Whether it boils down to the habit of being spoon-fed facts or the disinterest in a culture that is not one’s own, critic reviews of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ from the north of the Vindhyas have mostly been patronizing and ignorant.
If you grew up in Tamil Nadu, you have most likely at least heard of Kalki’s epic historical fiction novel Ponniyin Selvan, if not read it. The book being almost a rite of passage for Tamilians, the elevated anticipation surrounding Mani Ratnam’s two-part on-screen adaptation comes as no surprise. Add to this the bevy of popular stars such as Vikram, Karthi, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, Jayam Ravi and Aishwarya Lekshmi, promising to bring alive the grandeur of Kalki’s historical fiction celebrating the Chola kingdom, and the hype knew no bounds. Predictably, the response to the film from those familiar with the book fell into two categories—the majority that said ‘Oh we love the movie, it is faithful to the book’, and a minority that said, ‘It might be faithful, but is it great (or even good) cinema?’
Goal Mani Ratnam’s PS-1 is also a ‘pan-Indian’ film. Not only was it released in Hindi, but the stars also went all out to promote it in the northern belt, including on The Kapil Sharma Show. Despite the efforts, however, the response from the north of the Vindhyas has been mostly tepid, though it is said to be picking up. In fact, for some reviewers and audiences in this region, the context of the film seems to have flown right over their heads.
No blame game here, but here are some samples of the reactions to the film. ‘Chol Dynasty’. ‘King Sundar Chol’. ‘Vanthiyavan who helps the Chol dynasty’. One channel even called him ‘Vaanthiyathevan’. Pass me the avomine, please!
There is more. ‘Most faces [think Vikram, Trisha, Karthi and Jayam Ravi] are not recognizable for the Hindi audience so it is difficult to keep track of what’s happening’. ‘Dozens of characters swimming … with tongue twisting names. Vanthiyathevan… prances and skips around in a highly undignified way’. And, oh, a senior film critic also compared Karthi in the movie to Jackie Chan in “costumed action capers from Hong Kong set in crowded bazaars”. Meanwhile, Poonkuzhali, a character that’s both molten wax and sturdy steel, gets called a “feisty water-babe, named Poornima or Samudra Rani or something like that”.
A most frustrated Twitter user (enthahotness) even helpfully put out a six-part audio note to explain the story to those in the North — in her south-Indian Hindi, and changing the names of the characters to Amit, Sumit, Poonam, Neha and the like, to aid better understanding.
I have summarized PS1 for all North Indian people struggling to follow along. pic.twitter.com/gNUAGREgqX
—entha (@enthahotness) October 2, 2022
But then, why is it so difficult to get south Indian names right, or at least attempt to understand the backdrop of a film based on an epic? Also please, why the need to drop that last syllable? Criticize a film if you don’t like it, but why so lavishly shine light on your own ignorance with a 100-watt bulb?
Did any regional publication in the south review Jodha Akbar gold Bajirao Mastani gold Padmaavat thus? Not quite. And so, I wonder if it boils down to plain ignorance, the habit of being spoon-fed facts, or simply the disinterest in a culture that is not one’s own. A friend wonders why this cultural disconnect happens even at a time when Korean dramas and music are all the rage here, and we happily consume books by authors living in far-off countries, ready to learn a bit of their culture and food and customs. “Are stories not a window to another world?” she asks. Fair point, and that’s how it should be. It used to be, at least.
Watch TNM’s interview with Ponniyin Selvan-I’s Executive Producer Siva Ananth
I first watched Aparna Sen’s Bengali film Paromitar Ek Din without subtitles in a Delhi theatre, during a festival screening sometime in 2001. I did not know the north Kolkata-south Kolkata cultural divide. I did not know my luchi from my puri, or any Rabindra Sangeet. But the film still spoke. In the fledgling days of internet access, I went back and read about all these things. And, Aparna Sen. It broadened my mind a wee bit.
Like many others, I belong to a generation that watched regional language films on Doordarshan on Sunday afternoons, and listened to songs from other languages — Manipuri, Assamese, Bengali, Odia, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil — during Chitramala. I don’t recall them having subtitles. But no language felt alien. It sounded different, and that was about it.
So what prevents people from attempting to understand and not ridicule a culture one has not grown up with? And why is it difficult to pronounce names from other parts of India right, when every attempt is made to learn the correct way to pronounce a name from another country? It is easy to say that we did not learn about this history, but when the south appreciates films about the Rajputs and the Marathas, and does not call them Rajputas or Marathis, is it wrong to expect the same for a film about the Cholas? Besides, information is available on everyone’s fingertips these days.
Veteran producer and distributor Mukesh Mehta of E4 Entertainment had an interesting point to make. He told his Kerala team to put in pamphlets of the story of Ponniyin Selvan in theaters the film was releasing in. “It is fair to expect everyone to read up, but not all will. Sometimes, people need that extra bit of information readily available, so that they can understand things better,” he said.
A happy contrast to this is the Kannada film kantara by Rishab Shetty. The film, produced by Hombale Films, which also backed the KGF franchise and took Kannada cinema to the world, got a release in Kannada across the country. It was not initially dubbed. As the film is much much smaller in scale than PS-1, the decision worked well. In Delhi, some weekend shows went full house. It was getting difficult to find tickets in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. A young boy from Tamil Nadu who was interviewed on TV said, “Watching this film, I realized language does not really matter if a film is grounded and made well.” The exact sentiment that the team banked on.
Writer, actor and director Rishab Shetty told me they decided to release the film in Kannada with snatches of Tulu, and with subtitles, wherever it was released. News now comes in that the film will have a Hindi release too, with the trailer releasing on October 9. But, that is after those interested got to watch the film in all its Kannada-ness. Which is why I believe that certain films that are rooted in certain cultural contexts must be released with subtitles, and never dubbed. Otherwise, you end up changing the names, the context, and the audience experience of the film.
For kantara, the subtitles were written by someone who understands the local culture. All of the jokes might not have landed well, because the humor of the Dakshina Kannada region is subtle to a fault. Yet, even if you don’t know the tradition of Bhoota Kola, it would take enormous effort to not be moved by the closing stretch of the film.
The pan-India film craze is well and truly here. But how many films have hit bulls’ eye at the box office, riding on the ‘release in many languages’ formula? Not many. The ones who have — be it Baahubali, KGF, Pushpa gold RRR — have done so, because their content was generic, and could be placed anywhere. That is not the case with PS-1which is about a dynasty that once ruled vast swathes of the south and across the seas.
Par exemple, PS-1 is running in packed theaters in Tamil Nadu and other southern states, and has left everyone in the distribution chain happy. As one of them said, it will be to the Tamil industry what Baahubali was to Telugu, or even bigger. But, has it charmed the all-India audience? That’s a debate for another day.
Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.
Views expressed are the author’s own.