Ponniyin Selvan review: Mani Ratnam’s epic is true to the spirit of Kalki’s novel

The film does not try to amplify any aspect of the novel unnecessarily to fit a narrative that might be the flavour of the season. In fact, it downplays the praise that Kalki lavished on the Chola dynasty.
Karthi, Trisha, Vikram, Aishwarya Rai and Jayam Ravi from Ponniyin Selvan-1
Karthi, Trisha, Vikram, Aishwarya Rai and Jayam Ravi from Ponniyin Selvan-1
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It is believed that when Kalki wrote his timeless historical fiction Ponniyin Selvan, he had already imagined it becoming a film someday. And it’s not that the Tamil industry didn’t want to do it. From the time of MG Ramachandran, superstars and directors have dreamed of turning Kalki’s vision into reality; to sit on a horse, as the cheeky Vandiyathevan, and revisit the Chola era, long gone but still alive in the memory of the people through the art and architecture that they’ve left behind. But it took seven decades and a stubborn filmmaker who wouldn’t give up to fulfil that dream.

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-1 (co-written with Jeyamohan and Elango Kumaravel) respects its source material – a gentle rendering of love, war, conspiracy and female guile. The novel was based on real life people and historical facts with many leaps in imagination. The film does not try to amplify any aspect of the novel unnecessarily to fit a narrative that might be the flavour of the season. In fact, it downplays the praise that Kalki lavished on the Chola dynasty, and sticks to narrating and staging the main events of the plot with a few omissions.

A comet appears in the sky, and it is read to be a sign of an impending death in the royal family. The ailing Emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) may soon breathe his last, and the battle for succession in the Chola empire begins. Will it be the brave but hot-tempered crown prince (Aditha Karikalan played by Vikram) who succeeds him? Or his younger brother Arulmozhi Varman (he’s called Arunmozhi in the film, played by Jayam Ravi), beloved to the people? But there is another contender – Madurantakan (actor Rahman). It is an old story, repeated across centuries and cultures, but one that never fails to intrigue. An heir denied his right to the throne, who decides to turn against his own. The Cholas may rule the empire, but they need the support of other kings and princes to hold the kingdom together. It isn’t unlike modern coalition politics, with its twists, turns and high drama.

The first part of the film introduces the characters to the audience and sets up the main plot threads. Vikram’s Aditha Karikalan appears on a horse through the swirling mist; he’s fighting a battle against the Rashtrakutas. The mist isn’t only to generate a cinematic effect for a star introduction; it is also to mirror Karikalan’s clouded mind. When he has the opportunity to slice his enemy’s throat, he suddenly draws back. What makes him do so? The answer comes later. Playing a frenzied, conflicted man isn’t new to Vikram, and he easily slips into the role of Karikalan.

Of the current generation of actors, Karthi is indisputably the best suited to play the role of Vandiyathevan, the Vana prince. Cheeky, flirtatious, comic, and heroic when necessary, Vandiyathevan sees life through the eyes of a rasika. No experience is wasted on him, good, bad, or plain dangerous. Along with Azhwarkadiyan (a very likeable Jayaram), Vandiyathevan brings a lightness to the story that’s founded in blood and betrayal.

This is, of course, historical fiction, but it’s also a Mani Ratnam film – so when Kundavai (Trisha being witty and charming effortlessly) asks Vandiyathevan if he’d jump into the river to prove his admiration for her, you think of Shakti and Karthik in the famous Alaipayuthey train scene. A thousand years may have passed, but the more things change, the more they stay the same, it would seem. At least, in love and war. Perhaps that is also why Mani uses the ‘Chola Chola’ song – essentially a battlecry – to narrate Karikalan’s painful love story? In fact, though this is a period drama that offers plenty of scope for flights of fancy, the songs appear only in the context of something unfolding in the plot. The ‘Chola Chola’ song is staged beautifully, the handheld camera effect offering an intimate view of Karikalan’s angst. The dance choreography, though, struck me as being a bit too modern, too Kollywood.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Nandini is often described in the novel as an impossible beauty who is also a ‘she-cobra’. She comes alive in golden hues through Ravi Varman’s besotted camera. Watch out for the high angle shot where she’s shown resting, and then gets up to receive a visitor. The resemblance to a snake is uncanny. None of the women in the Ponniyin Selvan universe is fiery; their claws are sheathed because of their gender, but woe to anyone who thinks those claws don’t exist. Aishwarya plays the sinuous Nandini with an artful deceit. She has only a couple of scenes with Trisha, but the exchanges between the women are — how do I put it — paambin kaal paambariyum (a snake knows another snake when it sees one). Sobhita as Vanathi doesn’t have much to do in the film (why, why, why did they cut out that hilarious crocodile scene from the novel?), but she has a pleasing presence as Kundavai’s constant companion.

It takes some time to buy Jayam Ravi in the role of Arulmozhi Varman. The actor looks overly heavy set to be the young prince, and while we understand the conflicts in Karikalan’s mind, there isn’t much we learn about Arulmozhi’s thoughts. Similarly, the motive for the Pazhuvettarariyar brothers (Sarath Kumar and Parthiban) to indulge in conspiracy isn’t explored enough. It is amply clear to those who have read the novel, but one doubts that a viewer who doesn’t understand the various connections between the characters will be able to grasp it.

Aishwarya Lekshmi is too fair-skinned to play the role of boatwoman Poonkuzhali, but the actor at least looks athletic enough to pull it off. Sara Arjun as the young Nandini also looks miscast – she is beautiful but looks nothing like Aishwarya. Couldn’t they have at least given them the same eye colour? The characterisation of the Pandyas is disappointing – they’re wild-haired, scowl-faced and associated with shades of black as if to underline their savagery. Why fall into such easy stereotypes?

AR Rahman’s background score complements the tone of Kalki’s novel for the most part. Even when there is high drama, it is without fury and bombast. In some scenes, however, just as you are enjoying the quiet frames, it starts too suddenly and loudly. Still, the score allows the film to breathe. The dirge towards the end is lovely.

This isn’t one of those period dramas about valour and conquest; it is a study of human desires. So, what you get isn’t a Baahubali-style drama full of jaw-dropping war sequences. But, Ponniyin Selvan has its moments for those craving for such VFX-heavy scenes, too. The battle in the sea is staged wonderfully – a small boat rowing towards a big ship in the deathly calm of the vast sea before all hell breaks loose.

Part One ends at an interesting point in the story, with the hint of a major plot twist. This isn’t a film that you can watch lazily; you have to make the connections, catch the inferences, and join the dots. But it won’t feel like hard work at all if you immerse yourself in its universe – the rewards are plenty.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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