Ponniyin Selvan: Book vs Movies

Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan (both parts), is now officially out for the world to see. Part two was released on April 28 amid hype and anticipation among both cinephiles and fans of the original novel. In PS-1, Mani chose to make a faithful adaptation of the source material. Many of us went into part two assuming that he would follow a similar approach here as well; fans of the book were all set to let their confirmation biases rule their viewing. Anyway, it’s safe to say that Ratnam has changed his route to a fair amount in PS-2, splashing into the canvas a good dose of creative liberty: reimagining specific plot points, skipping certain important characters and bringing some new perspectives to the fore. 

Now, wherever creative liberty is involved, there is bound to be furore and debate. Ponniyin Selvan is no exception either. Let’s look at a few of the major creative detours taken by Mr Ratnam and examine if they ultimately provide the dopamine kick they are designed for. 

Note: I haven’t read the novel (it is too expansive for an impatient, slow reader like me). I have penned this article based on the detailed discussions I had about its content, with two friends who are OG fans; Dhanya Mahalakshmi and Yadu Krishnan. (Shoutout!) 

This will obviously contain spoilers, so it’s best that you come back to this piece after you’ve watched the film. 

Who Gets the Throne? 

Let’s begin with the climax (ironic!), which has been one of the biggest points of contention for literature fans. Those who have watched the film will recall that Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) ultimately passes the throne to his uncle Madhuranthakan (Rahman) whom he believes is the right heir to the throne, given his ideals and non-violent principles. This didn’t resonate too well with me, given he was the very man who was conspiring all this while against his brethren (including Ponniyin Selvan). Just because they highlight his inclination towards non-violence and a return to his conscience at the time of war, I couldn’t take him as someone who deserves the throne – the throne that served as the central element for the entire sequence of events! This moment was as disappointing to me as Bran being given the throne in GOT

Now here’s the thing: the book has a completely different ending. Arulmozhi does give up the throne here too, but it is given to… (wait for it) Sendhan Amudhan (Ashwin Kakumanu), the flower seller. There’s a little backstory here. Sembiyan Devi and Mandakini are pregnant around the same time; the two happen to meet around this time, and Sembiyan Devi knows about Mandakini’s past with Sundara Chola. Mandakini gives birth to twins when the due dates arrive, while Sembiyan Devi’s child is born as a vegetable (a stillborn). And so, Sembiyan Devi’s stillborn is swapped with one of the children of Mandakini. This child grows up to be Madhuranthakan (Rahman). Meanwhile, the stillborn child is revealed to be alive – that child is eventually raised by Mandakini’s sister, who was tasked with burying him, and that child grows up to be Sendhan Amudhan. 

Now, this explains many things in the movie; for example, why Sembiyan Devi is so adamant that Madhuranthakan shouldn’t vie for the throne: after all, she knows that it is not his to take in the first place. 

Why did Mani sir choose to change this ending? I feel that a Jon Snow-ish twist around the origin story of Sendhan Amudhan would have rendered a subliminal high at the climax. I understand that dwelling into the Sembiyan Devi – Mandakini flashback might not have been feasible budget-wise, but they could have done this through a verbal revelation sequence. 

Who Killed Karikalan? 

One area that the fans of the book and the films would agree on, is that the highlight sequence in this entire saga would be the confrontation between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini at Kadambur Fort (which occurs in Chapter 4 of the book). It is a violent, complicated, and passionate relationship that is presented to us through these two characters. However, in the novel, the death of Karikalan, which happens after this confrontation, is left mysterious. The reader never knows for sure who killed Karikalan: it could be Ravidasan (the Pandya conspirator) or Periya Pezhuvattiyar, or, of course, Nandini herself. Anyway, at the novel’s end, Nandini is said to have left for a faraway land, never to return. The equation between Nandini and Karikalan hence is shrouded with a mystery even as the reader finishes the 2200-page classic. 

Mani Ratnam, though, gives us his take on who is most likely to have killed Karikalan; and, by doing so, gives us the most memorable sequence (and also a ‘Top 5 Vikram acting of all time’ moment). In the film, Karikalan, who has lost his mental stability owing to his killing of Veera Pandiyan, pleads with Nandini to kill him as karma for his wrongdoing. Nandini, who hitherto has plotted for the Cholas’ downfall, is suddenly vulnerable and confused, as a face-to-face encounter with Karikalan has softened her up. Finally, of course, in an iconic scene, Nandini sears her sword through Karikalan’s body while hugging him. She later regrets this act and drowns herself in the river. This is an intelligent mirroring of the first time we see Nandini in PS-2 (she comes out of the water). With these arcs complete, the drama feels like a full circle.

Where is Manimeghalai? 

This was another post-viewing FAQ by the OG fans. So here’s the thing: Nandini invites Karikalan to Kadambur on the pretext of marrying Manimeghalai, a Kadambur princess (and daughter of Sembuvarayar). Manimeghalai, though, is in love with Vandhiyathevan. She is the one who discreetly guides Vandhiyathevan into the room where Karikalan and Nandini meet. When, eventually, Vandhiyathevan is accused of killing Karikalan, she loses her mind; and to save her love, she even confesses to killing Karikalan (even though the possibility of this is fairly low). 

A character that accentuates the drama at Kadambur, completely eliminated from the film. Completely. How sir? Why sir?

The Multi-Starrer Moment

The book never had the three siblings (Karikalan, Kundavai and Arulmozhi) meet in one place physically; it was something that readers wished for, given their attachment to these characters. 

Mani sir gives those readers a fan fiction moment where he gets the three characters to meet at the monastery where Arulmozhi is recovering. And even non-readers were happy – after all, who doesn’t like a multi-star frame? XD

As we saw above, some of the creative decisions fly, while some of them don’t land as intended. All said and done, people say that Ponniyin Selvan is a fairly verbose book; to be able to translate that into an engaging visual fare is no mean feat, so at the end of the day, Mani sir wins for sure. And so does Indian cinema! 

Navaneethakrishnan Unnikrishnan
When I'm not working or sleeping, I'm mostly observing people and making notes on my phone for content. (Hope to be) Your go-to man for laughs, good music and useless trivia around movies.

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