Readers Write In #495: Ponniyin Selvan Part 1 review

Posted on October 1, 2022


Vijay Ramanathan

A thrilling and gritty action-cum-political drama that immerses us into the power struggles of the Chozhas

Spoilers ahead…

Mani Ratnam’s grand epic, Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 (PS-1), is a Chozha tale of political intrigue, power struggles and wars set in old-world Thanjavur, Pazhayarai, and Ilangai where the palaces are rugged, the streets raw and the markets cluttered. These are real places where real people lived and real kings ruled. This is no historical fantasy with picture-perfect frames, and ostentatious grandeur. No sir. The people may be beautiful but the earth is dusty and red; the grit, grime and blood of war is in your face. And that makes this movie immensely believable.

The opening narration flies us back to that embattled time and place. An ailing king, his valiant children, vengeful spies and power-hungry chieftains. In this milieu we find Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) in a bloody battle with the Rashtrakutas. His thirst for war isn’t a vain power grab. He’s running away from a past sin that he desperately wants to erase from his troubled mind. But he senses a conspiracy and dispatches his trusted aide Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) with a message to be delivered to his father, King Sundara Chozhan (Prakash Raj), and his sister Kundavai (Trisha). From here, we get a rolicking action-cum-policital drama that sucks you in, grabs hold of you, and navigates you through the trials and tribulations of the Chozha clan and their associates. 

One of the toughest aspects of adapting a voluminous, episodic novel to film is deciding the screenplay structure. The trick is always in choosing an approach that fits the cinematic form while staying true to the source material. In this, Ratnam and his co-writers, Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan, redeem themselves admirably. They stick with Kalki’s original narrative vehicle (Vanthiyathevan) but add and subtract various elements to make the story work on screen. The opening war sequence with Karikalan, for instance, is essential for the viewer to understand the broader context for this duology. In other instances, whole chapters or characters are eliminated, and scenes are adjusted to fit the format. The various narrative threads are neatly delineated and the viewer is never disoriented temporally or spatially. The semi-classical Tamil dialogues fit the scenario. The language isn’t too ornamental and none of the interactions feel overly dramatized. There are some fantastic lines that all make the world of this movie feel more real. The “Po da” that Alwarkadiyaan Nambi (Jayaram) spits out feels as natural as more elaborate lines spoken by the royals. When married with a naturalistic acting style, they immerse the viewer into the Chozha world without distractions. 

The source material offers rich backstories and motivations for its characters. Ratnam and his team infuse those motivations into this movie using various cinematic devices so that (most of) the characters are not mere caricatures. When Karikalan reveals his past demons to Parthibendran during the terrific “interval block,” it is designed as a fusion of song, dialogue, soliloquy, and flashback – not exposition. We understand Arunmozhi’s righteousness not by others talking about him, but by his onscreen actions in dealing with the Buddhist monks, and his instinctive refusal to disobey his father and King. Nandini has a specific, personal reason for seeking revenge on the Chozha clan. Kundavai can’t imagine seeing her brothers and father get outsmarted by power-hungry chieftains. Vanthiyathevan is bound by his word to Karikalan. This investment in character development results in some fantastic scenes – the aforementioned interval block; the scene where Kundavai arrives unannounced at a meeting of the chieftains; the scene where a steadfast and confident Nandini encounters Ravidasan in the underground tunnel. They all make these characters feel real, and give their behavior purpose.

The characters of Poonkuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmy) and Vanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) feel underdeveloped. One wishes Ratnam and his co-writers had trimmed some of the scenes – perhaps the action sequences – to make more room for them. Poonkuzhali’s entry feels abrupt. It might have worked better (for this viewer) if the movie had shown how Vanthiyathevan and Senthan Amuthan meet her. One understands Poonkuzhali “emerging from the ocean” as a cinematic introductory scene for a character nicknamed Samudira Kumari, but there’s no reason that result couldn’t have been achieved differently – say be placing it along a coast while Vanthiyathevan and Senthan Amuthan look on. Poonkuzhali would have a more compelling entry into the narrative while Senthan Amuthan a more fitting exit. Similarly, Vanathi simply exists and keeps Trisha company while harboring a desire to marry Arunmozhi Varman. She need not be the naive, waif-ish character from the novel but giving her some more agency would have served the film better. These are minor complaints in an otherwise well structured and well balanced script. Indeed, Poonkuzhali and Vanathi may receive greater attention in the second part of Ponniyin Selvan but one still wishes they were better developed here.

