Mr Mani Ratnam, we don’t just want period porn

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Epic take Ratnam has quick adapting to do
Epic take Ratnam has quick adapting to do

THE NEWS that Mani Ratnam has begun work on adapting Kalki Krishnamurthy’s classic novel Ponniyin Selvan caused me to begin what you could call a double-take. The film is set to be the next most-expensive Tamil movie. The novel, a narrative of intrigue and throne-play set in Chola times, was serialised in the magazine Kalki for over four years in the 1950s before being released in book form, and seems thus to defy adaptation by sheer bulk. Cold reflection suggests, however, that cinematic compression might be both possible and necessary.

1KALKI WAS perhaps far too intent on working his story like a concertina — the many elaborate, ‘talky’ setpieces of his novel – which can either be coaxed into crisp two-minute exchanges or better still into off-screen action. The shift in sensibilities between the 1950s and now may make a strict textual fidelity meaningless

2 THE OTHER temptation that Mani Ratnam must stoutly resist is that of sequel-itis — the irrational belief that Tamil audiences are ready for a series of many parts, for what some might call a Tolkien-kappiyam. The only resemblance I can see between Ponniyin Selvan and The Lord of the Rings is a superficial one — the narrator tends to drop the reins of the story to launch into song or poem or paraphrase from classical literature, and the overall effect is rather like those endless songs that elf and dwarf and hobbit ply us with.

3 THE QUESTION of being faithful to Kalki is one that produces both a yes and a no as answer. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is the means by which women like Kunthavai and Nandini wield power in a man’s world. And yet, the author lapses into a Good Woman/Evil Woman loop while writing about these characters — the film could replace such simplification with nuance.

4 THE SPIES lead far more interesting lives than the royals — maybe the film should restrict the princes to walk-ons and a good yelling scene to allow the spies, Vandiyathevan and Azhwarkadiyan more on-screen time. My guess is that it will take many departures like these to allow a film that arrives at some fidelity to the book .

5 CAN ONE make historical films in Tamil without lapsing into periodporn, without costumes that look like S&M gear, without sets that look like they’ve escaped from a nearby cake-show, without dialogue that sounds like the actors were recording during a November cyclone and needed to out-decibel Nature, and most importantly, without characters spouting a high-flown Tamil that audiences will need either subtitles or culture-camps to figure out what is happening? These are the birthmarks that identify the past in Tamil cinema. Doing away with them — there’s a gauntlet worth picking up.

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Our man in the wilderness

This biography of Billy Arjan Singh is valuable but doesn’t do him full justice, says JOANNA VAN GRUISEN

Holding tight Billy Arjan Singh
Holding tight Billy Arjan Singh

BILLY ARJAN Singh was a man of passion and focus; his dedication and sincerity invited esteem of equal intensity and  Billy Arjan Singh: Tiger of Dudhwa is a reflection of this. Billy dedicated five decades to preserving wildlife and wilderness areas, in his home beat of Dudhwa and the Kheri forest division. We inherit the legacy of his achievements but he lived with his failures: the areas lost to wildlife and the knowledge that he had failed to bring about changes in wildlife governance that he had fought long and hard for. He had always argued the absurdity of wildlife being administered by the Forest Department. It took others longer to appreciate that India needs a separate, and trained, professional conservation body. Some might argue that his methods were anachronistic but his vision and ideas were ahead of their time.

Billy Arjan Singh
Billy Arjan Singh: The tiger of Dudhwa Shaminder Boparai HarperCollins 200 pp; Rs 999

Billy has left a legacy of literature documenting his life and work, mainly through his animals: Eelie his dog, Prince, Harriet and Juliet, his pet leopards and of course Tara, the famous zoo-born tigress that he rehabilitated into the wild with such controversial effect. His books make for fascinating and educational reading but though illustrated, the photos are often poorly printed and inferior to the story.

When Shaminder Boparai set out to produce an illustrated tribute to a neighbour he had admired all his life, we hoped for a photographic tome that would fittingly reflect the unique life of this extraordinary man. Sadly, it could not quite live up to expectation. As the editor explains, many of the best picture trails proved elusive. Nevertheless it is a rare collection and wonderful to have so much of the story in one volume.

The photos may not be Raghu Rai quality (his Junior Statesman photos being one of the cold trails) but what the images lack in technical quality is more than made up for in the uniqueness of the history they represent. And there are a few wonderful exceptions, photographic gems, to be found here too.

BOPARAI’S TEXT synthesises Billy’s nine books, conveying his unique life and work in an extremely accessible form. This is not an original biography, there is no new detail or insight but it brings the story together and provides a wonderful adjunct to his own books and will no doubt have something new or forgotten to entrance every reader.

Billy Arjan Singh was one of our “true heroes” in conservation who deserved more support and encouragement during his battling years. Books like this are crucial to keeping the memory and legacy alive for future generations.

Van Gruisen is a wildlife conservationist and photographer

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