After several unsuccessful attempts to film Kalki’s historical epic, Ponniyin Selvan, including one by the great MG Ramachandran (MGR) in the late 1950s, Mani Ratnam’s first of a two-part adaptation finally hits the screen. For Ratnam too, it is third time lucky as his previous efforts in the 1990s and in 2015 failed to come to fruition. A dream project for the filmmaker, Ponniyin Selvan: I marks a reasonable return to form for the Master after the disappointment of his last few films.
In Ponniyin Selvan: I, which begins with a voice-over by Kamal Haasan setting up the story, we see rumblings in the Chola empire. The reigning monarch, Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) is indisposed. His two sons, his intended heir apparent and the eldest, Aditha Karikalan (‘Chiyaan’ Vikram), and youngest Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), the ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ of the title, are both away in military campaigns, the latter in Lanka. With the king ailing, his daughter Kundavai (Trisha) is involved in the running of the kingdom. With the kingdom vulnerable, naturally there is much royal intrigue and plotting to get Sundara Chola’s nephew, Madurantaka Chola (Rahman) to the throne. Involved in this scheme are the brothers Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Sarathkumar), the treasurer of the Chola kingdom, and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (Parthiban), the chieftain in charge of looking after Thanjavur fort. And then there is Pazhuvettaraiyar’s wife, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), who has her own score to settle with former lover, Aditha Karikalan. The man linking all these characters together is Aditha Karikalan’s trusted aide and Vaanar prince who has fought alongside him, Vallavaraiyan Vandiyathevan (Karthi). Vandiyathevan is the messenger communicating between the two brothers and sister and a spy as well, who gathers valuable information for the Chola kingdom.
With Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam, admittedly, had one part of the battle won. He had the basis of the intricately plotted story and the fine characterisations all laid out by Kalki. Ponniyin Selvan, whose story is told in 5 parts and is spread over 2000 pages, looks at the events surrounding the Chola Kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries. However, Ratnam still had the huge challenge of convincingly adapting what are cult novels into an invigorating cinematic experience. And to a certain extent, he does succeed. The film has its shares of highs with a couple of vintage Ratnam moments. What’s more, he has you waiting for the second instalment, due in the summer of 2023, to see how the story plays out.
That said, the vastness of the story and the numerous events that occur in it also become a handicap. Ratnam has had to inevitably condense the written words to fit into a film of endurable length. Naturally, he is forced to exclude some of the events in the books and yet ensure he retains the spirit and overall feel of Kalki’s writing. Though one cannot complain of any scene not moving the plot or being wasted in the script, the dense plot does tell on the engagement factor of the film at times. The plot points, explanations and the narrative flow from one scene to another sometimes takes precedence over our emotional involvement with the characters. The economy of scenes, while admirable, is not always successful and the flow is choppy in places. Otherwise, while the events are interesting enough, we are either too distant or not invested in the characters enough to feel for them as we should. Perhaps the epic could have been served better as a limited mini-series for a OTT platform. It’s a pity for Kalki has etched each of his characters out beautifully. In Ratnam’s defence, Part II is yet to play out. For now, the plotting and intrigues stay as events between the main players without us seeing how it would affect the rest of the land.
Ratnam has also been strong with performances and with a large and powerful cast, the film mostly delivers on this front. The supporting cast is a who’s who of Tamil and Malayalam cinema and it is wonderful to see them make a solid impact even in the smallest of scenes. But what is odd in the film is Ratnam’s mixing of theatrical postures with cinematic performances. Most of the actors manage this well except surprisingly for Vikram. While he owns the screen with his dynamic screen presence, he is way over the top in his entire act. Jayam Ravi is a pleasant surprise as the future Raja Raja Chola, while Karthi enlivens the film with his cheekiness and humour, even if the role and performance yet again has shades of the likeable rogue from his debut film, Paruthiveeran (2007). A note on the dialogue delivery of the actors here, though. I saw the film with a friend who is familiar with Tamil and its nuances. He did feel that while Ratnam had correctly stuck to classical Tamil in the film, the newer generation of actors have struggled with their accents and dictions while delivering their dialogues. He wistfully commented that an MG Ramachandran or a Sivaji Ganesan or any other Tamil actors of yesteryear would have worked wonders with their beautiful control over the language and that would have taken the film to another level altogether.
Kalki has given the women very substantial roles to play and this reflects in the characterisations and performances of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Trisha, in particular. Their cutting dialogue exchange even as they sweetly smile at each other is one of the film’s highlights as is Karthi’s wooing of Trisha. Aishwarya Lekshmi, too, has her strong moments, as the ‘boat princess’, who takes Karthi to Lanka and is in love with Jayam Ravi. However, Sobita Dhulipala’s role is sketchily fleshed out and one has to see how her role develops in Part II.
The technicalities are generally solid. But with Mani Ratnam, you expect better. The scale and mounting of such an epic is a big disappointment and the VFX is a letdown in many a place. This shows up obviously in some of the battle sequences. Ravi Varman’s camerawork is adequate enough but nowhere near his best while AR Rahman returns to somewhat good form with both, the songs and his energetic background score. The production design deserves a special mention for the make-up and costumes as does the dynamic sound design. The editing keeps the film moving crisply even if as mentioned, a hold here or there might have given us a little more connect with the characters. It is also heartening to see the attention given to the English subtitling, something of a rarity in Indian cinema.
Overall, Ponniyin Selvan: I has enough going for it. Now onto Part II…
Tamil, Historical Drama, Color