Siva Ananth: I'm not surprised that it took so long for Ponniyin Selvan to happen
Executive Producer Siva Ananth, who calls the super-hit Ponniyin Selvan, his most challenging film to date, talks about the production process that went into creating Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus
Siva Ananth is known to don many hats. He's a writer, lyricist, director, and actor. For Ponniyin Selvan, he functioned as an Executive Producer—having already done that for other Mani Ratnam films like Kaatru Veliyidai and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. "It brings immense joy to know that the film is doing well in every region. The distributors and theatre owners have stated that the film is doing better than they anticipated. Namma padatha mathavanga rasikirapo adhu namakku oru perumai dhaan," says Siva with a smile, as we sit down for a conversation at the Madras Talkies office, now filled with sword models used in PS.
Siva has previously been vocal about how the role of an EP is different here than it is in Hollywood and other film industries. Though he has done this job before for other films, he says that a film like PS redefined the meaning of the job for him. "The film is produced by Madras Talkies and Lyca Productions, and the roles of both organisations were well-defined. Madras Talkies would take care of the shooting and the production process—which begins with casting and ends with post-production work. My role in such a film is to follow the creative decisions of the filmmaker and make sure everything is being followed," says Siva. "PS is a dream project for Mani sir, and to make this dream a reality, we had to alter the rule books. Subaskaran sir (Lyca Productions) and Mani sir undertook the monumental task of adapting an epic novel and our job was to make sure there would be no excess or wastage. The cast and crew too were co-operative, with actors ready to grow facial hair, go bald, learn horse-riding and swordsmanship, and learn to speak classical Tamil. Their willingness to be a part of the team made it easier to execute plans."
As the role of an EP also entails working out salaries for the cast and crew, the conversation veers towards the numbers. "Compensating the talents is an important step, and we make sure nothing embarrassing happens. With big stars and technicians, there are really no negotiations; it happens only with talents in the next tier," explains Siva who was responsible for both the crores that went to talents, and substantially lesser amounts that went into expenses like travel and accommodation. "Veen akanumna enge venalum veenakalam. Whatever you see and feel on screen must be worth spending on, and the rest, the lesser we spend on it, the better. We have an auditing team, and my line-producers and production managers negotiate everything including talent, equipment, and location. We give them budgets to stick to and that gets shared with auditors who email us whether it’s all under control.”
Siva, who has worked with Mani for more than 20 years, remembers Mani wanting to revive this project multiple times. "It fell into place this time because of the decision to shoot it as two films. Baahubali also proved that people are welcoming of period films in which an older version of the language is spoken. We also believed we had the technological prowess to pull off such a project now. I'm not surprised that it took so long for this film to happen, given how technology was in its nascent stages back in the 80s and 90s." Apart from the usual difficulties of handling such a large team of talent and shooting a period film, PS also presented Siva and his team with new challenges. "For example, all the actors wore real gold jewellery that we sourced from a popular jewellery company who made it specifically for this film. Men don't wear jewels these days, but back then, they did, and all their jewellery had to be made from scratch. These were sent under the close observation of security personnel who had to make sure that the jewellery would be during and after the shoot. Similarly, we had a lot of animals in the set, and we had to figure out where we would let them rest and had to enable access to food and medical check-up as well. We worked during Covid times, so testing too had to be done rigorously. We had specific teams for each of these tasks," adds Siva.
When big-budget films fail, veteran production houses are known to work closely with affected parties to ensure that losses get compensated in future films. I ask how it works now, with the entry of corporate organisations into film production. “Production houses like Pakshiraja Studios, Modern Theatres, AVM, Prasad, Gemini, and Vijaya Vauhini Studios made sure that their paperwork was perfect. Similarly, for Madras Talkies, several technicians have been working with Mani sir for decades… AR Rahman sir has been teaming up with him for 30 years now while Sreekar Prasad sir has worked with him for 25 years," says Siva. "Corporate companies coming into production, according to me, is a healthy change, because there's discipline, a straightforward and honest accounting process and transparency. As far as funding and distribution are concerned, having a corporate company comes in handy. When you have longevity, the team you have will keep working with you and that relationship goes beyond the professional, and becomes a personal and creative bond."