Jayam Ravi: There is no way Ponniyin Selvan will fail
Jayam Ravi, who is essaying the titular role in the upcoming epic, Ponniyin Selvan, recalls the experience of working with Mani Ratnam and bringing an iconic literary protagonist to life
Few press interactions I have attended so far have been as focused, fun, and informative as the one with Jayam Ravi, who took time to meet fans and the press hours before the trailer of his next, Ponniyin Selvan, was unveiled in a massive event. Excitement and joy are palpable in Ravi’s voice, even as he betrays some nervousness amid much confidence. Above all, what comes through is the trust he has reposed in the vision of Mani Ratnam. The pressure surrounding such a project is immense and it seems like as the release date nears, there is no stopping the hype train. The literary adaptation is expected to satisfy everyone—devoted fans of Kalki’s books, cinephiles, and the millennials whose standard of spectacle is now defined by the RRRs and KGFs. It is no walk in the park, but Ravi is confident. When asked about how he dealt with the pressure of being the titular character, Ravi jokes, “I have broad shoulders; they help me.”
He goes on to share a light-hearted anecdote that hints at the pressure the team, led by Mani Ratnam, was under. “For a scene, I had to whisper something into the ear of an elephant. Mani sir asked me what I would be whispering, and I told him I would say something spontaneous as the dialogue wouldn’t be recorded anyway. Mani sir told me, ‘Intha padam seekrama mudiyatum nu kelu (Please wish for the film to be completed soon)’,” Ravi says, breaking into laughter.
Ponniyin Selvan is enduring Tamil literature, and is revered across the world by many, with Ravi’s father, the veteran editor Mohan, being one among them. Ravi remembers that his father would rent a bicycle and ride to book stalls to rent these books. “It means a lot to me that I am playing this character. My father respects these books immensely and he told me to be responsible while acting.” On the other hand, his mother, Ravi reveals, loves every character he plays, including, of course, playing the titular character of one of the biggest Tamil films ever. “Enga amma naan kooja-va nadichaalum rasipaanga, raja-va nadichaalum rasipaanga.”
Ravi believes that his characters choose him, not the other way around. “That’s the magic of this business. I am still searching for the reason why Mani sir chose me for this role. As actors, we are blessed.” Recalling the moment Mani Ratnam broke the news to him, Ravi says, “I couldn’t believe it. When he first told me that he was making Ponniyin Selvan, I was happy that something like this was finally happening in Tamil; I had no idea I would be a part of it. When he revealed I would be playing the titular role, I wondered why he picked me and why I was worthy of the role. I guess I must have done something notable to have deserved this chance. My sense of disbelief transformed into happiness.
The conversation digresses toward a pulpy topic, when he’s asked whether he is the highest-paid actor in the film. “We never talked to each other about salaries. So honestly, I don’t know how much the others got paid,” Ravi says, before punctuating his statement with a rather nice line. “I don’t necessarily see salary in monetary terms; the remuneration can be in the experience and memories too.”
How did he get into the skin of Arun Mozhi Varman though? Ravi answers with another anecdote. “Mani sir injected the character’s attributes into me. Months before filming began, he told me that I must transform myself into the role of this prince, not just physically but mentally too. Sir told me that everything in Arun Mozhi Varman’s field of vision belongs to him. I had to think and live like him. This means that when I sat on my house’s terrace, I would imagine that I owned everything in my neighbourhood. Intha veedu, antha veedu, intha edam, antha beach… okay, I will stop,” Ravi says, laughing. “See, it is all about imagination. A film like this demands the actors to imagine a lot.”
Ravi reveals that the filming was a gruelling but ultimately rewarding experience. Shot for a whopping 155 days across multiple locations, Ravi shares that the actors would wake up at 3am and get to the shooting spot before sunrise. “There would be 150 horses and 35 caravans on the sets. It was unlike anything I have experienced.” While the physical challenge was rigorous, delivering the performance was a different ball game entirely. “I had to imbibe the mannerism of this powerful chola prince. In fact, Mani sir screamed at me for looking down while delivering a dialogue once. That’s the only time he rebuked me. He said Arun Mozhi Varman would never look down. From then on, I stopped looking down even when taking the stairs.”
The filmmaker also closely guided him during the dubbing process. “He told me to maintain uniformity in my baritone regardless of the emotion. Even if Arun Mozhi Varman is rejoicing or in a state of utter dismay, the intensity of his voice wouldn’t take a beating because he has seen it all.”
As people wait with bated breath for the arrival of Ponniyin Selvan, there are doubts among ardent fans of the books about the adaptation doing justice to the source material. It is a predicament the team is fully aware of, Ravi assures. “I think the negativity comes from a place of concern. Even those who are doubtful about the film want it to be good. And we have been quite careful about the film. I see the doubt as a positive factor. I don’t feel we have touched something that shouldn’t be. Instead, we are proud to have adapted material that was thought impossible to make a film on. Mani sir has been working on the script for years now. As someone who has seen it up and close, I can confidently say that there is no way this effort can go wrong,” Ravi concludes.