Ponniyin Selvan 1 movie review: Mani Ratnam film is a visual spectacle that is a little less magical than the book

Ponniyin Selvan 1 is a brilliant experience that doesn’t chase the same high as other recent commercial films did. The spectacle lies in the setting and the story of the film that unravels beautifully.

Priyanka Sundar September 30, 2022 13:50:19 IST
Ponniyin Selvan 1 movie review: Mani Ratnam film is a visual spectacle that is a little less magical than the book

Language: Tamil

Cast: Karthi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Trisha, Jayam Ravi, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Jayaram

Director: Mani Ratnam

Star rating: 3.5/5

After many years of dreaming and visualising, Mani Ratnam’s adaptation of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan released. I must say that the film with its impressive star cast and stunning music and visuals is a landmark film for the industry. It has a lot going for it, and that includes the performance of brilliant actors such as Karthi and Vikram in their respective roles as Vandhiya Thevan and Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan. Then the women, Aishwarya Rai as Nandini, Trisha as Kunthavai and Aishwarya Lekshmi as Poonguzhali have gone above and beyond, pulled all stops to bring alive these characters that only existed in the imagination of the fans of the book.

One of the most asked questions at the moment is if Mani Ratnam has done a good job adapting the Tamil epic Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki. The short answer would be, yes. The director has managed to bring the world imagined by Kalki onto the screens. Pazhaiyaarai, Thanjavur and Lanka as imagined in the books are now on screen, however, the camera shots don’t indulge in showing us this world. From the get-go, it is the people of this world and their story that the director seems interested in shining a spotlight on. The director doesn’t exactly skim on showing us some of the cultural themes present in the book though. For instance, the Kuravai Koothu that takes place at the Kadambur Sambuvarayar palace has been retained, and beautifully so. It is captivating and vibrant, with AR Rahman’s brilliant music to accompany it. But again, it is all fleeting. So before we can really get invested in it, the moment has passed.

This is also similar to the conversations that occur between Nandini and Kuthavai, or Vandhiyathevan and Azhwarkaddian. You see the magic lies in their sparring words. The film does capture that magic, especially the war of words between Azhwarkaddian and Vandhiyathevan. However, it is short-lived.

It has been stated multiple times that the film is only an abridged version of the book because it wouldn’t have been possible to pack in the details of all five books in two parts. So, if we did leave the missing details aside, there is one thing that the film lacks as a whole. That is the indulgence that each character gets to grow into themselves. Be it Kunthavai who we first meet as a caring friend who then transforms into an intelligent and witty princess or Vanthiya Thevan who is savvy with his words and humour. The film was able to capture the essence of these characteristic traits, but not in as much depth as the book. As a result, the film does feel a little less magical in comparison to the book.

Yet, why Mani Ratnam remains a master is also clearly visible as well. For instance, the scene of Adhitha Karikalan speaking to his friend Parthibendran about why he cannot forget Nandini. The way that shot was captured, it indicates the restlessness of the Crown Prince’s heart. We can feel how deep his emotional wounds caused by Nandini is. He is shaky, he is disoriented by the love that he feels for this woman who clearly betrayed him. He numbs his emotions through his vices, and yet, he is incapable of forgetting. So even as the music plays in the background, even as he sways and slurs, his intoxication does nothing to erase the memories of Nandini from his heart. This is also portrayed by intercuts of scenes from his present, and ones from that fateful night years ago. This depth and the flair with which Vikram has captured the essence of his character makes Aditha one of the most impressive in the first film.

As much as Ponniyin Selvan is about its Chola Kings, the story is also about the women who live in this same world. Especially Nandini. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini is so brilliant that now, it will be hard for us to imagine anybody else in that space. She captures the brittle fear, that alluring beauty and seduction, and hiding behind it all is her intelligence. The one that will aid her in getting what she wants. It is not as simple as revenge against the crown Prince really. It goes much deeper and it is nice to see Nandini step forward, and show the world that she has now put herself before anyone else. The throne? She doesn’t want to be a puppet master and stay behind in the shadows. She wants it for herself and the love that we see in her eyes for that throne is unmatched. Can a man really compare to so much power? Nandini seems to disagree because she plays them all to get what she wants.

In the book as well as the movie, the character of Kunthavai and Nandini are opposing. Even their physical traits are described as contrasting beauties. So while Nandini is fire and ice, all at once, Kunthavai is nothing but calm and composed. The wheels are always turning in her head, and she is sharp, but she is unflappable. The film captures her wit with just one scene. This is where she throws a wrench in Senior Pazhuvettaraiyar’s plan of gathering the Chieftains against crowning Aditha Karikalan as the King. It is entertaining and quite sly of her, and the characteristics quite suit Trisha who looks gorgeous all throughout the film.

Finally, coming to Ponniyin Selvan himself, portrayed by Jayam Ravi. This is where I truly felt that the film was rushed a bit too much. It was a roller coaster ride from the moment Arunmozhivarman aka Ponniyin Selvan realized that there was a conspiracy at play to imprison and capture him. From then, until the end, it was one big occurrence after another all without breaks. As the dominoes fall, the climax rolls out and in what is probably the most dramatic revelation, Ponniyin Selvan’s guardian angel is revealed.  Who is she? Why is she so protective of Arunmozhivarman? That is something that the next part of the film will reveal in 2023. There is so much that can be said about the film in comparison with the book, especially about the women and the space that they occupy, but that honestly deserves a piece all by itself.

Priyanka Sundar is a film journalist who covers films and series of different languages with special focus on identity and gender politics.