In 1958, a pre-political M.G. Ramachandran announced that he was making a film adaptation of author Kalki’s epic historical fiction novel, Ponniyin Selvan (Son of the River Ponni). The original novel, published as a serial between 1950 and 1954, told the fictionalized story of real Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola I, born Arulmozhivarman. Lauded as one of if not the greatest accomplishment in contemporary Tamil literary canon, Ponniyin Selvan made the Chola Empire and its laurels centerpiece to Tamil pride and nationalist discourse. Rajaraja Chola and his empire became synonymous with Tamil identity, a historical foundation for ethnolinguistic pride.
On September 18, Ponniyin Selvan I will be released worldwide. Directed by critically acclaimed Mani Ratnam and starring a loaded cast featuring Vikram, Karthi, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, and Jayam Ravi, the film has been awaited for decades. Frequent Mani Ratnam collaborator A.R. Rahman composed the soundtrack, and the single Ponni Nadhi is the only glimpse of the film we have so far other than the poster. While there is an understandably immense level of hype for the movie, we must be conscious of the sociopolitical role that Ponniyin Selvan may play.
It’s been a recent trend in Indian cinema – especially the Hindi and Telugu industries – to romanticize monarchical rule before European conquest. There’s a number of reasons for this. One of them is part of an Indian nationalist project that glamorizes the native rulers of South Asia as an assertion of national identity. Another reason is more aligned with Hindutva propaganda, as we’ve seen in films such as Samrat Prithviraj (2022) and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) – the latter starring far-right darling Kangana Ranaut herself. Both of these projects use films about royalty to stir up pride about either Indian or Hindu identity. Notably, there aren’t any historical examples that check off both of these boxes: most Hindu rulers were more regional, and most rules that had vast kingdoms across South Asia were not Hindu (Mughal Empire, etc.)
The Chola Empire is rarely referred to as an Indian kingdom. It is almost exclusively referred to as a Tamil Empire, due to its territory only in Southern India and Southeast Asia. In political rhetoric, especially by DMK titan Karunanidhi, the Cholas and Ponniyin Selvan are used as markers of specifically Tamil pride, in direct opposition to Indian identity. However, the film Ponniyin Selvan strays from this distinct Tamilness, as it is dubbed in Hindi and featuring stars from Bollywood such as Aishwarya Rai. In interviews with cast and crew, they all express excitement at making Ponniyin Selvan a story for all Indians. The induction of Ponniyin Selvan into the pan-Indian cinematic fold, along with similar films such as the Telugu Baahubali franchise, seems antithetical to the rhetorical use of the story in the past fifty years.
The Tamil glorification of the Cholas is highly problematic in and of itself. As director Pa. Ranjith pointed out, they were highly oppressive to women and oppressed castes – he was soon arrested for this comment after a complaint from the fringe far-right Tamil outfit Hindu Makkal Katchi (Hindu People’s Party). Social reformer Thanthai Periyar, from whom both DMK and ADMK claim political descendancy, was highly critical of the Cholas and other Tamil empires on similar grounds to Ranjith. The combination of the Hindutva nature of pan-Indian film, seen in RRR (2022) and the Baahubali films, with the deification of a brahmanical Hindu empire in the Cholas, strives to foster the right-wing Hindu imagination of a pre-Islamic, pre-European fantasy that glorifies the upper caste Hindu man. As Ponniyin Selvan and the triumphs of the Cholas reach a national audience, there will be no hesitation in Hindutva claiming the Tamil empire as a Hindu one. Much like RRR glamorized the ideal Hindu man in the image of Rama through Ram’s character, Ponniyin Selvan will likely do the same through the male characters of its story. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with the political right-wing nationalist subtexts of Mani Ratnam’s filmography.
Ponniyin Selvan reaching a national audience will just compound the issues of Tamil nationalists that use an oppressive, brahminical empire as a point of ethnic pride by giving it a pan-Indian appeal and opening up an appropriation of the Cholas by Hindutva groups. While I, along with millions of others, will surely watch the film for the star-studded cast and decades of waiting, we must be sure to be critical and conscious of the metanarratives found in such films and their political implications.