Mani Ratnam: Pandemic cannot be an excuse for making bad films

It is common knowledge that Mani Ratnam is a man of few words, and the director reiterated this fact at a recent media interaction about his upcoming film Ponniyin Selvan 1. Although the filmmaker kept his answer brief, he touched upon topics like why Vikram’s Aditya Karikalan is at the forefront of the film instead of Jayam Ravi’s Arulmozhi Varman, the support he received from Jeyamohan, working during the pandemic, and his first choice for Nandini’s character before Aishwarya Rai.

Excerpts from the conversation:

How will the Tamil in Ponniyin Selvan be, given that the novel uses a form of Tamil that’s not in use now?

We tried to use the same pure Tamil for the dialogues. Jeyamohan (dialogue writer of the film) gave us dialogues in pure Tamil only, but it is presented in a way that is easy for the actors to emote.

Is this adaptation your interpretation of Amarar Kalki’s novel or is it a faithful representation?

It would be both. I am a fan of Ponniyin Selvan’s novel and Kalki’s writing. I am also a fan who was sitting on that side of the table. So, it will reflect Kalki, but it would also have some of my interpretation and my presentation.

Have you ever used this story as an inspiration for your previous works?

In Thalapathy, there’s this song “Sundari Kanaal Oru Sedhi”, where Shobana waits for Rajinikanth. The whole sequence is inspired by Poonguzhali’s wait for Arulmozhi Varman.

What’s the reason behind your casting choices?

When I read Ponniyin Selvan, I didn’t think that I was going to make a movie based on it. I had the same experience as anyone else, I had my own version of the characters in my head. When it came to making a movie, I thought these actors would more or less fit into the roles. Once I started working with them, they were able to get into the characters.

Is the shooting of Ponniyin Selvan 2 over? When will it be released?

Yes, the shoot is over. After the first part is out, it would take about six to eight months for the second part to come out. Meanwhile, the VFX work will be done.

The audience’s taste keeps changing and makers complain that it is hard to adapt to the changing trends. Did you add or do something to make the film suitable for the audience now?

I didn’t add anything specific to the film. It was better to make the movie in parts or series because one film was not enough to cover it all. So, I think it is good that the novel was not adapted into a film before. I think this is the right time for a Ponniyin Selvan film because we get to make it in at least two parts.

Is Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) your favorite character, because he seems to be at the forefront more than Ponniyin Selvan (Jayam Ravi) in all the posters and promos?

If you have read the book, you will know Ponniyin Selvan comes into the story quite late. So, we wanted to travel in the same way as the book.

After the trailer’s release, you would have received some negative comments. Did the feedback make you want to change something about the film?

The trailer is just a glimpse into the film, and it’s better to ignore the negative comments because the whole movie is yet to be released. People are making assumptions about the entire film just by looking at the trailer. So, if a filmmaker believes he has given his best, there’s no need to worry about anything else.

Did you have anyone else in mind for Nandini’s character other than Aishwarya Rai?

As Rajini sir said that day (at the audio launch of PS I), Rekha was someone I had in mind before. After that, it was always Aishwarya Rai, who I thought was the best choice for the role.

Who tortured you the most and who did you torture the most on sets?

Everyone tortured me, and I tortured everyone.

A few words on writer Jeyamohan, the dialogue writer of the film.

One thing I was worried about the film was the dialogues. I wanted it to be pure Tamil but it should be simple and support acting. However, Jeyamohan fixed it just like that. His contribution to the film is enormous. In Kalki’s novel, all the characters are well fleshed out. If you take Sundara Cholan, with a book you can write a lot about him and how powerful he was. But with cinema, you can’t tell everything. So, every dialogue becomes important. Jeyamohan made all lines reflect their personalities.

There’s a compulsion for celebrities to be on social media. Even Vikram joined Twitter recently. Don’t you have the fear of missing out or how do you update yourself?

If you are in the moment and aware of everything that’s happening around you, you will be updated. For creative people, everything around them is a story, and one cannot afford to miss that. And… social media is not my scene.

Have you ever felt that if not for the pandemic, you could have done the film in an even better way?

The only thing I was concerned about during the pandemic was that the actors shouldn’t put on weight. I kept texting the actors, keeping them in check. I would be like, “Hi, Trisha, how are you?” But I can’t use the pandemic as an excuse. The pandemic hit everyone, not just me. It’s not at all an argument to say I could have made a better film if not for the pandemic. Our job is to deliver against all odds. I can’t release the movie in theaters, and go tell everyone there, “It’s due to the pandemic the film is the way.”

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