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Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yet another discussion on Ponniyin Selvan

Note: please do not comment unless you have read this fully, and if you do not understand certain specific semiotic/sociological terminology like romanticism, mythology, humanism, liberalism, socialism etc. properly.

Ever since I read Ponniyin Selvan I have always held the opinion that it would work best in the audio-visual medium. I know a lot of people will come down heavily on me for this, and consider me unworthy of this kind of judgement: for that matter it would almost appear as if I should feign a certain kind of dogged blind following of the work if I am to ever get public sanction to realise my ambitions of making it into a film. Let me brutally frank; I am not of the opinion that Ponniyin Selvan is a great work of literature. I have read some other works by Kalki and found them to be literarily superior.

Yet, why does Ponniyin Selvan appeal to so many people? Why do I think it is fantastic source material for a film? And why do so many people disagree with me?

The story first came out in serialised form, so it has the typical characteristics of that medium. A long time ago I remember discussing this, I think on Lazy's blog with Ramnath. Through the course of any serial, quite a few things (including story, narrative slants and characterisations) change through the narration. In an academic essay written for Anna University ((I think I even blogged about it), I had described this phenomenon as being typical of a "diachronic narrative". A good example for which would be a blog. If you take any narration to be a form of storytelling, then a serial, or a blog, which changes quite a bit (through a change in the intentions of the author) over time, is unlike a "synchronic narrative" that is edited to be consistent and released as a full story "in one go". In a diachronic narrative, since the story is released and recorded (permanently) in incomplete fragments, it can work best only when read at the same pace and simultaneously as it is written. That is why reruns of TV serials do not work, and old blogposts contradict more recent ones.

Now, getting back to Ponniyin Selvan, I did not read it in serialised form, but novelised, yet despite its obvious diachronic characteristics, it had an appeal, and that is because of certain characteristics that go beyond the confines of the "form" it initially came out in. If one wants to be faithful to the original (which is something of a contentious issue in itself) while translating medium or form, these elements that transcend the medium are the ones that need to be decocted. What are these "transcendental" aspects of PS? I have, later on in this blogpost explained how to even exploit the diachronic aspects of the story.

The most obvious pull of the story is because a die-hard romantic wrote it. I personally am not a complete romantic in my aesthetic leanings, but I do realise the mythmaking ability of the style. By taking a mostly fictionalised, (and romanticised) account of historical trivia, Kalki creates a hearty myth for the post-independent Tamil person. Kalki infuses the story with a good dose of naiveté and political correctness. Kalki was also part of that curious Nehru-Gandhi generation (not to be confused with the family of similar name) who believed in both intellectual liberalism, and a socialistic "do-good" philosophy (a "very soft" Ingsoc style denial/rewriting of history), while being naïve enough to not realise the inherent contradiction. (The funny thing is that quite a few people are still like that, including many fellow bloggers. I am much more of a humanist than Nilu is, so I will stop at that.) The result is an incomplete understanding of history. So while PS makes for excellent mythology, it is very bad politics, economics and sociology. There is of course, nothing wrong with that at all! So PS is as much a reflection of Kalki’s own political ideology as it would be of anyone who tries to reread (or rewrite) it.

From a purely mercenary perspective, today, with an emerging economically affluent Tamil upper class seeking to find pride and identity in a globalised world, rehashing this myth Kalki helped foster would mean a windfall for the storyteller.

This is the school of thought that governs my assertion that PS is fantastic source material for a film. Not because I actually believe in its politics or buy its myths. For that matter I initially did buy its myths, and it is precisely in the hope that more people would, that I intend to make the film. I am not a socialist, so have no moral qualms about what others would call "wilful exploitation". Nevertheless, not being in complete denial of my humanistic leanings, I can at-best use the only medium I know well enough, that is films, to bury complex levels of reading and understanding into the storytelling. Kubrick is the example I come up with again and again. He was one filmmaker who could bury multiple (even apparently contradictory) meanings in his films. So there is one more reason for me to chose the film medium to retell PS: I can be true to my own politics, yet foster the romantic myth.

Note: This technique of burying multiple layers of meaning has nothing to do with "message" films of Shankar or Vijayakanth or masala films of AVM.

For an audience weaned on a highly immature storytelling milieu (I’m talking of both the lewdness of Indian cinema; and the CGI pseudo-grandeur of Hollywood), PS as I see and hear it, would be at best unfair, and at worst shocking. To give you a hint of what I’m talking about, imagine Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress with the depth of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. If the ramifications are too complex for you, then I’m terribly sorry for the fact that a culture that produced mature works of literature many centuries ago has deteriorated to this extent. (Refer to my own reasons for invoking "Sanga Thamizh" a paragraph on)

What about Ponniyin Selvan’s length? For a while, I very strongly believed that when decocted, the film would very easily fit standard feature length. I still do, but, of late, I have begun to wonder about exploiting the "superstory" characteristics of PS. In the very Anna University essay, I had also talked about the "diachronic superstory" versus the "simplestory". Maths students think of it this way: Identifying the simplestories in a narrative is akin to differentiation, and envisaging the superstory is akin to integration. Most Indian narratives are in fact terrific superstories. They are an agglomeration of tiny micro-narratives, that can either be told as a single story (You can tell me the story of the Ramayana in a hundred words easily); or can be told as a collection of tiny stories (with multiple meanings and micro narratives) in a lengthier form. When serialised, it becomes a "diachronic superstory". The superstory form permits an even greater level of multiple meaning generation and therefore moral/plotical/social/intellectual ambiguity. If you read the abridged Ramayana, Rama is clearly the hero—the good guy who gets rid of the bad guy; but if you read all the little stories that no one bothers to, you get to start questioning things.

