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Ponniyin Selvan 1 captures the spirit of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel but it isn’t without its share of hiccups

As expected of Mani Ratnam, he keeps the focus of the narrative intact and doesn’t get distracted by the star-studded cast

Ponniyin Selvan 1 captures the spirit of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel but it isn’t without its share of hiccups
Ponniyin Selvan
  • Srivathsan Nadadhur

Last Updated: 12.45 PM, Sep 30, 2022

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The adrenaline rush of a book aficionado who watches a novel come to life on the big screen is hard to put into words. More so, for a literary work as illustrious as Ponniyin Selvan that’s so rich in its visual imagery and detailing, the prospect of experiencing the writer’s vision through the eyes of a filmmaker like Mani Ratnam is irresistible, to put it mildly. In the seven decades since Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel was first published, it was Mani Ratnam’s sheer conviction that made this adventure possible.

With a story of a kingdom spanning five parts, how does a filmmaker condense it into two films? Where does he stay true to the novel and where does he take creative liberty? With nearly 30-40 characters, how do you keep the narrative focused and keep the viewer glued? Mani Ratnam, in the august company of writer Jeyamohan, does a reasonably convincing job of not diluting the intensity of Kalki’s magnum-opus even while keeping the screenplay racy and it’s quite a feat.

The film unfolds through the novel’s most colourful, flamboyant character Vallavarayan Vanthiyadevan - he knows his duties, is a trusted aide, vulnerable, has a great sense of humour and is an incorrigible flirt. When the Chola king Sundara Chola is ailing, there’s anxiety and infighting within the immediate family about his successor. The treasurer Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar makes use of the volatile situation to further his interests. Will Sundara Chola’s sons Arulmozhi Varman, Aditha Karikalan succeed in safeguarding their dynasty?

As Rajinikanth rightly put it at the audio-release event, Ponniyin Selvan is a culmination of all the navarasas. There’s something in it for everyone – romance, war, humour, drama, betrayal, heartbreak, all driven by the lust for power. The screenplay progresses at a breakneck speed and is savoured best when a viewer is aware of the backstories and connects the dots. However, while introducing half-a-dozen characters in every alternate sequence, PS-1 doesn’t cater to the interests of the non-reader much – there’s too much to digest within too little time.

Mani Ratnam wants you to be aware of Aditha Karikalan’s trauma about killing the man in his ex-lover Nandini’s life. He wants you to take stock of Nandini’s motive behind her greed for power. He wants you to enjoy the blossoming romance between Vanthiyadevan and Kundhavai, Vanathi and Arulmozhivarman. He wants you to understand the plight of Madhurantakar and what it means to be denied the throne by his kin and kith.

These stretches are established beautifully but it’s unfortunate that you’re unable to appreciate the team’s efforts fully. Even for the novel reader, it’s tedious to process the subplots at a frenetic pace within a 170-minute narrative. For a strange reason, PS-1 is a rare Mani Ratnam film that also feels dialogue-heavy. A character like Azhwar Kadiyan Nambi that adds so much juice to the novel looks more like comic relief in a film with gags around his tummy and unpopular takes on the Shaivaite-Vaishnavite clash.

The chock-a-block-style storytelling loses steam in the second hour. If not for the action episodes leading to the climax, the post-intermission portions are shaky. The silver lining, of course, is the understated treatment and the minimal usage of VFX/CGI that makes the frames look more organic. Jeyamohan finds a good balance between chaste and modern-day Tamil in the dialogues. AR Rahman is in fine form with his narrative-driven music, but he’s set the bar so high in his collaborations with Mani Ratnam that the loud score feels slightly underwhelming.

Karthi is the show-stealer - a major chunk of that credit must go to Kalki’s writing and Mani Ratnam for casting him as Vandiyadevan. Trisha has the right balance of assurance and dignity in her regal portrayal of Kundhavai. Surprisingly, it’s Jayam Ravi who looks best suited for this universe. It’s believable when you say he’s in the race to be the next king. Whether intentional or not, Aishwarya Rai is too guarded as a performer to play Nandini. Well, she’s good-looking but the role needed more personality.

Vikram, Sarathkumar handle the hefty drama confidently all with their experience and Aishwarya Lekshmi doesn’t disappoint either. Prabhu, Parthiban, Vikram Prabhu, Prakash Raj and Sobhita Dhulipala chip in with assured performances. The production design, costumes are apt for the times and never try to dominate the story. Kalki’s episodic writing style helps the team end the story well and ensures a good hook for the sequel. PS-1 isn’t Mani Ratnam’s best but there’s no one else who could’ve done better justice to its material in our times.

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