Ponniyin Selvan I: A Magical Moment For Movie Lovers
Mani Ratnam’s on-screen adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan by the same name is a visual treat.
As intriguing and gripping as the book, it is an honest attempt to relive the grandeur and is spectacular in the filmmaker’s trademark understated approach.
Going back by around 1000 years, the Chola Kingdom is on a spree of expansion and is on its way to reaching the pinnacle of its glory.
As expected, it is under threat—both from inside and outside. It is not just other kings and the vanquished royals but also a beautiful young queen, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), who can’t wait for it to fall.
An ailing emperor Sundara Cholar (Prakash Raj) is resting but restless, as his sons, Aaditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), are away from him, on conquests in two far ends.
The elder one is visibly concerned for the kingdom and sends a messenger, his close associate Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to warn his family—father and sister Kunthavai (Trisha)—of the forces bracing to attack.
With Vanthiyathevan galloping on his horse, we travel through the lush fields along the sparkling waters of Cauvery or Ponni river to the walls of the Chola centre and inside the spectacular palace. He is the sootradhari or the thread that holds the story together.
However, even as he flirts with the young beautiful women he meets along and gets into comical fights with the spy-like Alwarkadiyan (Jayaraman), who ends up in his trails often, it is a dangerous path.
He has to use his wit and the dozen characters he encounters to reach the king with his message. Little does he know that his mission will not end there.
The film begins with a cryptic message about the ominous days awaiting. However, it establishes the plot at a built-up pace and Mani Ratnam is in no hurry to quicken it.
Evidently, for those who have read the book, the bundled-up sequences in between before it reaches the actual plot are visible. But ahead of the interval, it gathers pace, and we meet the multitude of adversities awaiting them.
We know the betrayal planned by Periya Pazhavettaraiyar (Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhavettaraiyar (Parthiban) through a sinister plot they are waiting to execute and that Nandini is more than just a quiet and pampered wife of the aging Periya Pazhavettaraiyar.
As we wonder the reason (of course, only those who have not read the book), there are the Pandyas who seek revenge for the murder of Veerapandiyan (Nassar) by Karikalan.
Amid all of them, we cannot miss the competence of Kunthavai, who is determined to bring back her brothers, whom she knows will be a formidable combination for all wanting to take on the mighty kingdom.
To be fair, Ponniyin Selvan is a Herculean task, not just for its adaptation but also for the fact that it has to equally engage audiences that have read and not read the original work.
Mani Ratnam does justice to both types of viewers. And this is not a Bahubali moment of Tamil cinema, as many would like to believe because there is a towering literary legacy it will be scrutinised for.
Along with the writers, B Jeyamohan and Elango Kumaravel, the filmmaker has captured the spirit and soul of Kalki’s story.
With subtle imagery, the cinematography by Ravi Varman is successful in presenting the understated grandeur in Thanjavur and the placid yet dangerous waters of Ilangai (Sri Lanka).
AR Rahman’s music is no magic this time but shows up to enthrall his fans rather choppily.
For the casting, which has been under scrutiny ever since the film was announced, there are quite a few hits and some misses.
Vikram as the hot-blooded Karikalan is convincing in his role. Angry, aggressive, and compunctious, he goes through complex emotions with his proven versatility and is spent well in his character.
Exuding dangerous and secretive vibes that accompany her in every scene as the gorgeous and magical Nandini, Aishwarya stands out tall and strong.
Trisha is a revelation in her period avtar and rises visibly to the challenge, though her dialogue delivery leaves much to be desired. As for Karthi, who breezes through his part effortlessly, some moments make it entirely his film and in some, the humour is forced on the audience.
If we are by now wondering about the title-holder of the film, Ponniyin Selvan, the son of Ponni or Jayam Ravi, he is probably in the role of his lifetime.
Mature and geared up to carry the weight of a part that conjures up images of valour and supremacy, he finds his rightful place and lives up to it in the first part. After all, he is entrusted to play the emperor, who ruled a sprawling kingdom, and reigns hearts even today as Raja Raja Cholan.
Mani Ratnam deserves applause for pulling off the challenge of recreating a piece of Tamil literature that has remained dear to language lovers for decades now. And, for realising the elusive dream for some like MGR.
For classicists, there are many ifs and buts that will arise while watching the film and these are legitimate. But for the rest, it will leave them waiting for the second part.
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