“Initially, I didn’t know there were tournaments. But once, the present chairman of the club, who was a member at that time, withdrew his name and entered mine in the competition. Though I won a few games, I never made it to the finals. I then took part in the tournament in the subsequent years and now, finally, won the tournament this year. My progress has been very slow, primarily because I practice only at the club on Sundays whenever I’m in Chennai,” he laughs.
On the work front, Rahman will soon be seen on the big screen in Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan – I. “Ponniyin Selvan was written decades ago and Mani sir told me how it’s a fictionalised fantasy. The work is a winner in the book world. So many people – from MGR and Sivaji Ganesan to Kamal Haasan and even Mani Ratnam – tried adapting it into a film. But it has become possible only now,” says the actor, adding that this was not the first time he was offered the adaptation. “About 10-15 years ago, a popular channel wanted to make it into a teleseries and had also roped in Manobala as the director. I was also roped in for the series. It was at that time that I read the English translation of the book. But the project didn’t take off because the channel felt the people in other states will not know the story and it won’t be financially viable,” he reveals.
So, when he got a call from Mani Ratnam’s office, he was skeptical about the project taking off. “I had this fear in me because over the years, we have heard so many times about Ponniyin Selvan going on floors, and it never happened. I was worried if this would also be like that,” says Rahman, who admits he was super excited when the shoot finally started. “It was mounted on a massive scale. Mani sir had cast 30-40 prominent actors and it was a wonderful experience. But then, COVID struck and we had to halt shooting midway. We restarted work only after almost two years. Even in that interim, I was worried if the shoot would take off again because getting the dates of all the actors again at the same time was impossible. Everyone had their own commitments and their other projects to concentrate on. It is generally difficult to restart a project. But it was possible with Ponniyin Selvan only because of Mani sir. Everyone has immense respect for him,” says the actor, and adds, “Also, the second reason, I feel, is the grandeur of the subject. It is one of the biggest films to come from the Tamil industry. The length of your role doesn’t matter; what matters is that you are part of the film. Because I don’t think anybody will remake this movie in the next 30-40 years at least. Also, this will be a visual reference for people who can’t read the book. This film is much bigger than a Bahubali purely because of the number of characters it has. Ponniyin Selvan is not about one person; every character has a back story and Mani sir has beautifully translated it on screen. I think he has done justice to the novel, and I’m so glad to be part of it.”
While Rahman is under contract to not reveal details of his role, he says every actor had to train in two things — horse-riding and sword-fighting. “We don’t have a reference for our characters and we simply trusted and believed in the script. Mani sir was clear that he didn’t want dramatized performances from his artists. Our costumes belonged to a bygone era, but our acting had to be very realistic. He wanted us to bring out the body language of the character – be it a prince or a fisherman — but keep our expressions natural,” he says.
Given that the set was packed with actors at any given time, ask Rahman if they partied together, and he says with a laugh, “We were way too body-conscious — because of the kind of period costumes we were wearing — to chill on the set. Also, the shoots were hectic because we woke up at 3am, put on makeup and be on location at 6am. The shoot would go on till late evening and by then, we would be physically exhausted. The only place where the actors bonded was probably the gym. We shot a huge portion in UP and it was very hot then. Generally, you see about five caravans parked on location for a film. But we had about 50-60 caravans, horses and elephants… it was like a circus. We camped at one place and when we came out, we would see horses, junior artists and even tents! The visual was funny like that — like we were part of a traveling circus.”