Random thoughts on ‘Ponniyin Selvan – 1’ and its ‘aftermath’

Posted on October 12, 2022


I saw the film this week, a second time. It was even more impressive. Time and again, screenplay advice has told us that the narrative should be told from a single POV, and that the person whose POV we follow is the “protagonist”. As much as Vandhiyathevan is the “protagonist” of this film, so many events happen that he does not know about or that we do not see from his POV or that do not affect him: for instance, the great scene between Aditha Karikalan and Kundhavai, where she chides him for behaving like Arjun Reddy and says the Chola kingdom is more important than you and me and everyone else.

Thus, like in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, we have a story with multiple “mini-protagonists”, with Vandhiyathevan being the biggest of them all. (Of course, like I have mentioned in my review, PS-1 works so much better than CCV, because here, I actually cared about the various characters.) The core credit, of course, goes to Kalki, for spinning such an engrossing, ripping yarn based on real and imagined characters — something like The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas — but the real credit, in my opinion, goes to Mani Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel, and Jeyamohan. Their “compression” of the story is a marvel of multi-character screenwriting, and I think the challenge (given the hugeness of the books) made everyone raise themselves to their A-game. For Mani Ratnam, PS-1 seems a natural culmination of a process he started with Iruvar, where he started writing sharper, flab-free “vignettes” instead of more “leisurely and flavourful” bigger scenes. Of course, the length of these vignettes has varied, and he has combined this vignette approach with bigger scenes in films like Kannathil Muthamittal and Aaydha Ezhuthu and Kadal and CCV (many shorter vignettes), which move fast. On the other hand, the romances like Kaatru Veliyidai and O Kadhal Kanmani have scenes with a lot of stay, even in the midst of the vignettes.

Here are two variations of the same aspects/traits of the Madhavan character in Kannathil Muthamittal: (1) he believes in equality and a just world (“if you have a ticket, you have earned the right to sit” in the first clip, and “why can’t we live peacefully” in the second clip), (2) has a short fuse (his bursts of anger with both the man in the bus in the first clip and with what Prakash Raj says at the beginning of the second clip), (3) has no patience with bullshit (sycophancy in the first clip, war in the second clip), and (4) has earned his fame as a writer named “Indira” (that’s why the man in the bus gets up, and that’s why the captors release him).

The first clip is a vignette. It shows these traits in an amusing way (I could not find the Tamil clip but I hope you’ll get the gist of the scene). And the second clip is a leisurely scene that shows these traits in a dead-serious way. Of course, Mani Ratnam did not invent this writing technique. I am just pointing out how this writing technique has come to dominate his post-Iruvar work (in a good way, in my opinion; I find quite a few scenes in his pre-Iruvar work quite drawn-out today, and wish they could be “vignettised”). And I think his impatience with flab has what has let to the screenplay of PS-1, where the plot points are spit out like bullets from a Gatling gun from the very first shot, where the “camera”/CGI swoops in and takes us directly from the “comet view” to the insides of the palace. The opening half-hour or so of Kadal is another marvel of compression.

I think this is one of the reasons he has begun to chop his songs, too. Because after that “Gatling gun” opening of Kadal, the film loses serious momentum when Elay keechan unfolds as a full-on song sequence, and Adiye is another major speed-breaker — and the film never recovers its earlier momentum, fascinating though some of the subsequent scenes are. The ultimate “Gatling gun” opening may be that of Raavanan. For that matter, even Kaatru Veliyidai opens cold, or what the theatre people call “in medias res”. We have no context or background to VC. We just know he is a fighter pilot in Kargil. Again, I want to emphasise that Mani Ratnam did not introduce this writing technique. I am just analysing this writing technique in the context of his career, because look at the openings of his pre-Iruvar films:

In Mouna Raagam, the Revathy character is very clearly established before we get to the pivotal “Kargil moment” (the scene where she meets Mohan, which is where the “story” really begins).

In Nayakan and Thalapathi, we get the childhood content before the boy grows into the protagonist and faces his pivotal “Kargil moment”.

Had Mani Ratnam made Geetanjali today, I think he would start with the Nagarjuna character in Ooty – instead of spending the 20-odd minutes that unfold before he lands in Ooty.

So, too, Roja — and so forth.

I am not arguing which approach is better, though regular readers know I belong solidly in the post-Iruvar Mani Ratnam camp. But all these thoughts came together while watching PS-1 a second time, and it is my position that it’s not just the length of the novel that has resulted in such a “compressed” movie. That is certainly a factor, yes — the major factor. But it’s also the path this filmmaker has been travelling on for a while now. The second time, I also noticed the economy of so many shots (like I said in my QnA, Ravi Varman and Mani Ratnam seem to have incredible synergy), and also their non-show-offy nature. (Another favourite non-show-offy scene is the superb single-take scene in Kaatru Veliyidai, where VC harasses Leela’s parents during dinner, partly because her mother literally threw him out of the funeral and also because of his guilt with them about their son’s death. The relatively “static” nature of the scene – and the fact that no one speaks but VC – literally forces you to read between the lines.)

