Kalki vs Sandilyan
I grew up in a house filled with film fanatics. My maternal grandfather owned a theatre called select talkies in the old George Town area and later lease-ran another one called Minerva. The Select theater was purely for Tamil cinema- commercial potboilers and latest releases while Minerva was more for an upper crust audience and showed predominantly foreign (read- English) films although in later years the only English films they showed were the kung-fu films from china post the 36 chambers of Shaolin craze – movies like Snake In The Monkeys Shadow starring a very young Jackie Chan who wasn’t recognizable as a star in those days pre his police story breakout into fame.
Anyways, the advantage of owning a theatre is the ease with which you can watch films (same film -any number of times) and that too for free. Many times I have rushed home from school dropped my school bag and gone to our theatre (next street) to watch the matinee show from half way through till the end and then come running back home to sit down to my homework (all studious/innocent) before my mother came back from office, hoping I wouldn’t get caught and the manager wouldn’t mention it even accidentally to my grandfather. Sometimes I have watched the same movie for days on end- every week day for an entire week till the Friday came around and the movie was changed for a new release.
In fact, some of the earliest remembrances of my life involve watching MGR films at our theater with my mother and aunts- clapping and hooting whenever Vathiyar came onscreen. The kind of films I liked best were the sword fight films- like Nadodi Mannan, Ayirathil Oruvan, Mandiri Kumari, etc. And, although other people raved about Sivaji Ganesan’s sword fight sequences in Uthama Puthiran, or Gemini Ganesan’s sword fights in Vanji Kotai Valiban, for me MGR was the ultimate sword fight hero, followed by Anandan (Disco Shanthis father) and Ranjan (of Mangamma Sabadham/Chandralekha fame). If you are wondering why I am talking about old tamil cinema and sword fights on a post named after tamil literatures best know names, it’s because these films were my pathway to their novels. In a sense I graduated from watching movies to reading books and not the other way around like everyone else.
Because I loved watching the king-queen films (raja/rani stories as they say in tamil) on the big screen, i was attracted towards reading such stories in books too. And that’s how I gravitated towards Walter Scott in English. Novels like Kenilworth, Rob Roy and Waverley were my introduction to the field of historical novels and then I moved onto Alexander Dumas. But I wasn’t satisfied with just the English novels and wanted to explore the vernacular literature too and that’s how I first discovered Sandilyan via a small detour towards the pocket edition of Mayajala Kadaigal- fantasy stories about magic swords and lost magic artifacts which used to be popular in the 80’s.
And just when I was looking for more satisfying fiction in the fantasy genre Sandilyan came a breath of fresh air to me. His novels are comparable to any of the world’s best historical novels from internationally renowned authors like Alexander Dumas (pere et fils)or RL Stevenson. They say the three musketeers is the most filmed historical novel ever, but that’s because most film makers have never read Kadal Pura- the Sea Gull of Sandilyan. It’s a three part novel which has the classic sandilyan formula- an innocent youth exiled to a distant land and who later returns strong and powerful to take revenge. For sheer action-adventure the Sea Gull beats the Count of Monte Cristo hands down any day. The action is fast paced and the romance, ah what can i say about the romance, it’s the very epitome of every young boys fantasy about pure love and soul mates. There have been days when i have wondered whether my whole attitude towards love and relationship was shaped by the romance in Sandilyans novels. Books like Raja Muthirai kings sign), Raja Katalai (kings edict) and Raja Berigai (the royal war drum) are swashbuckling adventure stories. The way the battles are written would make you feel you are actually in the middle of one of them- the mark of a great writer who can help you transcend your present circumstances.
And i would be amiss, if I didn’t mention Sandilyan’s defining characteristic here- his heroines and the way he portrays them. Seldom have I read any novel in any language where the female characters have an equal and sometimes better role than the major male characters. Although the novels run conventionally (as per historical limitations) with the hero having sword fights with enemies and winning battles, Sandilyan’s books are filled with intelligent heroines who more often than not win the entire war for the hero with their wits and presenting him a total victory by the last chapter as a surprise gift- surprising both him and us the readers with their statecraft. Every time you read a Sandilyan book, you are apt to fall in love with the heroine- not only for the descriptions of her beauty (sandilyan usually fills pages and pages of that too), but for the way in which her character showcases her intelligence, courage and sheer chutzpah. I can challenge anyone who has read Yavana Rani (Yavana- ancient Tamil for Greek) to say that he did not ever fall in love with the Greek queen of the title? For yes, Sandilyan used to go beyond Tamil history and based his stories internationally – in the ancient world. For example, Yavana Rani is about a Greek princess who seeks asylum in the distant Tamil country in fear of assassination by her own countrymen. The major part of Kadal Pura is about the hero’s naval battles against Sree Vijayam- the modern day Cambodia and Indonesia and the Chinese pirates who used to infest the Bay of Bengal in the 12th and 13th centuries. Most of Sandilyan’s novels mention about the historical naval might of the ancient Tamil kingdoms which were later lost track of by historians.
