Here’s a secret. The trick to look at the two parts of Ponniyin Selvan, to enjoy it as you were meant to, is to see them as one whole organic unit — one movie — with a few months as an interval. It gives you the big picture, the true magnum opus nature of Mani Ratnam’s latest. Of course, this was a revelation from a happy accident, a realisation when you’ve watched Ponniyin Selvan: 1 for the first time less than 12 hours before watching Ponniyin Selvan: 2.
That’s when you realise and recognise the spirit with a certain vitality that powers through the entire film, linking its two halves, something impossible to perceive unless you watch the two parts together. As an organic whole, the movie contains in itself, in parts, humour, valour, war, gore, beauty, love, palace intrigue, an assassination, a complex plot, betrayal, a well-played cast (well-deserved credit to Vikram, Jayaram and Karthi for sterling performances, but it could be agreed without much violence that nearly everyone did a good job), espionage, music like a trance, the cinematography of Ravi Varman, and breathtaking locales.
Think of it this way: it is one impossibly long shot of a movie, literally, not a sequel in the sense we have come to understand it. Not something that need not have been made, not something the first part could have done without, not something that happens on another plane. But it is the completion of the film, the Yang to the Ying of Part One and therefore, one glorious whole. Then the pluses of the first film compensate for the perceived minuses of the second (though the soundtrack is riveting and lends to the grandeur, if you saw PS: 2 as a sequel, you’d be left thinking A.R. Rahman wasn’t given as much play as in the first.)
To see the two films, PS: 1 and PS: 2, one after the other, in that order, is the only way you can get the full picture, but also its expanse, the epic narration, enjoy the music, understand the plot line, the sub-plots, the history and context, which are all important.
Of course, it’s Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, inspired by Kalki’s novel of the same name, but that’s all right. Even as a rabid, nearly life-long fan of Kalki’s historical fiction, it is okay because the movie works so well, tying up all the loose ends in neat little packages. The different strands it has introduced are segmented and completed with finesse by the time the movie ends, without ambiguities and not much left for the viewer to interpret, while history itself (and Kalki) leave some elements open-ended.
True, it ignores or bypasses several key strands, developments that cement Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, and that is still okay because it does not seem like the betrayal one assumed it would be. That is because Mani Ratnam’s craft is skilful; it picks strands off Kalki, and with those strands, pleats a beautiful garland that seems like a beautiful whole for the viewer. There’s a ripeness there, and that ripeness is all.
For one who is also a reader, there’s enough assurance here to perceive a magnum opus. And if you haven’t read the book yet, do go back and read it, all five volumes of it. There’s a masterpiece in store of course, but here’s to betting that reading the book gives you a sense of how tough the task of rendering the epic into a movie was, why it failed to get off the ground twice before even with the best of intentions, and consequently, a better appreciation of the movie itself.