Mani Ratnam’s two-part historical epic Ponniyin Selvan is a stunner. The adaptation of Kalki Krishnamoorthy’s novel is full of tremendous performances and an absolute delight to look at.
Since I waited to watch Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 until Part 2 was also available on streaming — and because both films are of similar quality — I’m reviewing the two of them together.
The Chola Dynasty rules over South India in the 10th century, but a blazing red comet in the sky portends calamity. While Aditha (Vikram) — crown prince and eldest son of Emperor Sundara Chozhar (Prakash Raj) — expands the empire via military campaigns, other noble families plot treason. They aim to use Madhurantaka’s (Ramesh) legitimate claims to the throne to install him as the new emperor, but only after killing Aditha, Sundara Chozhar, and his younger son Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi), who is nicknamed Ponniyin Selvan.
Aditha suspects there’s funny business afoot, so he sends his comrade Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi) to gather information and pass it along to the emperor and to Aditha’s politically savvy sister, Kundavai (Trisha). The first half of the first film is mostly a road trip adventure, with Vandiyadevan getting into trouble alongside his new pal Nambi (Jayaram), a pot-bellied holy man. The two make for a very funny duo, but Vandiyadevan is the real star of the films. Karthi plays him with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and an irresistible charm. He pledges his undying devotion to every pretty woman he meets (and there are a lot of them), and they all take him into their confidence anyway. He’s a terrific character played perfectly.
One of the beautiful women he meets is Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), whom Nambi knew when she was a young temple servant. When Nandini and Aditha were teenagers, they fell in love, but his family disapproved and she was driven out. Years later, Aditha ignored her pleas to spare the life of the man who took her in, driving a permanent wedge between the former lovers. Vandiyadevan agrees to act as messenger for her as well, even though her loyalties are initially unclear.
With so many characters — many of whom have additional nicknames, titles, and family affiliations — it is hard to keep track of everyone and their relations to one another. There were a few things I didn’t understand until seeing the Part 1 recap that starts Part 2. The source material is dense enough that this could’ve easily been a television series, so some confusion is perhaps unavoidable. Still, it made it a little hard for me to get fully into the story until well into the second film.
That said, Ratnam gives viewers more than enough to keep them hooked. Ponniyin Selvan is stunning to look at, with the director using the natural environment to compose shots of incredible beauty. He also knows how to make his already very good-looking cast look exceptionally good-looking at all times. Many of Rai Bachchan’s scenes take place in dim, candlelit rooms, yet her face is always bathed in an angelic glow.
Rai Bachchan’s reserved but emotionally expressive performance is the perfect counterpoint to Vikram’s intensity. He plays Aditha like a tiger in a cage, pacing back and forth and ready to lash out. Vikram displays some impressive horsemanship in a couple of scenes where he circles a vanquished foe on horseback or guides his mount in tight loops, essentially having the animal do the pacing for him.
That’s an example of another thing that Ponniyin Selvan does well — so much of the world is created from real, tangible things. Living things like horses, elephants, and hundreds of extras, and real objects like bamboo scaffolding for characters to run on and hats decorated with dozens of peacock feathers. The tangible stuff is so good that it makes the instances of CGI stand out as such (at least on a television screen).
For all the excitement of battle sequences, chase scenes, and musical numbers, the most memorable parts of the films are the quieter moments filmed at smaller scale. For me, the absolute best scene in either film is a meeting of the emperor’s three children. Aditha punctuates his conversation with his brother and sister by pulling Kundavai and Arulmozhi in for hugs, with the actors perfectly hitting their marks so as to not block each other’s faces in the shot. It’s a very precise kind of choreography that allows the audience to experience the emotions of the scene to its fullest. Even in a movies as large-scale as Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 and Part 2, the details make all the difference.
- Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 at Wikipedia
- Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 at IMDb
- Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2 at Wikipedia
- Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2 at IMDb
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