Ratnam’s directorial skills are on fine display in PS-1. He balances the tone of the actors’ performances while maintaining a sense of reality around them. The staging is dynamic, and matches the mood and personalities of the characters. For instance, when Aditha Karikalan, after a torturous battle, is telling Parthibendran about Nandini, the camera is in frantic, restless motion, reflecting Karikalan’s state of mind. In fact, with Karikalan, the camera rarely rests. On the other hand, with Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), the camera lingers more gently. We absorb her expressions and feel her thoughts. We also get to experience what those around her are experiencing – be it the attraction felt by Periya Pazhuvettarayar (Sarathkumar) or Vanthiyathevan, or the disgust felt by Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (Parthiban). Some of the most impactful scenes in this movie are when the camera slows down and we get to experience the characters and their conversations. 

Ratnam uses movement to avoid repetitive scenes structures. When Nandini convinces Periya Pazhuvettarayar that Karikalan and Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) should not meet, their conversation happens as they’re removing their regal ornaments after a long day, and their helpers are scurrying about. When Nandini and Kundavai have their face-off at the stairs of the palace, Nandini is taking an arathi of Kundavai while trading honey-soaked, poisonous darts of words with her. All this gives the characters and their world more life which in turn makes for a more engaging viewing experience. 

The PS-1 experience is immersive in other ways as well. Ravi Varman’s camera places us firmly in the middle of the action. We see the characters up close. We are right next to them during conversations. We are dropped right in the middle of a fight between Vanthiyathevan and Arunmozhi Varman. We experience the brilliantly filmed Deveralan Attam performance right along with the dancers. The use of establishing shots and aerial perspective shots is sparing. The dim ambient lighting in the interior shots keeps us present in those locations. Low key lighting, and carefully placed spots accentuate characters and their conversations. The scene where Nandini is talking to Vanthiyathevan in her palace and they’re debating the merits of praising one to their face versus their back is marvelously staged and shot.

A.R. Rahman’s background score is praiseworthy in its own right. It supports the narrative momentum phenomenally well. The mix of Indian, Eastern and Western sounds and modes elevates the universe of this movie. He establishes motifs and themes that accentuate the emotional core of scenes. When Nandini meets Vanthiyathevan the first time, there’s a plucky, harp-ish tune that gently floats up. When Nandini meets Kundavai there is an Indian raga-based vocal melody to highlight their rivalry. The operatic voices overlaying a crucial act of violence committed by Aditha Karikalan are gut-punching, and add the necessary oppressive weight to the cruelty of being enacted. None of the music feels alien to this world regardless of genre used. That’s the cinematic genius of Rahman. Ratnam uses Rahman’s songs from the soundtrack judiciously. Devaralan Attam is a visual masterpiece that forebodes the treacherous and violent motives of the Pandiya agents. Ratchasa Mamaney is a fun set-piece for Kundavai to first lay eyes on Vanthiyathevan, and indeed, for the viewer to first lay eyes on Kundavai. A wonderfully shot Chozha Chozha is artfully placed before the interval break to give Karikalan an opportunity to pour his heart out. This is the cinematic genius of Ratnam. Rahman and Ratnam just know what works.

The casting and the acting in this film are, by-and-large, stellar. The lead actors imbue a sense of reality to their characters. Vikram kills it as the troubled Aditha Karikalan, while Karthi’s seeming effortlessness is a credit to his skill and hard work. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha and Jayaram excel in their roles. Jayam Ravi as Arunmozhi Varman is a revelation (at least to this viewer). Sarathkumar as Periya Pazhuvettarayar and Parthiban as his brother are excellent casting choices and they both deliver. Rahman feels miscast as Madhurantaka Chozhan but perhaps his impact will be felt more in the second part of this duology. Aishwarya Lekshmy as Poonkuzhali is good but underutilized, as is Sobhita Dhulipala as Vanathi. Again, perhaps their impact will be felt more in PS-2

The visual effects employ a good mix of practical effects and computer graphics (CG). The CG set extensions are seamless. They marry well with the real sets and live locations. The crowd expansions are handled competently, as are most of the matte background replacements. The stunt sequences are impactful without being over the top. The hair, makeup and costumes are impeccably detailed, and complement the overall tone of the movie. Sreekar Prasad’s editing is amazingly invisible – which is exactly how it should be in this type of movie.

The capstone of this epic film is, fittingly, the climax sequence. This is where Ratnam and his team are at their best. Every aspect of filmmaking gels together perfectly. The direction, the screenplay, the editing, the cinematography, the visual effects, the action choreography, the music, the acting – all work in tight concert to leave us on a thrilling high. Viewers (including this one) who have read the novel may well have expected a different climax point but Ratnam cleverly surprises us with his take. And the swimming Oomai Rani is a brilliant plot device that heightens our anticipation for an even more enthralling Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2. This viewer for one can’t wait to see it.