How ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ Exposes the Politics of Appropriating the Cholas

The Tamil movie celebrates the richness of historical fiction in Indian literature while also raising thorny political questions

How ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ Exposes the Politics of Appropriating the Cholas
Actor Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, crown prince of the Chola Empire, in the film “Ponniyin Selvan.” (Lyca Productions/Madras Talkies)

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday and Wednesday. Sign up here.

It was a long-standing dream of the Tamil film industry to see a screen adaptation of “Ponniyin Selvan” — a historical novel by the celebrated author Kalki Krishnamurthy that tells the story of the early years of the Chola King Rajaraja I, who ruled over regions in southern India and Southeast Asia. First serialized in the weekly editions of Kalki, a Tamil magazine run by the author himself in the 1950s, it was later integrated into five volumes.

Dr. M.G. Ramachandran, the charismatic actor who rose to be chief minister of southern India’s Tamil Nadu state, was keen to have one of the most-read Tamil novels made into a film. In the 1990s, the actor Kamal Haasan, known for being ahead of the curve in film technology and experimentation, tried to realize this dream but could not. Decades later, the celebrated filmmaker Mani Ratnam has accomplished it. The five-part novel of over 2,500 pages in 300 chapters, with over 50 characters, was condensed into a two-part movie. The first part was released in September last year and became the highest-grossing Tamil film of 2022; the second part will be released this month.

“Ponniyin Selvan” is set during the 10th-century Chola period. The plot line, interwoven with Tamil history and heritage, centers around the power struggles within the Chola dynasty and their rivalry with the Pandyas. Both were notable kingdoms that ruled the region known today as Tamil Nadu and spread across Southeast Asia. Ponniyin Selvan is the moniker of the novel’s central character, Rajaraja I, and means “he who is beloved by the River Kaveri.”

When the film was released, many compared it to the popular fantasy drama series “Game of Thrones” and called it “Tamil Game of Thrones,” to which the director Mani Ratnam quipped, “I think ‘Game of Thrones’ is the English version of ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’” since Kalki had written the story some 40 years before George R.R. Martin started writing his series in the 1990s.

The film was critically acclaimed, receiving rave reviews from all quarters for its scale, execution, performances and music, and collected some $63 million at the box office, becoming one of the highest-grossing films in Tamil cinema of all time. It was well received in northern India too, where Tamil cinema has a limited viewership, and was praised as a well-made historical drama. What was less known was that the film had stirred controversy after being co-opted by caste communities in Tamil Nadu and that it was another attempt at appropriating the Chola age as a symbol of Tamil pride.

In his book “The Cholas,” the historian A. K. Neelakanda Shastri, who spent his lifetime researching and writing on these medieval kingdoms, points out, “The age of Cholas was the most creative of South Indian History … . In local government, in art, religion, and letters, the Tamil country reached the heights of excellence never reached again in succeeding ages … . Under this empire also flourished the seafaring instincts of southern India, which enabled them to add for a time an overseas empire to the more abiding prospects of a profitable trade with the States of the Far East.”

The Cholas’ rule lasted 430 years, from 850 to 1280. Among the rulers who held the throne, Rajaraja I is said to have laid the foundation for their long-held power in the region. The historian S. R. Balasubramanhyam compares him to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Hannibal of Carthage. Centuries later, he is the most adored ancient Tamil ruler and continues to be appropriated in Tamil Nadu politics. The two-part film series adds to this trend, celebrating the period as the “golden era” of India and the Tamil region.

To write the story, Kalki took references from the research works of notable Tamil historians and conceived some of the characters on his own. He also made trips to Sri Lanka to gather historical references. Hence, the novel has always been a hotbed of debate among history buffs. It is not considered highly literary, yet remains hugely popular. Since it was published, many parents have named their children Arulmozhi or Vanathi, among names of other characters.

For these reasons, the film adaptation will also be etched in the annals of southern Indian cinema. In Tamil cinema, a movie is usually held together by the actors’ stardom, whereas in this case it was the story and legacy of the novel. As such, perhaps no other film in the history of Tamil cinema was anticipated as much as “Ponniyin Selvan.” The ensemble cast included some of the best and most popular actors, such as Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha and Karthi, among others.

Born in a village in Thanjavur, the writer Kalki was allured by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and discontinued his schooling to join India’s freedom movement. His literary works gained popularity for their social messages on various issues, from the abolition of so-called untouchability to education for women and widow remarriage, among others. However, he was widely known for writing historical fiction. At a time when the country was reeling under the British, he embarked on a journey to tell stories drawing from the history of the Tamil country, the territory under what was then Madras Province, to evoke patriotism among the people. This led to the creation of several novels, “Ponniyin Selvan,” “Parthiban Kanavu” (“Parthiban’s Dream”) and “Sivagamiyin Sabatham” (“The Vow of Sivagami”), which dealt with wars, conspiracies, feuds and glories among kings set in the medieval Tamil landscape.