(To give my ideas the "veneer" of seriousness, I invoke the "myth" of Tamil literary greatness)

For long, Tamil literary debates have centred on the moral questions surrounding works like Kamba Ramayanam and Silapadikaram. Even Deepavali "pattimandrams" focus on these aspects. In a superstory, by sheer length and level of detail, there are ambiguities that do no exist in an abridged form. (Sometime luckily, through history, diachronic superstories also because of these very ambiguities, are mostly untouched and preserved with multiple meanings (and ambiguities) and not "synchronised")

Does PS have ambiguous details to be exploited? Actually, one can find little hints especially owing to its diachronic nature that can be picked out and fully exploited. But it is certainly not the same as the Ramayana or the Mahabaratha when it comes to a wealth of ambiguity and details that have been (deliberately?) buried.

To give examples, Kalki hints at incest (with Nandini and the Pandyan king), but his congress party morality does not let him exploit it. He hints at political incorrectness when referring to Arab traders, but stops short and even corrects himself later. He is in denial of historical records that ascertain Arulmozhi Varman (or for that matter all rulers of that era) was polygamous. He is also wishy-washy about the horrors of his war in Sri Lanka. Instead he portrays the myth of a righteous, generous, "secular" hero; much like Rama. In the Ramayana superstory, Rama is much more three-dimensional. If one were to make Arulmozhi Varman three dimensional, then PS has to be a superstory.

Ponniyin Selvan as a TV series?
The TV series is the perfect medium for a diachronic superstory. In fact it is the only audiovisual medium for a diachronic superstory. It is episodic and temporally spread out. But I frequently indulge in vain assertions that television is the poor bastard of films. The small image and sound size, the low-fidelity and the economic trappings of broadcast television put me off.

Stanley Kubrick (there he is again) had his own unrealised superstory idea. He wanted to make Napoleon. Abel Gance could make an over three hour-long epic with the same theme during the years of early cinema, but current day economics and distribution constraints do no permit that. Kubrick said (in his interview with Michel Ciment) that he thought the television miniseries to be the perfect medium for Napoleon. But its low fidelity would have certainly put Kubrick off.

The low-fidelity aspect of television is not its only problem. Recent advances in technology like High-Def transmission means large screens, higher picture resolution, multi-channel high range sound, greater colour rendition and latitude, etc. so why do some of us still think TV is a bastard medium. Simply because TV can never possess the one aspect of the cinema hall: the communal experience. Walter Murch in his book In the Blink of an Eye, describes this rather eloquently. The fact that you watch a film in a darkened atmosphere sitting (as a voyeur) amidst complete strangers greatly influences your enjoyment of the film. So any film that exploits this aspect of the medium is a proper film. The rest of them can be watched alone on a DVD. In fact many films that I have watched alone on DVD, have seemed very different when watched in a proper cinema with a proper audience.

To give you an example from contemporary Tamil cinema that exploits this aspect of the medium, here is the Rajnikanth film Annamalai. In the Kondaiyil thaazhampoo song, Rajnikanth says the line "Koodaiyil enna poo?", stops the singing, looks to his left shakes his hand and head in question, turns right and does the same thing, then turns towards the camera to the do the same; at this point (you must only watch in a cinema theatre to know what I’m talking about) the audience shouts "Khushboo!" in response. Rajnikanth repeats that word in verse and continues with the rest of the song. How the heck can this be enjoyed on a DVD sitting alone in front of a telly?

That is also why sports events work best in a public arena rather than on TV. To compensate for the lack of immediacy and interactivity, TV gives you replays and "Hawkeye". But imagine this, if a televised cricket match is broadcast on HD, and received and projected in a cinema (much like the large screens on the beach), then the communal experience is recreated with the advantage of "Hawkeye". This is what the cinema of the future would be.

Since there are no prints, and since the transmission, like normal broadcast television is time-bound, the cinema operators cannot create their own breaks and intervals and edits (control freak filmmakers like me would be overjoyed). On the other hand, you get the best aspects of broadcast television with the best aspects of the cinema hall. The economics of such a technological venture need to be worked out, but it only appears feasible to me.

When such a system: i.e. HD transmission to licensed cinema halls happen, then people would leave home every evening at the regular time, go to the nearest cinema hall and watch that evening’s episode of the miniseries along with a proper audience and on a large screen. When this is possible, I’ll make Ponniyin Selvan exactly like I want to make it: as the "diachronic superstory" it would best work as. It also paves the way for a totally different medium of audiovisual storytelling and our epics are best suited to be told this way.


7:33 pm

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Monday, September 05, 2005

I really should not be blogging now

Am somewhere near completing my dissertation. That should ordinarily please me, but the problem is that I have been in that state for the past few weeks. Considering that I have only a little more than a week to go before I have to hand it in, it freaks me out.

But I have to blog, at-least to inform to the world that I am an uncle again. I have a little niece now. Another American!

Quite a few other things I have to write about, but I really cannot now:

- The really interesting middel-aged people I meet at bus stops, who indulge in the most bizzare conversations I have even had.

- Guruprasad kinda rekindled it, but I have a few ideas about PS that I have to write about.

- Just yesterday Anand and I went on a little drive down to the Cotswolds maybe he'll put up pictures.


6:33 pm

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References

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