Ponniyin Selvan: 1, Mani Ratnam's latest multi-starrer, has a unique problem: comparison.
People who have read Kalki’s original, that is widely considered the greatest novel written in Tamil literature, will probably be championing their favorite characters among the leads, or waiting for their cherished sequences to unfold on screen. Audiences who have no connection with the book will probably think about Baahubali, or even the recent RRR considering the grand war sequences featured.
It is to the director's credit that he manages to satisfy both ends of the spectrum.
Mani Ratnam’s latest period drama, is essentially about a power struggle: Emperor Sundara Chola’s (Prakash Raj) health is failing, necessitating a new leader for the Chola empire. There are quite a few contenders, the lead among them being his son Aditha Karikalan (Vikram). But Sundara Chola also has another son, Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) and a daughter, Kundavai (Trisha).
The choice for the throne isn't going to be easy, because there are other people vying for it: Periya Pazhuvettariyar (Sarath Kumar), the second most important person in the empire, and his group of advisors, are backing another candidate for the hot seat. What will happen?
This story can unravel through many avenues, but writer Kalki — and filmmaker Mani Ratnam now — choose to narrate it through the eyes of Vanthiyathevan (Karthi). His only connection to the story is being Aditha Karikalan's friend, but he is the primary gaze through which the film unfolds. When Vanthiyathevan learns something new, he looks wide-eyed. Just like us. Travelling all over delivering important messages, he sets off in all earnestness, but also has fun along the way. Vanthiyathevan is us, the audience, peering curiously into a film that packs in valour, greed, honesty and treachery in equal measure.
Ponniyin Selvan: 1
The source material is rich with myriad characters that undergo a rollercoaster of emotions, and Mani Ratnam gleefully picks them all up to give it a cinematic touch. It helps that he has a power-packed starcast. Karthi almost steals the show, especially in the first half, kindling a feeling of joie de vivre, thanks to his zesty acting style (“Un vaal oda naaku koormai,” someone tells him, indicating that he’s a smooth talker). Vikram packs a powerful performance; watch him bawl during a sequence in which he sadly reminisces about a skeleton from his past. Jayam Ravi has an easygoing, understated approach to his character, while still maintaining the dignity associated with royalty.
And as Nandini and Kundavi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Trisha get their Tamil accents right... but the face-off scene between them needed more tension. Aishwarya Rai looks a million bucks, and also shines in the few scenes that showcase glimpses of her character’s villainy, but there’s a lot more to be fleshed out. We’ll wait for the next instalment.
The issue with an epic of this kind is that all characters, except the leads, get little prominence. You keep wondering about Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) and her connection to the main plot, as you do with some of the other characters who make fleeting appearances. Only Jayaram as Azhawarkadiyan Nambi leaves a mark, especially because of his character traits and loud behaviour. Another issue is the presence of a dozen important characters and the spoken Tamil of yore, which will prove to be a challenge to follow for the average viewer.
But what the audiences will follow — and probably marvel at — is the film's ability to take you into a world from many centuries ago. Be it the rich sequences inside the kingdom or the magnificent battle set pieces, Ponniyin Selvan: 1 has you invested in the big screen, though one feels that the ocean segment in the second half could have been staged better. Thota Tharani's production design is a highlight, as is Ravi Varman's camera that almost runs alongside the characters; the quick-motion shots from atop a horse are as classy as those basked in beautiful sunlight. AR Rahman's music, a staple in Mani Ratnam films since their evergreen Roja, is experimental, and amps up the war sequences, while the songs are placed in a way that aids the story narrative.
That Mani Ratnam has pulled off a subject that MGR and Kamal Haasan dreamt of making, is no mean feat. But then, who is the real Mani Ratnam? Is he like Karthik (Alaipayuthe) or Amarkant (Dil Se...), the one getting his characters to be full of life and romance, akin to the way we felt when we were in love? Or, is he like Surya (Thalapathi) or Velu Naicker (Nayakan), people who have weighty choices and decisions to make? In short, avaru nallavara kettavara?
In PS: 1, he has to deal with both in equal measure. For every ounce of goodness he shows in Arunmozhi Varman, there's a scheming Nandini to balance it. For every second of earnestness in Aditha Karikalan, there are moments of fun that Vandhiyathevan provides. Ponniyin Selvan: 1 is 167 minutes of powerful storytelling backed by visual splendour.
Ponniyin Selvan: 1 is currently running in theatres