And now for the film’s “aftermath”. I have been called for various interviews about the film and also about the aftermath. But I felt I had said everything I wanted to say about the film and its structure and so forth in my review and my QnA (and in the paragraphs above), and I felt I did not have anything more to add.

As for the aftermath (whatever happened after Vetri Maaran’s comment), I did not want to opine about that at all. Firstly, all argument is healthy. It’s a free country, and anything that makes us think (even if we end up saying that Vetri Maaran is wrong) is good. Also, regarding Mani Ratnam being a “right wing filmmaker”, as I have said many times in this blog, I think Mani Ratnam — like his great idol, Kurosawa — is a humanist filmmaker. His focus is more on, say, how a woman who does not know the language gets back her husband who has been kidnapped by terrorists fighting a war far from her homeland. The key line in the film that defines Mani Ratnam for me is “oru theeviravaadhiya manushana maathittey.” The Pankaj Kapoor character will continue to fight his battles, but those are for another filmmaker to capture. Mani Ratnam’s universe is complete when Pankaj Kapoor struggles with his conscience and lets Arvind Swamy go. It’s this humanism that makes Mani Ratnam have the sympathetic (“humanistic”) girl even in the terrorists’ camp. In other words: not all Muslims are ‘bad’.

In Raavanan, the supposedly “right wing” Mani Ratnam says: not all Hindu gods are ‘good’. He makes the “lower caste” Veera a better “humanist” than the “upper caste” Dev (which literally means god). In the bridge fight — where the oppressor/bad guy wears white, and the oppressed/good guy wears black (a colour reversal, like in more overtly political Kaala) — Veera saves Dev by not letting him fall.

Why was this aspect not noticed in Raavanan, when it came out? Because this is not an explicitly political film. Mani Ratnam, like in Nayakan, embeds the politics in the songs. There it was:

மாடங்கள் கலைகூடங்கள்
யார் செய்தார் அதை நாம் செய்தோம்
நாடாளும் ஒரு ராஜாங்கம்
யார் தந்தார் அதை நாம் தந்தோம்

தேசம் என்னும் சோலையில்
வேர்கள் நாங்களே
தியாகம் என்னும் ஜோதியில்
தீபம் நாங்களே

in the ‘Andhi mazhai megam’ song. And here it is:

சோத்துல பங்கு கேட்டா
அட இலயப்போடு இலய
சொத்துல பங்கு கேட்டா
அவன் தலயப்போடு தலய

ஊரான் வீட்டு சட்டத்துக்கு
ஊரு நாடு மசியாது
மேகம் வந்து சத்தம் போட்டா
ஆகாயம் தான் கேட்காது

பாட்டன் பூட்டன் பூமிய யாரும்
பட்டா போடக் கூடாது

in the ‘Kodu potta’ song.

Another song where Mani Ratnam embeds his politics or ideology is ‘Vellai Pookal‘ from Kannathil Muthamittal: (Thanks Eswar, for the comment.)

குழந்தை விழிக்கட்டுமே
தாயின் கத கதப்பில்
உலகம் விடியட்டுமே
பிள்ளையின் சிறுமுக சிரிப்பில்

எங்கு சிறு குழந்தை தன் கைகள் நீட்டிடுமோ
அங்கு தோன்றாயோ கொள்ளை நிலவே
எங்கு மனித ஈனம் போர் ஓய்ந்து சாய்ந்திடுமோ
அங்கு கூவாதோ வெள்ளை குயிலே

Now, you may argue, won’t these ‘stances’ become clearer if they come in the form of dialogue. But like the Kashmir drama in Roja, like the Sri Lankan troubles in Kannathil Muthamittal, all this is the “background” against which the main, “humanistic story” is told. If you don’t follow the lyrics, you lose this facet of the story — and that’s okay, because Mani Ratnam is not a political/ideological filmmaker, but a humanistic storyteller. He is like Kurosawa, as I said.

No Regrets for Our Youth has the background of war (Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and its aftermath), but the focus is on a woman and two men, in a sort of complicated love triangle. This Senses of Cinema essay sums up this aspect well: “The director forgoes engaging in explicit political commentary in favour of focusing upon a character-driven narrative. Granted, the socio-political scenario depicted within the film is certainly integral to the narrative and must not be understated but, as always, characterisation is key to Kurosawa’s artistic success.” Another similar comment from a Criterioncast post: “The film deals with Japan’s descent into fascism, and the brutal cost that this massive error inflicted on their society… [but] rather than focus on the plight of the soldiers or whatever intrigues took place at the highest levels of the government or military command centers, Kurosawa directs our attention to a fairly typical, middle class scenario.”