Historical fiction was not prevalent in the Tamil literary world in the 1950s. A common complaint from readers was that Tamil historical novels did not feature ordinary people. Hence, when “Ponniyin Selvan” was narrated from a non-royal’s point of view — from the eyes of the character Vanthiyathevan, a commander in the Chola army — and described the power struggle within the royalty, it was met with widespread approval. The series has been republished at least five times in the Kalki magazine in the past 60 years. In 1999, on the centenary of the author’s birth, the government of Tamil Nadu nationalized his works, which allowed them to be published and republished by various entities and publishing houses in different formats, with no concern for intellectual property rights.

The history of the Cholas has always been presented as colorful, depicting them as the ones who established the Tamil nation ​​across the ocean from their successful invasion of the regions in today’s Southeast Asia. It is thus the Cholas who come to mind for the majority of Tamils when talking about ancient history. However, the legacy of the long-gone Chola king Rajaraja I was a carefully constructed one, portraying him as the most benevolent ruler who took interest in the welfare of the people and had a sharp administrative bent of mind.

So when Jeyamohan, the renowned Tamil author and screenwriter of the film, said that the Chola reign was a “golden era” and that the people thereafter were tyrannized by various invaders until India’s independence in 1947, many responded by highlighting the atrocities in the Chola rule not mentioned in the film.

The noted Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith, who founded the anti-caste initiative Neelam Cultural Centre, said in 2019 that the Chola king was “responsible for forcefully grabbing lands of Dalits.”

“These fellows will proclaim that Rajaraja Chola’s reign was a golden era, whereas I would say Rajaraja Chola’s reign was our darkest period … . It is during his rule that our (Dalits) lands in the Thanjavur delta region were taken from us … . The dangerous caste-based oppression was enforced during his rule.”

His statement created a huge controversy with Chola-fanatic communities, who include various caste groups claiming Chola lineage. A case was filed against him under Section 153 of the Indian penal code, with charges of deliberate provocation with intent to cause rioting in case a riot occurs as well as promoting conflict between different groups.

In The Print, an Indian news publication, the historian Anirudh Kanisetti wrote that “Chola kings took great pride in destroying cities and seizing and killing women … . The evidence shows us that the Chola empire was not only as brutal as any other but that even its own subjects had a much less rosy picture of it than we do. If this can be called a golden age, it was only a golden age for its kings.” He further highlighted folk ballads that spoke of caste-based violence and land grabbing sanctioned by the Cholas. At the heart of it, he said, the empire was a “group of elites,” led by the king, who collaborated to generate revenue from land, often fighting to keep as much wealth for themselves as possible.

However, the Chola empire and Rajaraja I have been appropriated by the Tamil Nadu government. Its Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department, along with Thanjavur Palace Devasthanam, organizes “Sadhaya Vizha” every year — a carnival observing Rajaraja’s accession to the throne and his supposed birthday. The chief ministers of the state have always presided over this function, a political stunt to appeal to the caste communities that contend for Rajaraja’s lineage. The current chief minister, M.K. Stalin, recently announced that the “Sadhaya Vizha” will be celebrated as a government event, a move that was widely welcomed by the caste outfits appropriating the ruler.

Fifty years ago, then-Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wanted to install a statue of Raja Raja Chola inside the famous Brihadeshwara Temple. Since it was a protected site under the Archeological Survey of India, the permission was denied. So the statue was installed in the public park adjacent to it. Then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi adorned the statue with a crown to mark the 1,000th year of his rule in 1984, when M.G. Ramachandran was the chief minister.

Karunanidhi had also drawn parallels between his modern-day administration to the supposedly golden era of king Raja Raja Chola. Even today, posters bearing communal-political slogans are common in the streets of Tamil Nadu, bearing the picture of the Chola king’s statue alongside headshot photos of leaders belonging to a particular community or political party in their efforts to claim the Chola king as their ancestor.

Moreover, the film initiated a “Cholas v. Pandyas” dispute. The two sides exchanged ugly remarks that were fueled by the local media channels through their primetime debates. Posters in the public warned the “Cholas” that the “heirs” of the Pandyas had “not forgotten the avengement.”

Making sense of the situation, the Tamil writer Marudhan told New Lines, “Rulers, as a custom, claimed themselves as descendants of the Solar dynasty (Surya Vamsa) or Lunar dynasty (Chandra Vamsa). Since they wanted to belong to a proud legacy and knew that something like that cannot exist, they [had] created this tradition. In the need for such a proud legacy in today’s times, some communities (let’s say castes) want to fit themselves into this royal tradition. Only because there is a golden-era image constructed around Rajaraja’s reign, they are contending for his lineage. Such a claim is a collection of dreams, beliefs, and established traditions.”

Hence, the “Ponniyin Selvan” film series, Kanisetti said, is also “the part of a decades-long attempt to reclaim the medieval Chola dynasty as icons of muscular nationalism.”

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy