Ponniyin Selvan: Mani Ratnam brings an epic tale to screen in all its glory
Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan is one of the most popular Tamil novels of all time and over the last 70 years, there have been multiple attempts to make it as a film. Finally, it’s Mani Ratnam endless determination that has succeeded. This semi historic, semi fictional tale of the Cholas is mounted on a grand scale and is lead by some of the biggest actors in Tamil cinema. Let’s see what’s see in store.
‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is a 5-part novel that has been condensed into 2 parts. The first part establishes all the main players, their motives and conflicts effectively. Usually in such films, the narrative begins from the lead character’s childhood and gradually sets up the world. But here, not much time is wasted to introduce these characters. We straight away walk into the action as the events unfold steadily.
Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj), the current emperor of the Chola dynasty, is bedridden and battle for succession begins. He has three children — Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), Kundavai (Trisha) and Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi). Karikalan is supposed to succeed his father but a faction are in support of Madurantakan (Rahman), Sundara Chola’s nephew. A conspiracy is hatched and sensing this, Karikalan sends his trusted aide Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to inform his father and sister about it. The narrative evolves through the journey of Vanthiyathevan from Kanchi to Kadambur, Thanjavur, Pazhayarai and Ilangai.
‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the novel is rich in drama, and Mani Ratnam brings his A game to bring them on screen. With his co-writers Jeyamohan and Elango Kumaravel, the ace filmmaker does a fantastic job in abridging the dense source material into a 2-part screenplay. Sequences that run for 100 pages in the book are brilliantly conveyed in a dialogue or two in the film. But on the downside, some interesting scenes in the book also go missing. It must have been a tough call for the makers but they have succeeded for the most part of it.
Performance wise, Karthi gets the most screentime as the narrative is centered around his character Vanthiyathevan’s journey. He is the only in the film who gets to share screen with most of the other actors. The role demanded someone effortlessly fun and charming, and Karthi fits in the bill perfectly. Vikram nails it as Adita Karikalan, someone haunted by his past. The character has shades of what the actor did in Ravanan, but he ensures that none of it is evident in his portrayal. A particular stretch where he opens up about his past, his failed love life and the trouble in getting over it is brilliantly performed. Jayam Ravi as Arunozhi Varman, the real Ponniyin Selvan who later becomes the Great Raja Raja Chola, is also a revelation. The actor walks, fights, speaks, and looks like a true warrior. It’s a character that’s revered by Tamils till date and Jayam Ravi brings life to with a dignified portrayal. Sarathkumar as Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar is also majestic and composed. He is expected to have a lot of importance in the second part.
Among all the actors in the film, it is Aishwarya Rai who is probably the only one who’s irreplaceable. After watching the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone as Nandini. The role needed someone ethereally beautiful and who better than Aishwarya Rai. Beyond the beauty, Nandini is also one of the most strongest, deep and well-etched characters in the film. The actress plays it with a lot of grace and elan. Similarly, Trisha also gets her moments in the film. The face-off between the two beauty queens is one of the film’s highlight moments. Aishwarya Lekshmi and Sobhita Dhulipala also impress with their respective portrayal as Poonguzhali and Vanathi.
AR Rahman’s music in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ is unarguably among his finest works of all time. The songs are not just for the sake of it. All the tracks are placed aptly placed and carry forward the narrative. The background score is also wonderful. One moment that truly stays is the aforementioned faceoff scene between Kundavai and Nandini. How Rahman has used Saaya Sanjare track in the background to elevate the craft speaks volumes of his mastery over the craft.
As a final note, I would request everyone who is planning to watch the film not to go in with any pre-conceieved notions. This is not an over-the-top action fantasy like a ‘Baahubali’ or ‘RRR’. It would be a great disappointment for them. This is primarily a film that deals with a lot of internal conflicts, power-greed, deceit and vengeance. It has high drama, multiple twists and shocking revelations. But the focus is never on hero worship or providing adrenaline rushing moments. This is an old-fashioned epic tale that unfolds beautifully and ends on an intriguing cliffhanger.