'Ponniyin Selvan 1' movie review: A tasteful adaptation defined by powerful performances

Perhaps the foremost pleasure of a Mani Ratnam film is in experiencing his wizardry over the medium. We see plenty of evidence of this in Ponniyin Selvan 1.
The poster of 'Ponniyin Selvan 1'.
The poster of 'Ponniyin Selvan 1'.

I have not read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, but it has always been apparent that the character of Vandhiyathevan wields great charisma. Many top actors have dreamt for years about playing this character, and now, after having watched Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1, it’s finally apparent to me why. This character, in a sense, can be likened to Rahman’s opening song, ‘Ponni Nadhi’—which heralds the beginning of his epic journey. Like the river, he flows where he wishes, and he’s a source of much life wherever he lands. Like the river shifts everything in its wake, so does he. At one point, when asked about his whereabouts, he says, “I’m from everywhere…” and talks of being able to find peace anywhere under the sky and over the land. I wondered if that’s why he doesn’t hurt when he lands from great height like a waterfall. I wondered if that’s why he’s so frightened of the ocean—you know, that place where the river dies. He’s funny, he’s flirtatious, and when he is on screen, good luck taking your eyes off him.

His interplays with actor Jayaram—who plays Azhwarkadiyan Nambi—are delightful. The latter has always been a skilled exponent at slapstick humour, and his adventures in this film offer further proof. It seems to me that sometimes, we get so consumed by Mani Ratnam’s explorations of emotion that we don’t quite acknowledge how organically he weaves in humour into his films. There are so many lively, laugh-out-loud moments in this film arising from organic exchanges—once, from Vandhiyathevan simply observing his reflection in water.


There are other performances in Ponniyin Selvan that leave you gasping for breath. Vikram, as Aditha Karikalan, is gloriously unbridled as the crown-prince. A scene where he speaks of suppressed pain sees him bare his heart out. Ahead of the film’s release, there were what seemed to me to be unfair reservations on the casting of Jayam Ravi—who has always struck me as an invested performer. He’s on point as ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the dutiful prince who comes into the limelight later in the film.

As for the women in the Ponniyin Selvan world, it’s wonderful that despite this being a story that’s occurring a thousand years earlier, they aren’t reduced to being ornamental spouses—or as happens in many an epic historical story, a property that men fight over. Sure, a foiled romance might be at the heart of this story too, but both Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) and Kundavai (Trisha) get established as devious women who know how to create desirable outcomes in the patriarchal world around them. Among the most powerful moments in this film is when both come face-to-face. It also doubles up as an example of why Mani Ratnam is a master at creating memorable, visual drama. Another example is that introduction shot of Nandini, as she slides open the curtains of her palanquin. As an almost ethereal woman who knows how to beguile men, Aishwarya Rai is compelling. In more than one scene, we see only part of her face—perhaps because there’s more to her than she lets out?

While there’s the opulence in ornamentation and the expansiveness of palaces and forts, what’s unmistakeable is also the simplicity of an older time when the rivers ran full, and the earth had not been plundered yet. Through the shenanigans of Vandhiyathevan, we get some glimpses into the history of our land. It’s a world in which a man has to undertake an adventure of a thousand miles just to pass on the message of a dozen words. It’s a world in which a lover has to wait for weeks to learn whether her words of affection have been delivered. It’s a world in which the word ‘scroll’ has not come to signify disinterest. There’s great pleasure in seeing what once was.

There’s greater pleasure in experiencing AR Rahman climb into this film and deliver the type of songs and score he seems to always summon for this filmmaker for whom he made his debut. Be it with a ‘Ponni Nadhi’ that gently nudges us into this world or the aggressive, hyper-masculine ‘Chola Chola’ that captures the thrill of conquest, his score is a life-force. He utilises an operatic voice to present a crucial flashback moment, a grand orchestral score for the moments that lead up to it. In fact, Aditha Karikalan’s two powerful moments in this film are big beneficiaries of the Academy Award winner’s score.

For a film about succession issues, about conquests and rebellion, perhaps the action sequences aren’t as memorable as you might expect them to be. Yes, there’s urgency in capturing the violence of thundering hooves and swinging swords, but the fight choreography feels mostly generic with individual set-pieces not bursting with personality—except, I suppose, that final stretch that captures the chaos of a mad sea. And yet, PS-1 doesn’t quite end in a way that signifies the satisfying completion of a first film. It’s perhaps a consequence of Mani Ratnam interpreting this as one-half of a complete film—but given that PS-1 is packaged as a feature film lasting almost three hours, I think it’s only fair that we expect it to possess its own fulfilling end.

Perhaps the foremost pleasure of a Mani Ratnam film is in experiencing his wizardry over the medium. To use an endearing description often ascribed to Vandhiyathevan in PS-1, a ‘maayakaaran’. You see plenty of examples in this film. The choreography and lighting in ‘Devaralan Aattam’—which, perhaps due to the location or all the backlighting, reminded me of ‘Veerapandi Kottaiyile’ from another Mani Ratnam film (it seemed like an enjoyable coincidence that an enemy king in this film is named Veera Pandiyan). How about that mythical entrance of Aditha Karikalan? Or how about that incredible pre-interval scene—a directorial masterclass really—that condenses grief and sleeplessness of years into a few minutes of dialogue? How about the monologous lament that gloriously segues into ‘Chola Chola’. Listening to this song ahead of the film’s release, you would be forgiven for expecting a track about heroism and machismo. Instead, we get one about pain and regret—and in a sense, some commentary about the cause of indiscriminate violence.

These are joys that sustain you through the less-effective portions—like the not-so-deep insight you get into many characters… yet, or the straightforward action. Even here, take one tempestuous battle as an example, which must have been quite a task to execute. While you are taking it in, it’s hard to forget you are watching a Mani Ratnam film. You notice that this isn’t a thousand men taking on another thousand men to bring an epic film to its conclusion. This is a battle much simpler in scale, and yet, much scarier to witness. For one character, in fact, it’s as much a psychological battle as it is physical. It is said that the most rousing battles are fought not on the outside but on the inside. By that account, PS-1 does present snapshots of many epic battles, with the promise of more in the second film. Consider me intrigued.

Film: Ponniyin Selvan 1

Director: Mani Ratnam

Cast: Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Vikram, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, Jayaram

Rating: 4/5

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