Take this passage from this Moviemaker article: “Mizoguchi didn’t have Kurosawa’s flair for spectacle… he made films about peasants and prostitutes….” But Mizoguchi was more well-regarded in some circles. It is human tendency to compare/contrast, even if they are humans are exalted as Godard and Rivette and other filmmakers of the French New Wave. I don’t agree with their criticism of Kurosawa — but not because I think Kurosawa is beyond criticism. It’s because I don’t think there is a “first rank” in art, and both Mizoguchi and Kurosawa are great in their own ways. I have read criticism of Seven Samurai, that Kurusawa undermined the peasants because he did not make one of them the saviour; instead, he made them rely on “upper class” samurai to be saved. I do not agree with this, because cinema cannot always show the “ideal” — and in this particular story, this particular set of villagers placed their faith in this particular set of samurai. In other words, cinema for me is what is WITHIN THE FRAME, and what’s within the frame is what the director puts in it, despite what Scorsese (kinda-sorta) says:

Another reporter wanted my thoughts on “Dravidian cinema,” and why we are not making cinema based on ideologies anymore. I said we do have Pa Ranjith and Neelam Productions making such cinema, but we must also understand that the cost of making cinema today means that anything didactic has lesser chance of success at the box office. Why? Because other than people who study, write or read about cinema as an art form, most of the audience want an answer to the question: “Is this engaging me?” Most of the audience want stars. Most of the audience is still religious, they believe in temple worship and religion-sanctioned weddings — all of which was anathema to the Dravidian movement. Then this reporter asked me about the “Brahminical values” in the cinema of Mani Ratnam and K Balachander, as opposed to the more democratic cinema of Mahendran, Bharathiraja, etc.

Firstly, I don’t know what’s so “Brahminical” about a filmmaker who makes his heroine a prostitute in order to support her impoverished Tam-Brahm family. I am talking about K Balachander’s Arangetram, which has this terrific scene where a Tam-Brahm client discovers that the woman he slept with is a Tam-Brahm, too. He slaps her for “defiling” the community. She slaps him back, holding his “sacred thread” and asking if he wasn’t ashamed to sleep with a prostitute, being a Tam-Brahm (see 8.30 – 10.30 in the clip below). SP Muthuraman (another ‘upper caste’ director) does something similar in Oorukku Upadesam (written by Visu, another ‘upper caste’ filmmaker). The story is centered around an upper-caste man (not sure if he is Brahmin) who gives lectures on the Ramayana, and whose sons are named Raman, Lakshmanan and Bharathan. In this telling, the Sita character’s father is shown as a womaniser, whose illegitimate daughter is now a prostitute. Here is a subversion of the Ramayana that predates Raavanan.

There’s also Bharathiraja’s Vedham Puthithu, and many other such films that question “caste” values. Maybe this was not a “movement”, but what I told the reporter was that I reviewed films based on their form and content, and not from a sociological perspective. There are many others who do that very well, and I just stick to my “specialty”, if you will. To me, Sarpatta Parambarai is spectacular film that shows a superb filmmaker at the peak of his powers — but is it “better” than other films that do not talk about caste issues?

Aren’t there other issues? Who, before K Balachander, gave so much agency to women in Tamil cinema? In the 70s, he made Avargal, which shows Sujatha bringing her infant to office, because she’s new to the city and has not yet found a nanny. What a unique and all-too-common problem this is! Is it not a “worthy” issue? Who, before Mani Ratnam in Mouna Raagam, showed us what a woman feels before the wedding night, especially in an arranged marriage? These are not small things — and to me, filmmakers talk about issues that they find pertinent, that they think about, issues that matter to them, and that they feel qualified to talk about. But I think the reporter wanted one crisp quote, and none of this made it to the article. Anyway, because I just spoke about all this over the phone, I wanted to put it all down.

Let’s continue to praise filmmakers for making films based on issues. But let’s also understand that there are many kinds of issues, and we cannot expect a single filmmaker to make convincing movies about every one of them.

Oh, and before I forget… (I did say in the title, that this is a “random” set of thoughts!) What do I think about Vetri Maaran’s comment about Rajaraja Chozhan? I really have no opinion on the subject, as I am not a qualified historian. Mani Ratnam and his writers followed Kalki’s book, and — movie-wise — that’s all there is to it. That’s how I evaluate the film, as a critic. But if I were to think of the king outside of the book/film, I’d like to think of him as — first — a human being, flaws and all. I’d like to think that he did a great many good things, a great many bad things (perhaps to protect his kingdom and people, like all kings do), and if anyone makes a new movie only about him (there’s an older one with Sivaji Ganesan, which is mostly hagiography), I’d like to see the man’s “humanity” in all its glory.