Maniyin Ponniyin Selvan: Cracking the Story telling Code for an epic:

The much-awaited sequel to Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: I was released on April 28, and we finally have a complete view into how Kalki’s literary magnum opus has been adapted to the theatrical film format. Making the film version of Ponniyin Selvan, a five-part novel that first ran as a weekly serial for almost four years in the Kalki magazine, has been a long-pending dream for Tamil cinema. So how has Mani Ratnam and team fared in doing the one thing that eluded filmmakers such as MGR and Kamal Haasan.

PS-1 did exceptionally well at the box office and by all indications, PS-2 too seems to be heading for a great theatrical run both domestically and overseas. In terms of audience feedback, we have seen that while most liked the films, there is a section of viewers who are not so happy with the adaptation. Purists who read the story when it was serialised in the Kalki magazine or later as a novel have not taken kindly to the fact that Mani Ratnam has made changes to the original story. Many also feel that some of the subplots in the story have been left out, and a few interesting characters have been short-changed.

Now this happens all the time, and it is difficult to recall a piece of work in one form that has been adapted into another form in its entirety and quality. But for those who have not read the novel or have a limited idea of the story and its characters, the adaptation comes across as quite good, with the second part in particular tying up all the loose ends nicely and giving closure to all the main characters. This is where I feel that Mani Ratnam as the director and his writing team — comprising himself, reputed author Jeyamohan, and Elango Kumaravel who had prior experience in adapting the novel into a drama format — have done a fantastic job in translating the novel into the big screen.

At the outset, it would appear that having a ready-made script with the plot, subplots, story, dialogues, and screenplay available on a platter makes it pretty simple for a filmmaker to adapt it to the big screen format. But in my opinion, one of the main reasons many who were enamoured by the novel and wanted to turn it into a film couldn’t do so earlier, is that they were possibly unable to crack the code of this conversion and therefore didn’t proceed further. Of course, in those days, making it in just one part vis a vis the two-part flexibility Mani Ratnam has now, would have made the job all the more difficult.

This is why I believe that among the various reasons for the success of the films — including the cast, performances, cinematography, art design, production values, action choreography, music, and overall making — the most critical aspect has been the scripting or the storytelling strategy Mani Ratnam and his team adopted.

Such a strategy would not be needed if the novel was made into a multi-episode web series or a TV series such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. In fact, the Ponniyin Selvan novel content is ideal for such a format. Imagine if an episode of 45-60 minutes dropped weekly for the next 52 weeks on a digital streaming platform. Just like how Kalki used to end every chapter with a suspenseful hook, the episodes could have been structured for the audience to eagerly look forward to the next. This format would also have ensured that justice is done to all the characters and their sub-plots, just like how it is in the novel.

The fact is, however, Mani Ratnam wanted to make a theatrical film because by his own admission, he simply loves the big screen experience. A long web series would have meant no big stars and none of the industry’s best technicians. Again, by his own admission, the phenomenal success of SS Rajamouli’s two-part Baahubali gave him the window of opportunity to conceive Ponniyin Selvan as a two-part product, instead of struggling to squeeze the entire novel into a three-hour film. I reckon that most of the critique surrounding the film would disappear if one makes peace with the chosen format. Then, if we look at what Mani Ratnam and his writing team have accomplished with the films, we will realise what an exceptional and smart job they have done in cracking the overall scripting strategy as well as storytelling tactics.

The strategy I see is to not be bound by the clutches of the original story of Kalki entirely, but to retain the script largely and make logical changes to suit the film format. If the team had decided to stick to the original story completely, it would have been impossible to wrap it up in a two-part film format. Here becomes important the tactics of storytelling employed by Mani Ratnam and the film’s writers, some of which are extremely interesting and smart.

Unlike Baahubali, where even the first part had a closure but with a “Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali” hook to the second part, PS-1 cannot be seen as a standalone film. The first part only introduces the key characters and sets the context to the whole story, and without the second part, it offers no sense of closure at all. But of course, the making quality of PS-1 ensured that enough interest was created to watch the second part.

PS-2, however, can be watched in isolation, as the mini-introduction to the first part in the beginning and the many flashback references help one adequately follow the film even without watching PS-1. In fact, it was even successful in evoking an interest to go back and watch PS-1.

Among the original novel’s various characters and threads, the Mani Ratnam team chose to pivot the story around the love affair of Aditha Karikalan and Nandini. For a film format, this thread provided for variety, as it contains shades of adolescent love, mutual love, unrequited love, revenge, betrayal, conspiracy, and even sacrifice. It therefore made sense to take this up as the plot around which the story revolved.

The writers expectedly chose to ignore the depiction of certain characters who did not add value in the larger scheme of storytelling. For a majority of the current generation who had not read the book, trying to depict all the characters in the novel in the two parts would have ended up to be a confusing affair.

In what was quite audacious, the team also tweaked the story and swapped characters (Maduranthakan and Senthan Amudhan) towards the climax of PS-2. While this really ruffled quite a few feathers, when you watch the film in isolation, it seemed like a seamless plot and a logical closure, which was also limited to the few characters of focus.

Lastly, the changes to the story were limited to PS-2, while PS-1 stayed true to the book except for the elimination of a few characters such as Kudanthai Jothidar and Manimegalai. This ensured that the audience watched PS-2 without many presumptions.

Using the above approach, Mani Ratnam, and more so the writers, have given a template to handle such adaptations of voluminous epics into theatrical films. The insertion of one disclaimer that the film is a theatrical adaptation of the novel and certain creative liberties have been taken in the process should take care of any objections that may arise about the original content being twisted. However, the question that remains is, is it right to use the title of the original work given the notable changes that have been made? As some memes on social media said, was it ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ or ‘Maniyin Selvan’? The way the film turned out, I would say it was indeed ‘Maniyin Ponniyin Selvan’ — a work that would rank among the best in his already coveted filmography.

(This piece was written for the news portal The News Minute and was carried on the 8th of May, 2023 and the link is here.)

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