THE ABILITY OF the best of bodies peak. This we know from the career of any sportsperson or labourer. So does the mind which we can actually decipher within ourselves too. And yet, we do not give the same consideration to the phenomenon in creativity. A writer who produced a great work in his twenties is expected to better it as the decades roll on. When AR Rahman is not able to match anything that he produced from his high point, we wonder why it is so. There is no deep mystery to it. We are all subject to the bell curve.
Which is why Ponniyin Selvan is something of a surprise and not because of Rahman, his music in it is still very distant from his best. It is the director Mani Ratnam that we must look at. If you saw his movie before this, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, it should be clear that that the theory was holding. The movie felt inauthentic and, worse, it was just no fun to get through because all its emotional heft had been sucked out with clichés. Ponniyin Selvan is not his greatest work but it more than meets the minimum expected from a great filmmaker. You are invested in the characters, the canvas is magnificent, the storytelling is racy, the three hours go by in a blink.
How did this happen? We can’t be certain because creativity is rarely expended completely and there is always some reserve that finds its way out. But a bigger factor is that the movie is based on a huge novel and a craftsman like Ratnam doesn’t have to do too much to get it wrong, as against a movie which has been written from scratch. All he needs to do is shape material that has already been tested into a new medium. For that experience is enough of a tool. He doesn’t need to rewrite the rules of cinema, just use the ones he knows to make a fine work. Another instance of how novels change the complexion of a show is Game of Thrones, where so long as the episodes reflected the books, they were first-class but as soon the material ran out (the author was yet to write it) and the scriptwriters took over, it became hackneyed. It was as if a notch or two of its class had been pulled down abruptly.
Studies on creativity often say that it typically peaks in the thirties. But that is no reason to lose hope. There is a twist to it. A different creative peak happens in the fifties again. It doesn’t tend to break radical new ground but uses experience and knowledge gathered so far to come up with fresh work. As a 2019 blog in Psychology Today said: “If you are a conceptual thinker, you are likely to be more creative when you are younger; if you are an experimental thinker, you are likely to do your most creative work when you are older, perhaps even past middle age. In theory, then, there are no limitations to creativity.”