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Ponniyin Selvan I (PS-1) Review: Mani Ratnam’s Extravagant Vision Explodes On Screen

Ponniyin Selvan (PS-1) needs no introduction. For many years, this film has been highly anticipated and rightly so. It is touted to be Mani Ratnam’s most visionary movie and yet very distinct from some of his previous titles. The magnum-opus, the title of which is translated as ‘Son of Ponni (Kaveri)’ is based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 novel of the same name.

The story is set in the 10th Century. Here, the Chola dynasty rules prosperously across South India, under the reign of Sundara Chozhar (Prakash Raj). His sons, Princes Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) are mighty successful in their conquering of the Chola Empire in Kanchi and Sri Lanka.

A group of devote Pandya soldiers scheme to avenge their King Veerapandyan, who was slain on the battlefield by the Chola Crown Prince, Karikalan. And parallel to this, in the dead of the night a group of royal chieftains of the Chola kingdom come together secretly with the agenda to usurp the throne from Karikalan and place his uncle Madhuranthakan as king.

Leading this mutiny is the Chola treasurer and minister of finance, Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar). It’s now a race against time for the Chola Princes to win the battle against the wrath of the Pandyas, the enraged army of the Rashtrakutas, and the powerful Pazhuvettarayar’s betrayal.

Prior to watching the film, I was unaware of Ponniyin Selvan’s story nor was Chola dynasty common knowledge. Initially, I was sceptical about Mani Ratnam helming a magnum-opus like this, even more so after I watched the trailer. But I found this picture to encompass the flavours of Ratnam’s past works. Especially when it comes to dealing with complex and dysfunctional human emotions. Tropes of a smitten lover seen in Dil Se and power struggles in Nayakan can be interpreted through Aditha’s character.

Ratnam’s last film Chekka Chinvandha Vaanam intensely explored the idea of relationships sacrificed at the cost of power. The filmmaker explores this concept on a much larger canvas, where even the stunning costumes cannot disguise the greyness of each character.
I find it fascinating how every role, excluding the titular character, explodes on the screen with an antagonistic virtue. Moreover, the narrative acts as a stark reminder of India’s chequered past, when our own Kingdoms were adamant about destroying each other for the sake of power.

Certain problematic scenes where the Vaishnavite gets abused for the sake of humour, also remind one how deep-rooted our internal conflicts are. To some extent, the contents presented in the film are relevant today.

Bearing in mind that the movie spans almost three hours, the pacing is as unhurried. As such, the pre-interval portion takes time in setting the scene and introducing all the characters. For non-Tamil speakers, it requires full concentration as most of the first half sets the scene.

In the process of doing so, we are enchanted by the lavish sets. Cinematography by Ravi Varman is an absolute treat to the eyes and the screen becomes a live painting. A Sreekar Prasad’s editing is smooth and crisp… Like every Madras Talkies production, this does not disappoint when it comes to technicalities.

The camera shots too are picturesque as they constantly move with characters… Allowing viewers to be enticed by the story. War/fight sequences are engrossing to watch, especially the ones at sea. There are very few Indian films which have brilliantly shown fight scenes whilst on ships and boats.

Cast performances by every performer are terrific too. It is so heartening to witness many talents together, many of whom have worked with Ratnam previously. Particularly, it is so refreshing to see Aishwarya Rai Bachchan back on the big screen. Many years ago, she played a Nandini in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and that was exemplary. Well, history repeats itself in 2022 as she plays a role which is lethally alluring.

Her confrontation scene with Trisha is electrifying and it’s great to see two acting queens in one frame. In addition, it is captivating to see the roles the women play in this patriarchal ‘game of thrones’ saga. I am highly anticipating seeing what happens in the next instalment with all these personas.

Unlike Ratnam and Rahman’s previous collaborations, the music here ages like fine wine. They are not instant crowd-pullers, but the music plays an essential role in introducing and amplifying the sentiments of all characters. There is a ballad-like feel to the soundtrack which encompasses (almost) tribalistic and flavours of nature. Also, the background score is majestic and elevates the visuals majorly.

On the whole, PS-1 comes at a very timely occasion. In an era where we are seeing several epic magnum-opuses similar to the Rajamouli universes, Ratnam delivers a solid attempt at this genre. His grandiose vision combines well with his poignant and profound filmmaking style. Despite a few minor shortcomings, if I leave the cinema feeling euphoric and enlightened by novelty (which I did here), then that for me is a winner.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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