So having whetted my appetite with the easy paced historical novels of Sandilyan, I moved onto the big daddy of tamil historical novels -Kalki. I was in the tender days of my teenage years when i first chanced to read Sivakamiyin Sabadham, my very first Kalki novel (and later its sequel -Parthiban Kanavu, which starts where this ends). The tragedy of the love-lorn Sivakami has stayed with me ever since as an example that pure unselfish love is always doomed to fail. Truth to tell, I have often felt that the main villain in the novel is the Prince Narasimha Pallava, who woos and then drops the innocent dancer Sivakami who sacrifices everything for him. This doomed love of Sivakami and Mamallan also drags in everyone else, including that arch schemer, Mahendra Pallava, the old king who is even ready to take on his sons lover Sivakami as his concubine to prevent his son from marrying a mere dancer and thus making her queen for the Pallava kingdom and the forbidden passions of the false Buddhist monk Naganandi who betrays his brother the emperor Pulikesi of the Chalukya kingdom because he insults the dancer Sivakami for whom Naganandi has an unrequited obsession bordering on madness and thus the entire novel revolves around scorned love and its unintentional consequences. Sivakamiyin Sabadham was for me the ultimate romance novel- about how the entire world, including kings, empires and wars revolve around the purest of emotions- love. And how history can be shaped by the emotional weaknesses of the characters which fact we forget when we just read about their grandeur -the Shore temples of Mahabalipuram, for example. In later days, a movie was made on Sivakamiyin Sabadham, called Kanchi Thalaivan, starring who else but MGR, but with MGR’s image as a big action star involved the movie deviated far from the original premise of the novel and the role of Sivakami was drastically cut as just someone who sings duet songs with the hero. It’s always been my dream to make my own version of this novel as a film (one day), which i might do too if it’s in my destiny.
Meanwhile my literary quest took a small detour of kalkis other novels- social in theme- like Malai Kallan (bandit of the hills) and Alai Osai (sound of waves), before i read the defining novel of Kalki- his magnum opus – Ponniyin Selvan- which has enthralled readers for generations. This story about the intrigue surrounding the early days of Raja Raja Chola and his attaining the throne after the untimely death of his elder brother Aditya Chola, is pitted around love as central to the story in typical kalki format. The crown prince of the Chola empire Aditya Cholan scorns the love of the priest’s daughter Nandhini, a paramour of his younger days, who in turn swears vengeance on him and gets him assassinated by his political enemies, thus unintentionally paving the way for the younger brother Arulmozhi Cholan to get the throne and crown himself as the great Chola Emperor Raja Raja Cholan who built the famed Brihadeeswarar (big temple) temple of Tanjore in later days. Every single character in the book is outstandingly delineated with all their human foibles and that is what makes this book such a great read- even now after so many re-reads. If there is one book in tamil literature worth getting an international reputation it’s this book. A story as spell binding as anything anyone- even Shakespeare, has ever written. Every summer I make it a point to re-read this great novel just to enjoy the pure flow of the words and the subtleties of the plot. A reminder that i too should aim for such a standard instead of stopping with a thousand word blogpost.
Some of Kalki’s novels like Sivakamiyin Sabadham and Parthiban Kanavu have been made into films starring the reigning stars of the ’50’s like MGR and Gemini Ganesan while Sandilyan’s books have never been translated onto the big screen till now. While Kanchi Thalaivan based on Sivakimiyin Sabandham was a big flop, Parthiban Kanavu starring Gemini Ganesan and Vyjayanthimala ended up as a blockbuster hit proving that Kalki’s novels have in them all the ingredients for box office bonanza if made properly. Since then many filmmakers have tried to bring Ponniyin Selvan on screen, but none have succeeded, including MGR who gave up after many failed attempts and even Kamal Hassan recently and so the book has now attained a jinxed reputation. Or maybe Ponniyin Selvan is just awaiting an auteur who can translate the spirit of the book to the big screen without compromising too much for commercial considerations. Who knows?
Now to come to the question I have asked in the title, who is the better writer Sandilyan or Kalki? Sandilyan was a prolific writer, his work is voluminous- there are dozens of novels written in many parts but Kalki was selective in his writing- and here I am just referring to one genre- the historical novels – he wrote Sivakimiyin sabdham, its sequel Parthiban kanavu and then his magnum opus Ponniyin selvan. Although Sandilyan wrote many outstanding novels his work after a point falls into the same rut- a defined formula of empires and wars, while Kalki even in just the few novels he wrote, tried to expand the boundaries of historical fiction to include the lives of common people and not merely the ruling class and their wars. Finally, while Sandilyan’s novels are all romantic thrillers in a historical context, their central premise is political intrigue, but Kalki’s are just the opposite- the USP of his novels may be all about empires and battles, but at the heart of it all, lies simple misunderstandings between man and woman.
My verdict- if you like a page a minute action adventure go for any Sandilyan novel- it will be like watching James Bond movie or any of Stallone/Schwarzenegger action films. But if you prefer your story to be a more subtle thriller, like Frederick Forsyth or a John Grisham, go for Kalki’s novels- it will be like watching a multi-starrer action thriller- something like The Expendables.