Readers Write In #497: My thoughts on Ponniyin Selvan

Posted on October 4, 2022


Krithika Subramanian

I’m not a long time possessive fan of the book by Kalki. As I listened to the audiobook after the teaser was launched, I felt both Vandhiyathevan (VT) and Adittha Karikalan (AK) had the best casting. I was quite sceptical of the rest. I was also worried Mani Ratnam in his usual minimalist style might skimp on the intensity of certain scenes that were critical to the plot.

Listening to initial feedback I went into Cineworld’s IMAX screen with medium expectations. First I was very clear I was not going to look for the book in the movie and two, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the performance of the lead actors having witnessed their past performances across several movies. 

Some spoilers from this point on!

KH’s introduction set the pace. AK did not get such an opening in the book but I was able to look past it as it set the stage for how the lives of princes and warriors were a 1000 years ago. They fought gruesome battles, they lived rugged lives and how they built their lives around conquests of new lands and protecting their empire and emperor. As VT set off on his journey I settled into the comfort of the familiar narration.

I wasn’t a fan of the Ponni nadhi song and I still maintain someone else with a rustic voice should have sung it but it didn’t sound that bad when it was presented on screen! The short sequence made me settle down into what was going to be a pretty long movie (with no breaks!). Following VT on his journey to Kadumbur and to Tanjavur I continued to draw parallels to the book and was astonished at how true MR stayed to it. However it didn’t last long as I became engrossed with the narration. At one point I even began doubting if a scene was even in the book – like the one where Kundavai walks into the room full of men and stuns Peria Pazhuvettaraiyar. But it was such an effective scene that I really couldn’t care less.

As MR and Elango Kumaravel built the scenes and characters one upon the other I soon left the book behind completely and began watching with renewed interest and became so engrossed in the story that despite knowing what was going to happen next I could still feel the thrill and adrenaline rush right until the end.

The technical team was brilliant. The shaky camera as AK recounts his past with Nandhini gave me a feel of the restlessness and the sleepless nights AK was going through. The slo-mo where AK kicks the door open to Nandhini’s hut, the warm light from the hut falling on him and the door swinging shut on the confusion on his face as he sees his love again after many years was just poetic! I feel AK had the best scenes involving Ravi Varman’s camera!

Then there’s the introduction scene of Nandhini, the curtains in the palanquin half hiding her face as she gives VT a glance. I can imagine what VT must have felt at that moment as he grins ear to ear but looking stunned, both at the same time! Karthi nailed it as VT just as I expected. His natural flair for humour helped showcase VT’s fun side and he effortlessly transformed into the brave warrior when the scenes demanded. Aishwarya Rai not only looked stunning and rendered her co-actors speechless just like Nandhini would, she conveyed her dark side effortlessly through her eyes without as much as uttering a word. However her beauty seemed to depreciate over the course of the movie. In the Kodikarai scenes she looked almost 3D-ish; talking of which I must add the SFX could have been much better!

Jayaram as the cheeky Azhwarkadiyan Nambi with his wit and humour made the finest comical pair with VT ever since Koundamani-Senthil! Their interactions did make me laugh out loud in several places. Much more than the book did if I may confess. 

I saved the best for the last. Both Trisha as Kundavai and Jayam Ravi as Ponniyin Selvan blew me away with their regality! The dignity and the poise they displayed, their sense of responsibility, ownership and bravery as heirs of the emperor, all achieved not with pages of dialogues or elaborate staging but with minimal lines in the simplest of sentences. When the words ended, their performance conveyed the rest.

The supporting cast were all adequate despite the 2-4 minutes they got on screen! There was no purpose to the role of Peria Velar. He disappeared before we could say P!

My biggest disappointment was Poonguzhali. Not with the performance but with the time she was given on screen. The free spirited, strong, brave boat woman certainly demanded more than a few lines of a song on the boat and a few scenes with PS in Sri Lanka. Aishwarya Lakshmi was stunning as she effortlessly transformed from the snarky woman she is with VT to the humble subject in the presence of PS! 

The sets were opulent and I would love for them to be available post the movie for fans of the book and the movie to visit and admire. I doubt though! ARR did a much better job with the background score than with the songs. With only the Devaralan atam (that reminds me of Raja’s Naan porandhu vandhadhu from Mayabazaar) and Rakshasa maamane (did not remind me of anything else though alaikadal does of edho ninaivugal and aankhon ki gustakhiyan)) in full, the rest only had a fleeting presence in the narration and helped set the mood a tiny bit.

When VT and PS team up towards the end it brought back memories of the successful multi-hero subjects that Tamil cinema had over the years; the joy and cheer it brought the audience when they teamed up to defeat evil; when the stars and producers were not so BO driven; when the stars did not demand to fly across malls in Mini Coopers! Perhaps the movie was jinxed for so long because this was the right time it could have been made, with the right cast and the right technical crew.

In my 9 years in the UK this was the first time I encountered such a packed theatre! Listening to the conversations around me as the movie ended and the crowd filed out I realised how successful MR has been with his Ponniyin Selvan 1 to both readers of the book and the non-readers! I wish I could savour the movie a few more times, perhaps when it comes to OTT. Now, I’m really looking forward to PS2!

A must watch, definitely… just don’t look for the book in the movie!