Catching up with the Cholas- The Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha interview for PS-1
The lead cast of Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan discusses being part of a dream film and their learnings from being part of a duology
Getting to work in Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan means a lot to the lead cast. While Karthi sees it as a return to home territory (he worked as an AD to Mani Ratnam), Jayam Ravi says he felt like a student who got admission into a dream college. Actor Rahman sees it as a chance to demystify assumptions around his character Madurantaka Uttama Cholan, who he considers to be the most misunderstood person in the novel, while Trisha notes that her long-pending ambition to play a princess has now been realised. Plenty of dreams seem to have come true through this Mani Ratnam duology, with Vikram Prabhu seeing at least two of his come to fruition: The chance to work with his father Prabhu and the realisation of his grandfather Sivaji Ganesan's dream of seeing his family take part in the adaptation of Ponniyin Selvan. Each actor in this duology has a unique takeaway, with the common feeling being that they have all been part of an experience of a lifetime.
Here's the lead cast of PS-1—which is getting released on September 30—talking about Kalki’s novel, the Mani Ratnam style, box office pressure, comparisons with previous historic films and more.
Where would you place PS-1 among the many historical adaptations we have seen in Tamil cinema?
Karthi: You won't find the theatricality of historical films of the past. Mani sir has tried to keep it as subtle as possible. For instance, when my character Vandhiyathevan meets someone after a long journey on the horse, you won't find him bursting with energy. We try to capture his exhaustion.
Ravi: It has been a long time since Tamil cinema saw a historical fiction featuring multiple stars. The story of Kalki provides scope for this, and Mani sir has ensured that all of us are seen as characters from the book and not as our usual selves.
Rahman: PS probably has the most extensive pre-production work for any Tamil film. We had look tests for several months and workshops for close to a year. This preparation and planning has ensured that you see only the best on-screen.
What was it like to play characters that are dearly adored by the audience?
Ravi: The responsibility is huge, but Mani sir eased the pressure by setting our mindsets right, ahead of the shoot. He gave us many suggestions—like asking me to behave like a king even when I wasn’t shooting, by having my head not tilting down. He also spoke to me a lot about the greatness of Raja Raja Cholan. These inputs helped me get into the skin of the character.
Karthi: I was scared a lot on day one, as these characters are celebrated by fans of the book. Fans already have an idea of how these characters speak and even think. So, my fear was natural. But Mani sir ensured that he gave me the right instructions at the right time and gradually, my fear vanished.
Vikram Prabhu: I hadn't read Ponniyin Selvan completely before this film, and so, I surrendered myself to Mani sir and he took over.
Despite the massive scale, Ponniyin Selvan seems to have been shot fairly quickly. Was it exhausting?
Ravi: We never let that thought get to our head. Whenever we felt tired, we would search for Mani sir on the set, and would find him walking briskly to the next location. So, we would tell ourselves, "Avare ipdi odraaru na, nambalum kuda odiye aaganum!"
Karthi: (laughs) Cinematographer Ravi Varman is another powerhouse of energy. He carries around heavy cameras with zoom lenses on his shoulders and runs behind horses. We were surrounded by such inspirational people. The most demanding portions were probably the stunt sequences as we had to wrap the entire shooting for both PS-1 and PS-2 in just fifty days, while the Thailand choreographer was still available. We took it all up as a challenge and sweated it out.
Do you think PS-1 will appeal to those who haven’t read the book?
Ravi: I see Ponniyin Selvan as a pucca mass film. It has punch dialogues, comedy, romance, and mass moments. Mani sir has done all this in his style. Karthi and Jayaram sir, especially, have killed it with their comical portions. The audience will like these characters.
Trisha, your face-off scene with Aishwarya Rai's Nandhini felt like the highest point in the trailer.
Trisha: It is a high point in the film too. There will be great tension in the theatres when these two characters confront each other. We shot that scene for three days and I was able to sense everyone’s excitement on the sets.
Aish and I connected with each other and became friends on the sets. But Mani sir was particular that we stayed far from each other to keep the rivalry between the characters as real as possible.
There must have been so many horses and elephants on the sets.
Karthi: I would keep telling Ravi that so many people will come to the theatres just to witness the horses and elephants in the film. Due to COVID, we weren't able to take the same horses everywhere. So, each time, we had to build rapport with a new horse when we shifted location.
Ravi: Working with elephants was a unique experience. I learned to be patient after working with them. Aishwarya Lekshmi and I didn't have ropes for protection while riding an elephant. We had to rely entirely on the balance of our hands. If we had fallen from that height, we would have fractured at least one part of our body. Thankfully, we didn’t get injured.
How were your looks determined?
Trisha: The final looks for the characters were shortlisted after multiple trials. For Kundhavai, we tried close to 100 getups before shortlisting four for the film. The male stars, who escape the burden of long hours of makeup for their other films, weren't spared in this film. Every person had to sit in the green room by 2:30 am for makeup, so the first shot could begin at 6 am.
Ravi: We had close to 10 people for each actor, to take care of looks and continuity. They decided when we were allowed to take our food breaks. We used real ornaments in the film, instead of replicas, and the leather armour we wear amplifies our sweat, and in turn, makes the costume heavy.
Trisha: For the female actors, the most troublesome part was the headgear. It was so heavy that you couldn't bend down to eat or drink. I was using a straw to drink water. The weight of the costume gave us headaches, but it was all worth it… I have lived my dream of playing a princess.
Vikram Prabhu, it must have been an unforgettable experience to shoot with your father?
Karthi: He's the warmest co-star I have worked with. Whenever he is on the set, he will make sure that everyone is feeling comfortable and happy. He is well trained in horse riding, so when we feel tired during the war sequence, he will take ownership of us and say,"Vidadha! Nalla pannu da!" At the same time, he kept his son Vikram free from parental pressure.
Vikram Prabhu: Appa and I have been waiting for the right film to act together. We couldn't have asked for more than this project. It was so emotional.
Lately, there has been much focus on South films like RRR and KGF that have gained international recognition and won big at the box office. Can Ponniyin Selvan repeat this magic?
Karthi: We are just relishing the feeling of having been part of an honest film, one that we worked really hard for. Mani sir's aesthetics, characterisation, frames, and eye for detail make Ponniyin Selvan an international film. We are positive that our film will get the attention it deserves.
Do you think you will go on to do something bigger than Ponniyin Selvan?
Ravi: All we can aim for is to become better actors. My anna asked me this question, and I laughed it away asking, "Won't you make Thani Oruvan 2 for me?" On a serious note, I just wish to stick to Mani sir's principle of working doubly hard on each project.