Adapting Kalki’s Tamil novel series Ponniyin Selvan to the big screen has been an ambitious dream in the Tamil film industry since the time of MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR. On September 30, Mani Ratnam’s vision of that cherished project will see the light of day. The trailer of Ponniyin Selvan: 1 was released on September 6, and fans of the series have gone berserk over the characters and the plot threads that appear in the video.
It goes without saying that the film should appeal to those who haven’t read the books too (the story was first serialised for Kalki magazine in the first half of 1950s and later compiled into five volumes), but even so, knowing some Chola history can only make the experience more rewarding. However, if you aren’t familiar with Ponniyin Selvan and the prospect of reading over 2,000 pages before the film’s release is too intimidating for you, here’s a cheat sheet.
The series is set between 900 AD and 950 AD, and follows the events in the Chola kingdom ruled by emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj). The bedridden Sundara Chola is virtually a prisoner in the hands of the powerful Pazhuvettaraiyar brothers and even his own family finds it difficult to meet him without their permission.
The older brother – Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarathkumar) – is the chancellor-treasurer of the Chola kingdom while the younger brother – Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (Parthiban) – is the chief commander of the Thanjai fort where the Emperor stays. They wield such power because the Pazhuvettaraiyar clan has proven its loyalty to the Cholas in battle, and Sundara Chola cannot afford to displease such important allies.
The Emperor and his Queen Vanavan Mahadevi (or Vanamadevi, played by Vidya Subramanian) have three children — crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), princess Kundavai (Trisha) and prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi).
Vikram as Aditya Karikalan
There’s also Sembiyan Mahadevi (Jayachitra), the dowager queen, whose son Madurantakan (Rahman) nurses ambitions to succeed Sundara Chola.
Trisha as Kundavai
Sembiyan Mahadevi’s husband, Kandradithan, was the older brother of Arinjaya, Sundara Chola’s father. However, since Kandradithan and Sembiyan Mahadevi did not have children for a long time, Arinjaya was crowned after him. It was decreed that Arinjaya’s son, Sundara Chola, would succeed him – even though Madurantakan was born to the couple late in their marital life.
Jayam Ravi as Arulmozhivarman
The Cholas were devout Shaivites (Shiva devotees) but they did not persecute Vaishnavites (Vishnu devotees) or people belonging to other religions like Buddhism in their reign. Sembiyan Mahadevi and Kandradithan are no exception; they also raise Madurantakan to be a man of god but he changes his mind about his destiny.
Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan
Emperor Sundara Chola is in the Thanjai fort while his daughter Kundavai is in the Pazhayarai palace. Pazhayarai was the capital of the Chola kingdom but it lost its importance slowly as Sundara Chola shifted to Thanjai.
Crown prince Aditha Karikalan is in Kanchi where he has built a golden palace and wants his parents to visit him. Meanwhile, Arulmozhi Varman is in Eezham (Sri Lanka), waging war against King Mahinda.
Some other place names that you will hear frequently are Pazhuvoor, home of the Pazhuvettaraiyars; the Kadambur palace where a significant conspiracy against the Cholas is hatched; and Kudanthai, where a famed astrologer lives.
Ponniyin Selvan is about the battle for succession in the Chola kingdom. At the beginning of the story, a comet appears in the sky. This is interpreted as a sign that someone from the royal family will die. Since Sundara Chola has been ill for years, it is assumed that he will pass away soon.
Aditha Karikalan should succeed Sundara Chola but the crown prince, while celebrated for his valour in battle, is also known for his erratic behaviour. His younger brother, Arulmozhi Varman, is the people’s favourite. Princess Kundavai, who is known for her astute reading of politics, also believes that Arulmozhi will become a great emperor. She is grooming the shy princess Vanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) of the Kodumbalur clan to marry Arulmozhi.
Madurantakan, who is uncle to Sundara Chola’s children but closer to them in age, is married to Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar’s daughter. The Pazhuvettaraiyars prefer him to succeed Sundara Chola since that will give them even greater power. There are other allies of the Cholas who also conspire with the Pazhuvettaraiyars over this.
