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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Mani Ratnam distorts Ponniyin Selvan, liberals are upset it ‘glorifies’ Cholas and nationalism

Director Mani Ratnam’s new venture Ponniyin Selvan I has come under fire for distortion and misrepresentation of Hindu identity. The much awaited movie’s teaser was released recently which revealed that the director has depicted Cholas who were staunch Shaivites without even a prominent Tripundra, the first and foremost identity of Shaivites.

Ponniyin Selvan, a historical fiction written by Kalki Krishnamurthy in Tamil, based on the Chola dynasty, especially the great king Raja Raja Chola I is a much appreciated work. Many have wanted and tried to make it into a film and either gave up or failed. Now Mani Ratnam has taken it upon himself to show it on the big screen and as feared by many, the teaser shows that he has distorted the Hindu identity and cultural aspects of the Chola dynasty and other historical characters of the time period.

Even though it is only partly historical and mainly a fiction weaved into a story connecting some historical characters and events, Ponniyin Selvan is regarded as the actual history by most. Being a responsible person Kalki Krishnamurthy didn’t do any injustice to the historical figures, and showed them in a positive light. So when Mani Ratnam proposed to make it as a film expectations ran high. Unfortunately most of the common people are unaware of the agenda injected through cinema in dehinduising and distorting history. There is a possibility of the common man taking what is portrayed in Mani’s film as the eternal truth.

With his earlier film Raavan, made to look much like the abduction of Ma Sita, Mani proved that he is as anti-Hindu as any other communist. He had shown Ram as a wife-suspecting misogynist and Raavan as the hero to whom Sita went back to. It is yet to be seen whether he has distorted the whole story written by Kalki, but the teaser shows that he has toned down the explicit religiosity of Cholas. 

To give a sample of how Kalki wrote the fiction, the first chapter of the book describes the glorious sight of Aadi 18 celebrations, an inherent part of Tamil Hindu traditions. It mentions that peasants sung the praise of valiant Chola kings and built Shivalayas. While the peasant part is fiction, other things said about Chola kings building temples and winning wars are historically documented facts.

But the teaser of Mani’s film doesn’t show any explicitly religious identities except in one place. Raja Raja Chola I took the name Shivapada Shekara, meaning one who bears the feet of Bhagwan Shiva on his head. As such he is described as a staunch Shaivite patronising Vaishnavism and Buddhism as well. At some point, in the middle of his campaign in Srilanka, Raja Raja feels that kings didn’t do justice to Bhagwan Shiva in building a humongous temple for him like Buddhist kings in Srilanka did.

Raja Raja’s patrilineal uncle and his wife were ardent Shiva bhaktas. They concentrated rebuilding temples and patronising Shaivism more than expanding the region under their rule. Chembian Mahadevi, renovated temples and replaced bricks with stones to help them withstand disasters. She also patronised Nambiyandar Nambi, a Shaivite saint who recovered the hymns sung by the first 3 Nayanmars Appar, Sundarar and Sambanthar. So Kalki’s original series had illustrations which featured all the characters of the Chola dynasty with Tripundra filling their foreheads.

Kalki’s novel shows her adopted son(a twist towards the end would show that he was a Pandya offspring), lamenting that she would empty the coffers by donating the wealth to anyone who comes with the sacred ash rubbed on their body and wearing rudraksha. Such scenes wouldn’t be in Mani’s film as it might not be as important for the storyline. With Mani showing the Chola family bereft of any obvious Shaivite symbols, it appears to be an attempt to distort the novel.

While Sundara Chola and Raja Raja are at least shown with a very small Tripundra on their foreheads, Aditya Karikala who renovated the Chidambaram temple appears with a tilak, way off from how Cholas are described by Kalki. One might argue that the tilak could have been from pre-war puja as Durga was the Kula Deva of Cholas, yet it doesn’t explain why a Shaivite king wouldn’t wear the sacred ash.

In another place, Aniruddha Brahmmaraya the Prime Minister of Sundara Chola talks about a strange religion waging wars on Bharatvarsh and demolishing temples and murtis. He says he dreams of Chola kings saving the North from such barbarians. Cholas built Vaidyashalas as much as they built temples and inscriptions talk about Kunthavai Nachiyar, Raja Raja’s elder sister donating funds for the same. Kalki mentions such details in his novel to give it a realistic feel.

It also gives a view into how sophisticated the Cholas were. However in Mani’s film, in some scenes depicting war Aditya Karikala and his troops are shown much like the barbarians the Prime Minister talked about. After many pointed out these misrepresentations on social media, a petition was filed in Madras High Court against the wrong depiction of Chola dynasty.

Another criticism was raised about whether ‘Arun’mozhi or ‘Arul’mozhi is the correct name of Raja Raja. He was named Arunmozhi, as mentioned by him in the famous Anaimangalam aka Laden copper plates and assumed the name Raja Raja I after he assumed power. Mani’s team has released another video explaining why the film has used ‘Arunmozhi’ giving references from inscriptions.

It has caused another confusion as so far Mani has been claiming that his film is based on Kalki’s novel. Kalki had used Arulmozhi, either by mistake or intention. If Mani is using the other name then the suspicion of distorting history becomes stronger. As if Mani’s distortions are not enough, Left Liberals seem to be upset with another ‘nationalistic’ film coming out.

‘Public historian’ Anirudh Kanisetti has written an article on The Print lamenting that it is an attempt to “reclaim the medieval Chola dynasty as icons of muscular nationalism”. While it is considered as the golden age of Tamilagam, Kanisetti thinks “the modern obsession with Chola’s glory is misplaced”. He has written the whole article based on a folk song about 2 landlords claiming that peasants were tortured and artisans were oppressed in the Chola rule. However one inscription in the Brihadeeswarar temple aka the Big Temple is enough to bust his claim.

The inscription says that Raja Raja brought artisans from other places to perform at the Big Temple and they were paid in gold as opposed to Kanisetti’s claims. Liberals’ hurry to discredit the film and the glory of Cholas even before it is released, and the distortion attempts made by Mani show why it is important to view the film with a critical lense. Yes, one of the wars between Pandyas and Cholas mentioned in Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan is a bloody one, but that doesn’t give ‘artistic’ freedom to show them as bloodthirsty savages.

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