It is no secret that there have been various attempts at adapting Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 5 part novel – Ponniyin Selvan – dating back to 1958, with MG Ramachandran buying rights for ₹10000, equivalent to around $10000 right now.
Following this, there have been attempts from veterans like Kamal Hassan to adapting the same.
Finally, Mani Ratnam cracks the code with his two-part saga featuring an ensemble, a reasonably balanced ensemble, ranging from veterans like Prakash Raj, Sarathkumar, Parthibhan, Lal and Prabhu to newer faces like Vikram Prabhu, Aishwarya Lakshmi and Shobhita Dhulipala.
But the question is, has Mani Ratnam successfully adapted Ponniyin Selvan for the big screen?
Answering that would be tough. Reception for Part-1 was somewhat mixed in general. A more profound retrospective on why the movie didn’t work as expected opens up a broader range of exciting information. The nature of the mixed reception wasn’t unified. The disparity could be easily classified into casual mainstream cinemagoers and fans of the source material. This begs me to ask the question. Do we have some Action fatigue? Can creators entirely translate the magic of literature to a larger canvas?
It’d be easier to answer the second question. The answer would be no. Film adaptions of novels have never lived up to the complete potential of their source material. Creators skip elements in the source material due to time constraints or other reasons while adapting. Even the most extraordinary adaptions, like Lord of the Rings, doesn’t fully live up to their source material. Take the case of any other adaption, for instance.
Here the most considerable issue Mani Ratnam encounters is how he has to adapt a 5 part novel into a 2 part film. In the process, a lot of it gets lost in translation. Mani Ratnam is a melodramatist and a damn good one. He’s also a sensationalist, which works in favour of his exploration of romance. The romance in the book is much more complicated than Mani Ratnam’s far more straightforward approach. But he also wants to attempt to make the film more action-oriented. This is something that mostly bothered book lovers and casual cinemagoers alike. Was there any reason to discount the abundance of material in return for more action? I don’t think so. Even if there was any in particular, is it well done? Not sure of that either.
All these factors perhaps affected the marketing response to the sequel. Surprisingly it works in my favour more than expected. Mani Ratnam and Jeyamohan dive more into the characters, with little to no emphasis on action. The characters are better placed, and more characters of importance from the novel are introduced. AR Rahman does a relatively better job with the score. But again, still, the question remains. Does Mani Ratnam do enough to satisfy the casual cinemagoers?
Mainstream cinema has been very unidimensional in recent years. With every other industry aiming for a Pan Indian project, it feels like we are suffering the “Pan Indian fatigue”. Ponniyin Selvan doesn’t fit alongside other Pan-Indian releases in the last few years. It’s a period drama with elegance. But one that lacks the grandeur one might expect from Mani Ratnam, something similar to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ashutosh Gowariker period dramas.
The unfocused camerawork, the careless editing and the tonal issues are hard to overlook. But the source material and its strength work in favour of Mani Ratnam. The result is a movie more coherent than its predecessor but still lacks the required charm for a period drama.
On a personal note, I think this would’ve been better off as a show. From what I’ve heard, the screenplay skips many essential and relevant portions in the books. A show, maybe even a limited series, could’ve worked well with a streaming service to invest in it. The characters could’ve been explored better; the tonal shifts could’ve been more gradual than sudden. And, of course, Mani Ratnam could still deliver his magic at his finest.
So if you are looking for an out-and-out action-oriented period drama, Ponniyin Selvan is not for you. If you are looking for a well-crafted period drama, maybe Ponniyin Selvan might work for you. It’s better to check out the books than the movies.