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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


Comments to Yet another discussion on Ponniyin Selvan

am I in ;)

posted by Blogger Nilu 

3:55 am, September 24, 2005

Hi Anand,

I have been silently visiting quite regularly. But this is my first message - the reason being to somewhat offset the lack of comments for this post, which definitely deserves more.

However, I am too much of a novice to post add any insights.

Btw, I am from PSBB (KKN) too and was a year junior to you. Wonder if your mother remembers me... please convey my regards to her.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

6:15 pm, September 26, 2005

Well Nilu....! :p
Cheers Srikanth. Thanks for that. Much appreciated. Next time I speak to my mom I'll pass on your wishes!

posted by Blogger Anand 

6:54 pm, September 26, 2005

ya ya - tell your mom she's the reason I turned out this way ;)....

How convinient - I can blame teachers can't I?

posted by Blogger Nilu 

9:07 pm, September 26, 2005

I think it is best to leave Ponniyin Selvan in the written form since that at least gives rise to a vivid imagination on the part of the reader to invoke his/her mental images of a bygone era. Have it made into a film (and by someone who is less than perfect for the job) and people will start saying "pooh! this is what PS is all about" and that will kill a literary masterpiece for good. What say?


posted by Blogger Krish 

5:30 am, September 27, 2005

Anand, I read your posts regularly, but I usually don't leave a comment 'cause I've felt that it simply wouldn't measure up :)

This time I had to - I read this post and I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

posted by Blogger hemanth 

6:18 am, September 27, 2005

Interesting stuff, Anand!

In a recent Sujatha's article in AV, he had praised Mani Ratnam for translating entire Ponniyin Selvan into a crisp 8-module script! Not sure if it is for a movie... Some time back a whole lot people even thought of shooting it into serials... Suprising that no one has yet made a shot on the work... You should probably take the step when the time comes!

posted by Blogger Sriram 

2:58 pm, September 27, 2005

hi Anandh,
many of the matters you have posted are beyond my knowledge to comprehend.

But whatever wud be the happiest to see a perfect ponniyin selvan.

I see that energy in you. All the best!

posted by Blogger Dubukku 

1:11 am, September 28, 2005

"...then people would leave home every evening at the regular time, go to the nearest cinema hall...."

It doesn't seem practical..

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

3:25 am, September 28, 2005

The funny thing is that quite a few people are still like that, including many fellow bloggers.

I think i know who you are referring to...

Man, is this a brilliant post or what?
I was thinking of the point you raised too...Nandini's relation with Veerapandyan
I was also thinking of changin the direction/screenplay. If the story/film were to begin in the island, at the time when Sundara Cholan is marooned there and meets the woman there, and then proceed from there without flashbacks, would that make for a good movie?
Remeber, I posted about PS and i was mentioning you. Maybe, PS deserves a trilogy - like LOTR rather than a single feature.

posted by Blogger Ravages/CC 

4:47 pm, September 29, 2005

Mukund: Good that we agree to utterly disagree.
Hemanth: Cheers mate!
Sriram: Maybe I will! Never know :p
Ranga: With your wishes, certainly!
Ravi: That certainly has to be looked into. You're certainly right if there are only two decent cinemas in the entire city, but I am talking about a different economic model. Haven't entirely figured it out, but I am sure that it can be worked out! Cheers for the point though. Taken!
C: Who is it machan? :p

posted by Blogger Anand 

3:23 pm, October 02, 2005

Your intention to make a movie reminded me of something. The hindi film industry again and again makes the movie Devdas which shows the agony of the spurned lover. The agonly of the person in the wrong job is far greater than the agony of not getting the right woman because of the number of waking hours spent on the job. Recently an American HR expert called them job prisoners.

posted by Blogger Hiren 

1:58 pm, October 19, 2005

hey anand,
awesome blog dude..
great to see you have such fascination towards ponniyin selvan..but, what i strongly feel is "if we create ponniyin selvan in TV as serial, the characters which manniyen selvan gave life would disappear from our minds...
Each one of us have a unique version (imagination) of situations and timeperiods, Kalki has potrayed,which would be distracted by a video potrayal...
whats your thought? "...U know there is a group for PS..
By the way, i did my postgraduation in chemistry in anna university..saw you couple of times in university, but cud not talk to you... Anyway, i wud like to add you as my friend .. if you have id in orkut,gazzag,hi5,etc pls send me..
visit me at

wud like to befriend you..


posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

7:22 am, November 26, 2005

Not sure whether you get a chance to visit the yahoo groups on ponniyin selvan.

There are lot of articles (facts & fictions) regarding this novel available in ponniyin selvan yahoo groups.
and the archive is also available at

posted by Blogger Humble 

2:48 am, July 05, 2007

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