The conflict of values in Ponniyin Selvan – 1 [Film appreciation]

I watched Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan – 1 twice with my elderly family members who are fans of the book. They loved it. I did too. We all found the film dreamy, mesmerising and magical. The magic was not just about seeing PS alive on the screen, I realized later. It is how MR has essentialised the book on screen. 

What do I mean by ‘essentialised’? Many people feel that a five-part series is rich material for an OTT series. I am not sure I agree. PS the book has plenty of action, twists and turns but much of it is bloat. It is over-written. It won’t sustain on screen. It will get boring. More importantly, the essential nature of the story might get lost in all the running time.

PS is, at heart, a story about people, ideals and values. It is a story about empire building. The core conflicts of the novel are in the space of values. Take the three main characters. Adithan, Kundavai and Arunmozhi. The king’s three children are three different personalities, representing three different values. Adithan is an egocentric warrior who is driven to conquer and possess.  Kundavai is a traditionalist who wants to keep her kingdom stable and prosperous. Arunmozhi is a man of justice and rare temperance of will. The central conflict of the film exists in the space between these three value systems. This premise is there in the novel. But the film sharpens it so that it is now stark and obvious.

The two parts of the film are balanced accordingly: the first part is all Adithan’s, ending on the terrible high note of the emptiness of his revelry after all his conquests. The second part in contrast begins with Arunmozhi gently refusing the crown in Lanka on grounds of his principles. While the film did not show this, the book mentions that Arunmozhi imported rice from Pazhaiyarai to feed the people he conquered, he didn’t want them to suffer. Kundavai takes equal space between the two halves. She is always worried, moving. Even when she is sitting still you see her mind keenly at work. Sending out her spies, obtaining information, negotiating alliances…

There were couple of Kundavai scenes in the film that I loved. In one scene, she breaks up the nexus of chieftain-kings by tempting them with the possibility of a matrimonial alliance for their daughters with the princes of the land. In another, when she confronts Adithan, it is revealed that it was she who broke him up with Nandini. I am not sure if the scenes are in the book (I don’t recall it) but they were great in the film. It showed the essence of her character. She would rather do what is ‘right’ over anything else, even if it may not be compassionate or just. 

Visually, too, the film now comes back to me as a dream conflict of these values – the virulent reds, browns and yellows of Adithan’s Rashtrakuta, the serene greens and blues of Arunmozhi’s Lanka and the bustling colour, bountiful river and stately buildings of the Chola land. 

That is the question I feel is at the crux of PS. What builds an empire? Ambition and conquest? Stability and tradition? Or justice, compassion and temperance? It is not an easy question to answer. In fact it harkens back to the central questions of the Mahabharatha. 

The epic-like tendency of PS comes from its central engagement with such questions of value, not simply because it depicts war or political intrigue or various lands. It is what makes the book so popular, because despite its frivolous light tone, it sincerely engages with this. It is also why readers of PS are forever charmed by the ‘goodness’ of the book. There is no truly evil character in the book. It has no darkness, no princes plotting to burn their rivals alive. It presents the conflicts of the Mbh with the earnestness of the Ramayana. 

It’s also why PS is not a story like Bahubali that takes grand elements from myth, builds a tale about heroes. Bahubali has no major conflict of values. Bhallaladeva has elements of Ravana, Duryodhana, but while they were noble kings with a single fatal flaw, Bhallaladeva is a cartoonish villain. 

What I thought PS the film did brilliantly (and thus stands apart) was to keep the conflict of values alive. While the plot has Walter Scott-ian parts (like fifty people running around in the dungeons) that add colour, the essential conflict is always sharpened. 

Next question: why is this particular conflict of values between ambition, stability and compassionate justice important? Because that was the central conflict of ideas that built the Chola era. They are the values of Tamil culture as we know it today. 

I am not a serious student of Tamil history yet, my impressions from reading Sangam and post-Sangam literature. There are mighty gory depictions of battle. But alongside, a strong sense of religiosity, community and celebration. And the presence of introspective traditions alongside. Jaina, Bauddha, Kapalika, Lagulisa, Sakta, Vaishnava and Vedic. Our culture was built on the back of all these ideas. A queen like Sembiyanmadevi deciding to renovate a temple or dig a pond over directing those funds towards another conquest is a major cultural decision. 

A popular entertainment film cannot get deep into the history of those decisions. But art always talks about the inherent values at play; PS fictionalizes those values. The direction the film decides to take convinces me of this. The first half ends with AK’s empty conquest. It is a high note. But an even higher note is the end of the second half, the appearance of Oomai Rani/Mandakini, the mystical woman who rescued Arunmozhi from the floods. Readers of the novel know (spoiler!) that she was a woman wronged by the king Sundara Chozhan and (spoiler!) Nandini’s mother. While Nandini herself who faces a similar fate becomes ruthless and power-hungry, Mandakini is like the spirit of Ponni or Kaveri herself, watching over the king and his children. By marking Arunmozhi out as ‘her’ child (hence ‘Ponniyin Selvan’) the story marks out the values he stands for. ஓதிய உடம்புதோறும் உயிர்என உலாய தன்றே, Kamban says – he was another poster child of the Chola era. The king inherits the spirit of the river, spreading and compassionate. Kamban’s epic is a serious treatment of the same values. 

Maniam’s illustration from the novel.

I am able to guess how part two would go, perhaps the first half ending with AK’s assassination, and the second part with Arunmozhi crowning Uttama Chozhan king (Kalki calls Arunmozhi தியாகத்தின் சிகரம், the epitome of sacrifice). Again the same two-part balance between the two characters. But I want to see how this conflict of values set up in the first part plays out in the second part. The characters, their internal changes and what they eventually become. Because it is the story of how we became what we became. 

Fictionalizing history is not showing “what was” – we have no way of knowing “what was”, whatever we might believe today – but trying to intuit how the ideas and values that make us today could have travelled down to us. We have no idea of knowing whether the historic Raja Raja Chozan was an ‘epitome of sacrifice’ – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the idea of an ‘epitome of sacrifice’ exists in our culture. The possibility it could have ridden on his back to come down to us exists. The paradox of historical fiction is that when you encounter an artistic moment in it, history itself becomes meaningless. Kings are born to die like bubbles; values endure. That’s what you realize. PS1 the film, while it positions itself as an entertainer, retains that core. 

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