. Hence, he decided to put the project underneath for almost a decade. But the thirst for making the impossible possible didn't stop. Sources in the film industry said that Mani Ratnam has been travelling with Ponniyin Selvan for more than 35 years now. 

He focused on another project, 'Chekka Chivandha Vaanam' and it was successfully pinned on the hit list. This movie was bankrolled by 'Lyca Productions', which also agreed to fund his 'dream project' of Ponniyin Selvan as a beginning point of the historical imprint. A.R. Rahman and Jeyamohan also didn't lose hope as much as Mani Rathnam didn't. They once again joined hands to accomplish the mission. The cast selection was rumoured, the media buzzed, and everything was positively set. The share of media talks, gossip, and internet fads made this project become the talk of the town. 

The Voyage of a 'dream project'

This time also Mani Ratnam faced many issues such as Vairamuthu's sexual harassment issue which made him break 30 years of bonding and loosened up the knot in penning the lyrics for the film. For an alternative, his son Kabilan Vairamuthu along with Venba Geethayan were roped into the project. In September 2021, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) filed a lawsuit against Mani Ratnam in connection with the death of a horse allegedly during the film's shooting in Hyderabad in August 2021, and the complaint was lodged against his production house, "Madras Talkies''. Another controversy arose when several Hindu organizations demand the arrest of Trisha for shooting on the premises of the temple, with her footwear on. Mani Ratnam crossed every bump on the road to give his 'dream project' a perennial life.

Oscar striker, A.R. Rahman eventually stated that Ponniyin Selvan is one of the most difficult projects, since it is an epic film, and required exhaustive research. It took him six months to work on the project, and Rahman and Mani Ratnam also went to Bali to write some of the songs. In an interaction with an online news portal, Rahman stated that "He (Ratnam) wanted a particular sound, which is unique but at the same time relatable and we had to work really hard to get the sound". Rahman explored periodic instruments to use a specific soundtrack that will most suitable in the setting of the Chola period. 

The film is heading steadily now progressed to teaser launch on July 8 and stamped to screen on theatres on September 30, where the day for South India to celebrate our Cholas dynasty, and make history. The five-decade-old elusive project finally culminated to build a new era in Kollywood history. It certainly is the dream come true moment for Kollywood and thanks to Mani Ratnam and a league of legends for their unwavering efforts to architect the dream project. The digital streaming rights for the film were purchased by Amazon Prime Video for ₹125 crores (US$16 million)

Kalki took him three years and six months to complete this novel  Kalki had also gone to Sri Lanka three times to research this novel. As same as the author's effort, It took nearly thirty-five years of hard work and toil from Manirathnam and his team to deliver a product as gigantic as Ponniyin Selvan, who has been in the constant quest to present new stories and transcend the cinematic boundaries just a little more over the edge. 

When popular novels are turned into movies, this creates a whole new world and an exciting opportunity for viewers to visually see the story play out. Following the adaptation, it led to an unfortunate battle between "which is better, the movie or the book?". To answer that, actor Karthi's speech in the teaser launch may serve the purpose. He said "We can't produce history, if we didn't read history. This movie is a gift from Mani sir to the next generation. There is no chance of knowing the Cholas outside of Tamil Nadu in India. But, that’s only till September 30. After that, everyone will get to know about the Cholas through Ponniyin Selvan.  Every reader has an individual visual imagination of the characters. But this is Mani sir's imagination as like as 50 lakh readers' and it's beautiful."