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Vidhya Subramanian acts in Ponniyin Selvan

Ponniyin Selvan (PS-1), the Tamil-language magnum opus on the Chola dynasty from Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam, has broken box office records since its worldwide release September 30 – but Chennai native and former Bay Area resident Vidhya Subramanian who plays Chola Empress Vanavan Mahadevi, could not have predicted its runaway success when she signed up for Ratnam’s epic period drama five years ago.

Vidhya’s association with Mani Ratnam began long before PS-1, when his film company Madras Talkies came calling 11 years ago, to gauge her interest in a movie role. Though that first offer did not pan out, Vidhya says she jumped at the chance of working with the revolutionary film director.

Vidhya Subramanian with Director Mani Ratnam (courtesy: Twitter)

“I’ve been a huge fan of Mani Ratnam ever since my childhood. I’ve watched all his films.”

So, in 2017 she did a screentest with both Mani Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi Varman, who later worked on PS-1.

“I went in clueless,” Vidhya chuckles.

When PS-1 went into production, she was cast as Empress Vanavan Mahadevi, the consort of Chola Emperor Sundara Chola, played by veteran actor Prakash Raj, and began shooting in the middle of the pandemic.

PS-1 is now highest grossing Tamil film of all time raking in $63 million at the box office.

“What a mega blockbuster to be part of!” says Vidhya.

Made in the Pandemic, Ponniyin Selvan Breaks Box Office Records

Until PS-1, earlier efforts to make Ponniyin Selvan, even by movie icons MGR and Kamalahasan, had failed.

So, making a movie the scale of PS-1 in the midst of a pandemic is a huge achievement for Mani Ratnam, says Vidhya.

“It was only his vision and bullheaded focus that led to the completion of the project. He wanted to get it done.”

“The crew on set wore PPT. There were thousands of extras and animals. It was so well managed and organized.”

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan

Being directed by Mani Ratnam in her first major film was extraordinary, adds Vidhya.

“Working with him was a dream come true. He’s a man of very few words  – you’ve got to listen to the subtext. Sometimes he uses just a word and few gestures.”

“I’m in very few scenes,” says Vidhya, who joined an ensemble star cast that included Aishwarya Rai, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Vikram, and Trisha, among others, who deliver dramatic performances in an impeccable adaptation of the literary classic.

Mani Ratnam told her that casting is half his job. “He seems to have that ability to know whom to cast for what role. So, playing your role became an organic combination of the character he had in mind and who you are as a person.”

Vidhya Subramanian doing press for Ponniyan Selvan (courtesy :Twitter)

A Vision for Ponniyin Selvan

Vidhya attributes the movie’s success to Mani Ratnam’s vision, which she points out, is not a pursuit of perfection.

“He’s looking for imperfection, for flaws that that give it a real quality,” rather than a perfect version of what people expect after reading the book.

“Everything plays like a movie in his head. We’re shooting scenes for both PS1 and PS2, so, as actors, we don’t know where it’s going to appear.”

Vidhya’s favorite scene is when Prince Aditya Karikalan expresses angst over his separation from his lady love Nandini.

“It leads to the Chola Chola song. That scene to me was representative of the moment that led to many wars and how these kingdoms usurped power from each other.”

Music virtuoso A.R. Rahman composed Chola Chola’s irresistible rhythms as well PS-1’s uplifting orchestral score and haunting melodies like Alaikadal.

Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan

The film is based on a novel that proffers a fictionalized account of Tamil King Rajaraja Chola and his ascension to the throne. It chronicles the rise of the Chola dynasty which ruled between 9th to 13th century and exerted influence across Southeast Asia from its seat in Thanjavur.

Tamil author Kalki Krishnamurthy serialized the saga in weekly editions of Kalki, a popular Tamil magazine in the early 1950s. In Tamilnadu, Ponniyin Selvan is a beloved literary classic, but outside, this rich era of Tamil history remained invisible.  

Few realize for example, that the brilliant Raja Raja Chola was a pioneer of maritime technology and built the magnificent Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur that has stood the test of time. With PS-1, Mani Ratnam has reversed that narrative and revealed the might of the Cholas to 21st century audiences.

Ponniyin Selvan for the 21st Century

Vidhya believes the themes explored in the film are relevant even today.  Modern audiences can relate to that time period, even though Ponniyin Selvan is historical fiction, she says.

“It’s not stuck in the past and not that different from today in terms of political intrigue, power grabs, or using guile and charm to get your way.”

“The story has a very contemporary quality to it.”

In fact, Mani Ratnam told his actors they may be playing royal characters in a palace, but at the end of the day, they were just another family “having a conversation in the living room,” albeit in Senthamizh, laughs Vidhya. It added authenticity to the life lessons portrayed in the film.

Eyebrows in Ponniyin Selvan

Though she is no stranger to the stage and theater and has acted in short films, filming in front of a green screen was a novel experience, says Vidhya. “You have to imagine a palace for example, but I think here, my dance helped.”

But being a dancer had its drawbacks Vidhya recalls. “As a dancer you’re expected to be expressive, to project. You’re expected to be larger than life. But here (on film) you have to really pull back.”

Mani Ratnam’s style is subtle, Vidhya smiles, “But for dancers, eyebrows move. Very animated. The hands move, the face moves. His biggest problem was with my eyebrows. I didn’t even realize they were moving!”

“The biggest challenge was to draw back and go inward.”

“Dialog delivery was a challenge as well because we don’t have that in dance either. To be able to emote with dialog was harder for me.”

Her takeaway says Vidhya, was learning to internalize character however small a role, to play it authentically. “I am not a queen in my everyday life!”

In Real Life, A Nrithya Choodamani Winner

What she is in everyday life is a world-renowned Bharatanatyam exponent. Dance is both her passion and profession.

An actively performing and touring artist, Vidhya has taught dance, choreographed stage shows, and served as artistic director during a successful 30-year career in the Bay Area and beyond. She founded the Lasya Dance Company in California as well as Kala Vedika, a non-profit forum that promotes a deeper understanding of the arts through outreach programs.

In December Vidhya will receive the prestigious  title of Nrithya Choodamani, awarded by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha at its 66th Margazhi Mela.

Dance critics call her innovative yet nuanced conceptualizations  of mythological characters refreshing. One wrote that her portrayal of Draupadi in the production Still I Rise was thought-provoking. A review in the NYT said her performance at the celebrated World Music Institutes had “the internal glow of felt emotion.”

Still I Rise (courtesy/ vidhyasubramanian.com)

Vidhya moved to Chennai just before the pandemic to create new work. Currently she’s working on two projects – one focuses on Radha as a concept, not necessarily just as Jayadeva’s muse, and a second full length work explores balance and imbalance. Her compositions, writes Vidhya, “take on social causes from female empowerment to breaking down patterns of patriarchy and hegemony.”

“Bharatnatyam is my sister. It’s the one space where I can say anything, be anything, and I’m accepted. That’s the relationship I have with my art.”

Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is Contributing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...