PONNIYIN SELVAN – PS 1 (2022)

Chiyaan Vikram in a still
  • Release Date: 30/09/2022
  • Cast: Chiyaan Vikram, Karthi, Jayram Ravi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha
  • Director: Mani Ratnam

Ponniyin Selvan mesmerizes and disappoints equally and that is its biggest problem

— Ambar Chatterjee

Ponniyin Selvan is based on the book of the same name by Kalki Krishnamurthy published in 1955. The book is widely regarded as the greatest literary piece in Tamil literature. While the story is essentially historical fiction, it references some of the greatest South Indian rulers and is primarily a fictional documentation of the early years of Chola king Raja Raja Chola born Arulmozhi Varman (played by Jayram Ravi in the film). Many consider the book to be unfilmable due to its length, many complexities, nuances, and a manner of storytelling that is ill-fitted to be adapted into a screenplay. This belief is rather widespread among South Indian audiences who have read the book or at least have an idea about how the story unfolds.

For someone like me who had not even heard of the book before this film came into the limelight, Ponniyin Selvan did not have to live up to any expectations or pre-defined structure and style of storytelling. What it had to do was to sweep me off my feet with its story, characters, drama, and grandiosity. After sitting through almost 3 hours of runtime, I have to say that Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus impressed me but there were aspects of it that left a lot to be desired.  

Intriguing story, investing screenplay: –

Quoting Anupama Chopra, this is indeed one of the slowest of slow burns but every second of it will hold on to your attention. The story starts rolling from the very first scene and every subsequent scene takes the characters and narrative forward. Many might say that the characters barely moved from their point of initiation in the tale. There were no shattering losses or electrifying drama to compensate for the lack of progression in the narrative. To this, I say that this is the kind of story where we need to concentrate on the journey more than the payoff at every turn.

The character of Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) is sent after the very first action sequence by Aditha Karikalan (Chiyaan Vikram) to get close to one of his father’s (the king’s) trusted ministers and uncover a plot to overthrow the king Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj). Vanthiyathevan moves from one important character in the plot to another and through his journey, Mani Ratnam introduces us to the major players in the narrative. While this makes him take a lot of time to get to a certain point, these exchanges not only introduce the characters but also tell us a lot more about the nature of these characters and where they stand in the tale. Because of the many nuances and dramatic undertones that these meetings are characterized with, the story purrs along wonderfully building up what is to come next. The structured approach taken in this regard also helps less intelligent people like me to keep a track of the piling characters and their respective parts in the greater narrative.  

Trisha in a still

Sensational performances from Trisha and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan: –

This film belongs to the ladies. Some of the most powerful interactions and acting through expression are carried out by the two leading ladies and they do it in a way that will stick with the audiences long after the film is over. Trisha renders her character of a princess with such poignance and mischief in her mannerisms that you take her to be the smart and resourceful manager that she is spelled out in the movie by her brother, Aditha Karikalan. As we learn more about her character, we understand that she holds nothing in higher regard than the people of her kingdom and is willing to go to any lengths to ensure that everything happens the way it is supposed to. This aspect of her nature triggers the stakes for Aditha and condemns him to a life of heartache. Even after that, it is Trisha who holds some sway over her brother played by Chiyaan Vikram. Trisha justifies this confidence that Vikram has on her with the rendering of her character’s sly mannerisms, intelligent planning, and confident ways.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays a character that is out for revenge. Her former lover who couldn’t marry her has committed a horrendous atrocity against her and her people and this led her to marry someone her father’s age only to pave her way to sweet revenge. However, the director introduces so many diversions using the complicated and mysterious state of mind of the character and her unpredictable way of functioning that the audiences are always guessing which way she will turn by the end of it all. Aishwarya is not only able to grasp the essence of the character but is also successful in conveying two of her most dominant emotions to the audience through her mannerisms. Ambition and vengeance. The dialogues that she shares with Trisha are some of the best in the film.

