Ponniyin Selvan: This is Mani Ratnam’s Game Of Cholas

Ponniyin Selvan, at first, feels like it was shot in the same terrain as Ratnam’s other Vikram and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan starrer, Raavanan (2010). There’s water everywhere – and unrest, too.

Karthik Keramalu October 01, 2022 09:00:38 IST
Ponniyin Selvan: This is Mani Ratnam’s Game Of Cholas

PS-1 movie poster

For better or worse, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan will be compared to Rajamouli’s Baahubali movies because these action dramas are erected upon the promise of large-scale battles, the important pieces of information that the spies bring in from the neighbouring kingdoms, and the backstabbing that takes place in order to put the worthiest prince in the royal seat. But the visions with which these two filmmakers have approached their projects are completely different.

While the Telugu biggie veers toward a story that has no past and future, its Tamil counterpart is partly based on history – the Cholas and the Pandyas were enemies and that’s an irrefutable fact. These nuggets need not necessarily be of any value to a casual viewer, but I wanted to get this off my chest before taking a dip in the Ponni river.

Ponniyin Selvan, at first, feels like it was shot in the same terrain as Ratnam’s other Vikram and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan starrer, Raavanan (2010). There’s water everywhere – and unrest, too. There’s water everywhere – and unrest, too. And the character that the former plays, Aditha Karikalan, also bears the scar of unrequited love. He doesn’t want to be in the same room as Nandini (Rai Bachchan) ever. Whenever somebody questions him about the wrongful display of his rage, he lets his face fall to the earth. After all, it’s only his sadness that’s masquerading as anger. There’s nothing more to it.

Then there’s Kundavai (Trisha), Karikalan’s sister and schemer, who always likes to have an upper hand. Kundavai and Nandini have a hate-hate relationship and the scenes that bring them together are anything but serene. They appear to exchange pleasantries, but their resentment is pretty much palpable. In this universe created by the author Kalki Krishnamurthy, everybody seems to plot against everybody. The siblings, however, along with Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), are as thick as thieves.

Ravi is at his best here. He’s probably the only person who has attained peace. He doesn’t raise his voice anywhere and, that reminds me, he doesn’t even try to speak unless he’s asked a question. He comes across as a saint more than a warrior. Even in the moments where he fights against his ardent opponents, he refuses to take pride in his power, unlike Karikalan. This isn’t just to say that Varman is better on the battlefield, or Karikalan is all talk and no show. They both have their own strengths and sore points, but it’s nice to know that these brothers aren’t copycats of each other.

And although Ravi is happy with himself, the award for the scene stealer has to go to Karthi for his motormouth character, Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan. Vanthiyathevan is a combination of the duo Joey and Chandler from the hit sitcom Friends. He walks away with the funniest lines and even flirts with Nandini and Kundavai. He doesn’t text them both at the same time. You see, he has to go to one town from another on a boat or on the back of a horse to deliver messages.

I’m honestly unaware of the number of changes that Ratnam and his fellow screenwriters (Kumaravel and Jeyamohan) have made to the screen adaptation, as I haven’t read the novels upon which Ponniyin Selvan is based. And, therefore, I don’t have the luxury to compare this movie to the original text. I’ve simply taken this version as the sole currency to determine whether it works or not. And, for me, it worked greatly.

What’s not to like here? There’s a sick ruler who wishes to see his three children under one roof so that he can discuss the steps that can be taken to save his empire, a conspiracy to bring down the said empire, some princes and soldiers that support the Cholas and some that do not, a director who knows what he’s doing (you also get a shot of a character looking in the mirror in the end, a Ratnam trope that hasn’t gone out of fashion), several actors who know that they are going to look pretty despite the thick beards and wounds they sport, a composer who knows that a few of his songs are going to remain in the background like they, too, are a part of the landscape, and so on.

Big screens are made for visual feasts such as Ponniyin Selvan and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). The fun part, apart from the narrative heft, is to consider the cultural impact they will have a decade down the line. We all remember Nayakan (1987) for Kamal Haasan’s masterful performance more than anything else now. That way, we will, perhaps, fondly think of PS as a movie that brought a group of people together – Sarathkumar, Sobhita Dhulipala, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Prabhu, Jayaram, Vikram Prabhu, Parthiban, Rahman, Kishore, Prakash Raj, whew, the list goes on.

Wait, this isn’t the end of the tale. The bigger responsibility of the next part of PS will be to surpass the opulence of the first part and that’s where its sorcery will mainly be tested.

Ponniyin Selvan: I is playing cinemas.

Karthik Keramalu is a writer. His works have been published in The Bombay Review, The Quint, Deccan Herald and Film Companion, among others. 

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