Sarath Kumar Interview: Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar is a noble man
Sarath Kumar, who plays Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar in Ponniyin Selvan-I, talks about the complexities of playing a character who exudes nobility, assertiveness, and yet, betrays vulnerability
The momentum of a story is not merely propelled by the summation of choices made by the protagonist and the antagonist; every good story needs pivotal supporting characters with enough leverage and intensity. Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar from Ponniyin Selvan-I, portrayed by Sarath Kumar, is an important cog in the wheel of the film. “Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar is the protector of the Chola kingdom, not the Chola royals. His loyalty lies with the people.” Sarath Kumar points to the whiter areas of a character known for his greys.
Many great filmmakers have tried and failed to bring Kalki’s epic novel, Ponniyin Selvan, to the screens. And now, under the stewardship of filmmaker Mani Ratnam, an eye-catching ensemble cast of A-list actors and technicians have brought this film to generally favourable reviews. “The attempt to make such a mammoth production deserves respect,” says Sarath Kumar, before continuing with a note of thanks. “I would like to register my thanks to Lyca Productions, Mani Ratnam, and the dedication of all my fellow artists and technicians.”
He goes on to recollect his initial thoughts after being cast in the film: “I was happy to just be a part of this film. I would have done any role, but I was elated to know I was chosen to do Pazhuvettaraiyar. Mani sir told me I would fit the role as I was already known to work out and keep myself fit. Moreover, Pazhuvettaraiyar being a legendary warrior with sixty-four battle scars, needed someone physically imposing.”
All grey characters are meant to be complex and are woven as such but Sarath Kumar does not think the Chola warrior would think himself complicated, “I don’t think Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar would consider himself to be complicated,” he continues, “He’s a simple man in his own right. His intentions are straightforward, he’s a well-wisher of the kingdom and he genuinely has the good of the Chola empire in his heart.
Sarath Kumar holds his character, Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, in high esteem. “His antagonistic traits emerge from the machinations of Nandhini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). It’s not that he thinks Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) or Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) are unfit for the throne; he just thinks—or is being made to think—that Madhuranthagan (Rahman) would make a better king. As far as I am concerned, Pazhuvettaraiyar is a noble man.”
The conversation veers towards the actors getting into the skin of their respective roles. “We began with a reading of the script, where Mani sir described all the characters in detail, right to the point where he would tell us in what decibel and intonation a line should be delivered." He remembers a particularly challenging day on set: “I think this scene will be in the sequel; it was difficult to perform," he pauses to gather his thoughts before continuing, “In this scene, Pazhuvettaraiyar is supposed to feel remorseful and beaten down. I was a little conflicted on the scale at which I should play the scene. Mani sir gave me the direction that he does not bow down to anyone. I remember him telling me that as much as I was supposed to look broken, I should not bow down because the character would not do that. Mani sir understands this character really well.”
Nandhini, the orchestrator of all the chaos unleashed in the Ponniyin Selvan story, is a character closely entwined with Sarath Kumar's Pazhuvettaraiyar. The actor, who witnessed Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's transformation into Nandhini up close, registers his praise for his co-star: "Aishwarya Rai is a great person to work with; she exudes respect and friendliness," he says and goes on to further elucidate the magnitude of her hard work by painting a picture of the scope of the project. "On the set, it almost looked like a film that was being recorded live. There was pin-drop silence; mobile phones were not allowed; no one prompted the dialogues… When we said the lines, we had to sound right. Despite not hailing from Tamil Nadu, she delivered her lines so perfectly that we could have gone with live sound.”
“I am a lot busier these days," says Sarath Kumar, as he lists his upcoming projects, including Naana, the Nirmal Kumar directorial with Sasikumar in the lead, Aazhi, by the critically acclaimed Malayalam director Madhav Ramdasan, Nirangal Moondru, by Karthick Naren, and Porthozhil, directed by Vignesh with Ashok Selvan in the lead. He is also reportedly developing a sequel to his 1997 blockbuster Suryavamsam and is in talks with director Gautham Vasudev Menon to work on an action film as well. He brims with optimism for the future: "I feel like my outlook towards acting has matured, and at least from my perspective, nuances in my performances have improved. I feel like I have been liberated from the shackles of genre expectations and the demands of a commercial actor. I am confident that the audience will see my evolution during the years ahead.”