Vikram, Karthi, and Jayram Ravi’s spirited performances: –  

Vikram is barely there in the film. Ironically, the scene where he spells out his pain and angst and why he can never be happy again reminds us of why he is such a great actor. You can feel the pain of the character in his mannerisms and expressions. He carries the same duality in his expression throughout his essay and this approach to the character elevates it two folds.

Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan has the meatiest role among the men. He makes wonderful use of the opportunity and stamps his class and proficiency in doing situational comedy on the film. Especially delightful is his quirky dialogues with almost all the female characters. He is someone who wears his heart on his sleeves and is continually smitten by the bewitching beauties that he is forced to cross paths with.

Jayram Ravi as Arulmozhi Varman remains restrained and honorable throughout. In the film, it felt somewhat odd and I asked myself why he had to be so pristine and sweet to everyone around him when he was essentially a warrior. Now that I know that he would go on to become the greatest of all Chola Rulers, I understand his approach to everything and everyone around him. Ravi is stellar in his rendition of the character and feels apt in every step that he takes.

Karthi in a still

Mesmerizing visuals: –

The cinematography of Ponniyin Selvan is one of its high points. The visual aesthetics are not just pretty to look at but are also in keeping with the material and the overall feel of the film’s atmosphere. Some visual elements are evidently left unpolished and that adds a lot more to the overall impact of it. The visual representation of the film for the audiences can be called a journey from one mystifying visual representation to another giving enough breathing space in between for the audiences to recover and prepare for the next visual wizardry after absorbing all the beauty and power of the sequence before it. Suffice is to say that the visual presentation of the film is befitting of a film that has undertaken the herculean task of depicting the opulence and grandiosity of the mammoth Chola Empire.

My many issues with the film: –

Having said all that, the film has an equal number of issues that needed to be sorted for the film to leave the kind of impact that would wow! the audiences and satisfy their need for ceaseless entertainment and visual wizardry.

The editing of the film was one of the biggest issues for me. It is not the nearly 3-hour runtime of the film that was a problem. My problem was with the transition of the shots in sequences and also the jerky propagation of the story from one sequence to another. If that was not enough, the editing of the action sequences left a lot to be desired. The cinematography of these sequences was consistently bad and was evidently a choice taken by the director and the action director as they had to make up for the physical inadequacies of the leading men. However, there could have been smarter ways to deal with the same that would have rendered the action sequences better.

There was an utter lack of rousing action sequences and large-scale wars that was needed for a film of this nature. One of the best examples that I can think of in this regard will be that of Oliver Stone’s Alexander which had only two major battle sequences but they were visualized and executed with such panache and realism that they more than made up for the lack of action in the rest of the film that was also nearly 3 hours long. Here we get to see some very poorly edited highlights of the war and oddly enough I got the feeling that if they tried a little harder, they could have transformed these war sequences into absolutely stunning visual spectacles. The film needed the two battle sequences involving Karikalan and Rashtrakutas and Arulmozhi and the Sri Lankans to be at least 15 minutes each and laced with bravura moments and techniques that would give audiences goosebumps. It is this lack of panache in the war sequences that made the palace politics and drama feel even more stretched for the ones who didn’t enjoy them as much as I did.

Jayram Ravi in a still

Another issue that meddled with me enjoying the film, even more, was the meager screen time dedicated to one of the strongest male actors in the film; Especially Chiyaan Vikram. He showcases, in one of the few scenes where he has to flex his acting muscle, the power, and ability that he has at his disposal but at least for this film, he remains underused. The same can be said about Jayram Ravi who makes an appearance only in the second half and there too he has to share screen space with Karthi.

The lethargic pace of the film was to aid the understanding of the many, many characters and dynamics in the film but, to many, it might feel torturous since not a whole lot is happening in these periods.

Final Words: –

Ponniyin Selvan was a bittersweet experience. There was a lot to love in the film and then there was an equal lot to not love so much. But one thing is for certain; the film has done enough to fashion my interest in the second part that is due to release in 2023. I just hope that Mani Ratnam and his team are able to iron out the issues that I noted in this film and are able to give us an overwhelming and sweeping epic that will not only be a hit but will also be one worthy of remembrance for its storytelling, beauty, and power.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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