Meanwhile, the Pandyas are thirsting for revenge. Their king, Veerapandiyan (Nassar), was killed by Aditha Karikalan, and they have sworn to avenge his death. They are waiting for a golden opportunity to destroy the Chola dynasty.
Vandiyathevan (Karthi) is a prince from the Vana clan that serves the Cholas. He can be considered as the hero of Ponniyin Selvan since it is through him that the reader meets most of the characters.
Vandiyathevan is Aditha Karikalan’s friend, and the latter sends him from Kanchi with messages to his father, Sundara Chola, and his sister, Kundavai. The Vana prince is known to be flirtatious and cheeky. Kundavai and Vandiyathevan develop feelings for each other.
In his travels, he keeps running into Azhwarkadiyan (Jayaram), a Vaishnavite who engages in verbal duels with Shaivites all the time. Azhwarkadiyan is a Chola spy who works for Aniruddha Brahmarayar, the Prime Minister of the Chola kingdom. Azhwarkadiyan and Vandiyathevan sometimes argue with each other and sometimes help each other, too.
Poonkuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi), a boatwoman, is another important character in Vandiyathevan’s travels.
Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is the chief antagonist of Ponniyin Selvan and also a tragic figure. She’s known for her astounding beauty that captivates the hearts of men instantly. Several women too are attracted to her magnetic charm, and find it difficult to refuse her bidding. She is of mysterious origin and is Azhwarkadiyan’s foster sister.
When Nandini was a child, she used to play with the Chola royal children. Prince Aditha Karikalan falls in love with her, but Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi separates the two for certain reasons. Kundavai also hates Nandini because she’s jealous of the latter’s beauty. The dislike is mutual.
Nandini harbours intense hate towards the Cholas because of this and another reason – the killing of the Pandya King Veerapandiyan, who was special to her. Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar is enamoured by her beauty and marries her though he’s decades older than she is. She allows this to happen because she knows she can use him to accomplish her mission. Nandini conspires with the Pandyas in their bid to destroy the Cholas.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini
Ponniyin Selvan means ‘Son of Ponni’ or the ‘Darling of Ponni’. The river Ponni or Kaveri, as it is also known, flows through Tamil Nadu. At the age of five, Arulmozhi Varman accidentally falls into the river when the royal family is out on a picnic. He is saved by a woman who everyone assumes must be Mother Kaveri herself. He’s therefore known as ‘Ponniyin Selvan’.
This incident is significant in the story, and is referenced several times in the context of unravelling the secrets of the royal family.
*DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU DON’T WANT MAJOR SPOILERS
Kalki has always maintained that Ponniyin Selvan is historical fiction. Vandiyathevan, who is one of the main characters in the series, is not prominently featured in Chola inscriptions. However, it is true that he married Princess Kundavai.
Nandini is an entirely fictional character. But it is true that the assassination of prince Aditha Karikalan – who killed King Veerapandiyan – was an act of revenge. It is not clear who all had a role in the assassination. However, Arulmozhi Varman did not succeed Sundara Chola as should have been the case after the crown prince’s death. Instead, it was Madurantakan, also known as Uttama Chola, who ascended the throne. There are different theories around this. Some say that Uttama Chola forced Sundara Chola’s hand in the matter. Others say that it was Arulmozhi who voluntarily made way for Uttama Chola.
It was speculated that Uttama Chola was part of the conspiracy to assassinate Aditha Karikalan. However, this was later declared to be a misreading of the Chola inscriptions.
Kalki makes use of these various interpretations to spin an imaginary web of palace intrigue and conspiracies. In his version, the Madurantakan who ascends the throne is not the same Madurantakan who had a hand in the crown prince’s murder. It is thus that Arulmozhi voluntarily steps away from the throne in Ponniyin Selvan. It is only after Madurantakan’s time that Arulmozhi is crowned king. He goes on to become Raja Raja Chola 1, the greatest emperor of the dynasty.